Wylie's Beaux Gestes: A guide to French body talk

Great book for Wylie, and very nostalgic pictures too!

For those who aren’t aware, Laurence Wylie was one of the most famous (and beloved) French professors at harvard, and author of “A Village in the Vaucluse” an anthropological study of living in a French village in the south of France.

Laurence Wylie (Harvard Memoriam Page)
“Laurence Wylie was born in Indianapolis on November 19, 1909. He was the son of a Methodist minister of Scotch-Irish descent; his mother was of English Quaker stock. He acquired the nickname Red because of his hair. In his early years, he moved from one small town to the other, and later his family settled in Bloomington. He went to Indiana University where he was on the wrestling team and played the piccolo in the University band. A high school teacher had introduced him to French, and in 1929 Larry went to France for his junior year. He took a course from the distinguished political scientist André Siegfried (who, calling him for an oral exam, was surprised to find that Laurence was not a girl). Siegfried had written a celebrated book explaining America, 100 years after Tocqueville, to the French. Wylie found, in France, a relief from the constraints and pieties of provincial America. Returning to Indiana, he took an M.A. in French; he then went to Brown University for his doctorate. His thesis, later published, was on a very proper and bourgeois writer and politician of 19th-century France, St. Marc Girardin. It was a remarkable mix of incisive analysis and subtle satirical wit, which revealed a great deal about Wylie’s irreverence toward established authorities and self-righteous elites.

After a brief return to France for the summer of 1939, he received a teaching position at Simmons College, fell in love with his student Anne Stiles, and married her. Having become a pacifist, partly because of his Quaker heritage, partly because of his distaste for political violence and ideological conflicts, he worked, during the war, as a janitor at a children’s hospital while still teaching at Simmons. Also during the war, he and his wife enrolled at Haverford College in a program called Relief and Reconstruction. This led to his being offered a faculty appointment at Haverford. Larry was both a populist and a liberal, voting for Norman Thomas until 1952, and then for Adlai Stevenson.
The lure of France remained strong. Larry, who had become restless with the conventional ways of teaching French, now wanted to look at French culture and society – in his own way. He once met Margaret Mead, who asked him: “What is your hypothesis?” When he spent his sabbatical year 1950-51 in the picturesque village of Roussillon in the Vaucluse, he had no hypotheses: only his curiosity, his empathy, and a knowledge of Rohrschach techniques. He taught English in the village public school, in which his older son, Jonathan, born in 1945, was enrolled. When Larry wrote his famous book, Village in the Vaucluse, the audience he had in mind, reports Jonathan, was his aunt Edie, who needed to understand these strange people who drank wine and voted Communist.
Village in the Vaucluse – written by Larry and copyedited by Anne – was completed in 1955, rejected by Knopf but immediately accepted by Harvard University Press. It was published in 1957. In 1957-58, he, his wife and his two sons (the younger, David, was ten) returned to France for another sabbatical, this time in a village of Anjou, in Catholic and conservative western France. He studied the history of the village as well as its present-day life and found that the differences between Roussillon and Cha nzeaux were far less important than the similarities.
The writer of this minute read Village in the Vaucluse with great enthusiasm for the way, both affectionate and shrewd, in which Wylie reported on life, education, work, family rituals and mutual relations among the people of Roussillon. He mentioned the book to McGeorge Bundy, the Dean of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, whose teaching assistant he had been twice in Bundy’s course on U.S. foreign policy. Bundy (a francophile, who had recently met old André Siegfried when the latter spent a semester teaching at Harvard) read the book, was impressed and, in his best Medici manner, offered Wylie a new Chair in French Civilization given to Harvard by Douglas Dillon, the former Ambassador to France. Not without hesitation, Wylie came to Harvard in the fall of 1959 as a member of the Department of Social Relations.
Wylie never felt very much at ease in that Department. He disliked grand theory and much preferred empirical observations. He disliked the pretensions and jargon of social science and much preferred working with students, especially undergraduates, who studied Chanzeaux with him, both in a seminar at Harvard and in summer field work. The book: Chanzeaux, a Village in Anjou, published in 1966, was edited by him but written by a formidable group of students (including his older son); many of them have had very distinguished careers.
Larry’s interests broadened. He taught a course on French culture and society, which was one of the first to use movies and was nicknamed “Frogs and Flicks.” These lectures became a textbook, Les Français, written with Armand Begué (1970). He served as acting master of Quincy House in 1962-63. Having, in his youth, once dreamed of a diplomatic career, he took a two-year leave from Harvard in 1965-67 to become cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, but the pleasure of explaining the U.S. to French audie nces was marred by his opposition to the Vietnam war, which the Ambassador expected him to defend. Always an anti-conformist, he was excited by the “events” of 1968 in France, and assembled a small teaching library about this “elusive revolution”. During the mini-events of 1969 at Harvard, he was a staunch member of the liberal caucus. He also was a member of the senior common room of Kirkland House and was selected by Evon and Nan Vogt who were its co-masters (1974-82) as one of the Fellows who provided sage advice to them; he also advised its students in wine tasting evenings.
Wylie became increasingly interested in the study of gestures and non-verbal communication as an approach to understanding a foreign culture. He studied mime during another year in France in the early 1970s, in the school of French mime Jacques Lecoq, amidst much younger students, some of whom appear in a short film on basic French gestures, excerpts of which we would have shown to you, had they been, shall we say, a bit less risqué. In another clip, he played a broom. With the photographer Rick Stafford, he published in 1977 an illustrated book, Beaux Gestes, a guide to French body talk. He sent a copy to President Giscard d’Estaing. An aide of the President wrote a note thanking him for having sent to Giscard “your book for the deaf and mute”.
After retiring, in the late 1970s, Wylie remained active. He taught summer courses in French civilization in an NEH-sponsored program for high school and college teachers; he continued to work on non-verbal communication, on a new method to teach French, and on changes in Roussillon and Chanzeaux. Wylie’s marriage to Anne ended in divorce in the 1970s. She remarried, and died in 1983. He too remarried, to Joan Dreyfus Blout. He died at home on July 25, 1996 – fascinated until the end by the patterns of French society and culture, by the changes that economic modernization was bringing to r ural life and customs, by the persistence nevertheless of strong and united families.
Indeed, he was what the French call un original. With his red hair, freckles and glasses he looked, to a Frenchman, like a perfect American archetype. He disliked the pompous and the self-important. He had an extraordinary talent for understanding the implicit, internalized (a word he wouldn’t have used) rules of behavior that govern people’s lives, and their authority relations (a gift he displayed in a sketch on how a Frenchman’s gesticulates when he meets an equal, a superior, and an inferior). What he lacked (or disdained) in theoretical erudition he more than compensated for with a kind of sly intuition, spontaneous sophistication, and incisive common sense. What he had found in France was an art of living, an “agreement between foot and earth”, as Camus once put it, an aesthetic and ethic of pleasure, leisure, work and limits which appealed to this minister’s son, himself a hard working Epicurean. Harvard, with its occasional sense of self-importance and its cult of overwork, was not the ideal milieu for him, but his legacy is nonetheless important: a classic book in which specialists as well as a wide audience can find enlightenment and compassion, students whom he trained as both a teacher and a friend, and a way of looking at French culture that embraced all aspects from Montaigne to Montand, and from pastis to patriotism.”[issuu width=420 height=308 backgroundColor=%23222222 documentId=120918124934-76c5f2d948454ac3971080fefc67f9c4 name=wylie_beaux_gestes username=franceinfo tag=bodytalk unit=px v=2]

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