Professor honored in Napoleonic style

Professor Robert Morrissey was awarded the highest distinction given by the French government

By Isaac Stein

Robert Morrissey, Benjamin Franklin professor of French literature at the University, was decorated with the Légion d’Honneur by the French government in a ceremony held at the Quadrangle Club on Sunday evening. The award was issued to Morrissey by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

The Légion d’Honneur is an Order of Merit that was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, and recognizes those who have provided outstanding service to France in either a civil or military capacity. Fabius said that Morrissey received the award due to a combination of his scholarship in French literature and leadership of programs that facilitate cross-cultural exchange between France and the United States.

In addition to teaching, Morrissey is also the director of the France Chicago Center and the Project for American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language (ARTFL). The France Chicago Center is a University program that networks University faculty with French academics; ARTFL is a joint project between the French government and the University that digitizes French-language printed material.

University President Robert Zimmer, who spoke before Morrissey’s decoration, characterized Morrissey’s career as a boon for both the University and relations between French and American academia at large.

“Robert was…instrumental in developing the Center in Paris, the success of which gave us the confidence to create Centers in other countries,” Zimmer said during the ceremony. “His work has facilitated a remarkable, flourishing connection between French and American scholarship.”

Fabius, who identified as Morrissey’s personal friend as well as fellow scholar, formally presented the award with a short official speech in French, but preceded this with a lighthearted speech in English.

“It is with Napoleonic glory that I have the honor of bestowing an award created by Napoleon upon a scholar of Napoleon and a great friend of France,” Fabius said.

Upon receiving the Légion Morrissey spoke of the unconventional path he took to become a professor of French literature. “I graduated from college with a degree in economics. I took one French literature class; we read the English translation of ‘Swann’s Way,’ the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and it was a conversion experience. I realized that if I was going to follow models, it was not going to be those of homo economicus, it was going to be models put forth by great literature,” Morrissey said.

But Morrissey said that it was a visit to France in the summer of 1970 that left him with inextricable ties to the country.

“It was post graduation, and my adviser gave me a check for $500. It was just enough for one plane ticket to France via Icelandic air. I ended up in the student quarters…. They had a sovereign disdain for Americans, so the challenge was to go underground, and the first step was with language. Configurations of words in the French language became of serious interest to me. Words carry the weight of tradition and the power of innovation,” Morrissey said.

After the formal conclusion of the event, Fabius spoke with the Maroon regarding the future of relations between French and American citizens.

“Relations have always been positive; despite recent political developments, such as the war in Iraq, this never really changed, and that dispute belongs to the past. The fact that France and the U.S. have not engaged each other in war in over 200 years of co-existence is an indicator of these good relations,” Fabius said.