A 19th-Century Writer's Words Still Resonate ; Celebrating the Man Who Wrote 'Les Mis' and 'Hunchback'

Article excerpt

Two hundred years after his birth, the French writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885) is best known in America as the author of the novels that inspired the Broadway musical "Les Miserables" and the Disney film version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

But as people worldwide - including many in Russia and China - celebrate the novelist 200 years after his birth, his contributions as a poet, a politician, and a nonfiction writer are also being more widely lauded in a growing number of English-speaking countries.

In addition to his novels,Hugo wrote nearly two-dozen plays, 18 collections of poetry, and about 3 million words of nonfiction prose (history and criticism). Seen as a major political activist and defender of individual freedoms, the Frenchman embodied a kind of varied energy that still impresses readers and inspires some politicians today.

"Hugo was one of the most popular writers in the world during most of his adult life," says Syracuse, N.Y.-based poet Brooks Haxton, who recently translated Hugo's "Selected Poems" for Penguin Classics. "The whole of the Arc de Triomphe was draped in black velvet for his funeral in Paris, and the size of the crowd attending exceeded the entire population of the city."

In France, Hugo is perhaps remembered most for his poetry, which he wrote in a freer style than French poets had for centuries. But in the United States and other countries, the main reason for Hugo's enduring popularity was that he took a stand for his political beliefs and lived what he wrote.

When Hugo opposed the royalist Louis Napoleon's seizure of power in France in 1851, he didn't just object in print; he went out to the streets to help build barricades for protesters. Indeed, after 1851, Hugo was obliged to live in exile in the Channel Islands for 20 years.

"His politically oriented works still speak to all who feel oppressed, wherever and whenever they may be," says Missouri-based Hugo aficionado John Newmark, who launched the website www.gavroche.org (named after the heroic urchin in "Les Miserables"). "Society needs good role models, and Hugo [was] one."

Newmark says American affection for Hugo's work is a long- standing tradition, ever since "Les Miserables" was published simultaneously in English and French in 1860.

"In the USA, so many [members] of the Confederate Army had copies of 'Les Miserables,' they nicknamed themselves 'Lee's Miserables' (combining Gen. Robert E. Lee's name and Hugo's novel)," he says.

One of Hugo's campaigns that is still a point of controversy was his rabid opposition to the death penalty and his fight for prisoners' rights. …