By Sara Patterson
For his rigorous research illuminating French literature, theater, and history, promotion of the arts, and emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, Prof. Larry F. Norman received an honorary doctorate from the Université Jean Monnet de Saint Etienne on Dec. 7, 2022. This achievement comes in same year as Norman’s award-winning book The Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early-Modern France (2011) was translated into French.
“From his historical research on theater and aesthetics in 17th-century France to his leadership in making the University of Chicago a global center for the arts, Larry Norman embodies the combination of rigor and openness that makes this institution great,” said Richard Neer, the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Art History, Cinema and Media Studies, and the College and Director of Franke Institute for the Humanities. “His intellectual, professional, and personal generosity are inspiring, and this honor is richly, richly deserved.”
Norman describes his work as focusing on the dynamic interaction between texts and their aesthetic and historical framework or dialogues. For example, his first book about Moliére titled The Public Mirror: Moliére and the Social Commerce of Depiction (1999) concerned the 17th-century playwright’s energetic dialogue with his own theatergoing public. In this dialogue, the public was both the object of his satire and the audience for its staging. The book also concerned Moliére’s dialogue between the theater and the visual arts and between theatrical character and portrait painting. Moliére’s interactive dialogue has partially prefigured much of the understanding of contemporary interactive arts, according to Norman.
“The book attempted to think of Moliére’s role as a founder of the comedy of manners, a form of comedy that flourished across national boundaries, particularly in England,” said Norman, the Frank L. Sulzberger Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Romance Language and Literature, Theater and Performance Studies, Fundamentals, and the College.
“Larry is one of those rare scholars who has the capacity to juxtapose literary history and the history of ideas in ways that illuminate fundamental concepts such as ‘classicism’ and ‘baroque’ in new and striking ways,” said Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities and the Claire Dux Swift Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Music.
For The Shock of the Ancient, which re-evaluates the creative conflict between ancient literature and early modern ideals, Norman found support from the UChicago intellectual community and financial assistance from the Franke Institute of Humanities and the Division of the Humanities. For its recent French translation, he is grateful for the co-sponsorship of the Division of the Humanities and the Institute for the History of Representations and Ideas of Modernities (IHRIM), the distinguished French research laboratory focusing on intellectual and cultural history.
“I publish regularly in France and thought about doing a translation of the book itself,” Norman said. “But I cannot translate myself, because once I start, I am simply too tempted to entirely rewrite what I have written—new ideas, nuance, and research come to mind—all of which would have produced a very different book and not a translation at all.”
Through Université Jean Monet, one of the leading partners of IHRIM, Norman has developed valuable research partnerships. Through this collaboration, he and his colleagues there have organized colloquia and workshops in Saint-Etienne and Lyon, France, as well as at the University of Chicago Center in Paris and the University of Chicago in Chicago.
While much of Norman’s scholarship concerns literature and history, he also recognizes the power of art. Norman served as Deputy Provost for the Arts at UChicago from 2008 to 2013. When urban planner, preservationist, and sculptor Theaster Gates started his tenure at UChicago in 2012, Norman encouraged and lauded Gates’s artistic ambitions.
"Larry Norman has been key to the growth of the arts at the University of Chicago and essential in the development of my own artistic practice,” said Theaster Gates, professor in the Department of Visual Arts. “His diplomacy and decorum are byproducts of his fierce intelligence and deep ethical consideration. Larry is one of the best leaders I’ve known, and one of the most decent human beings I could ever call a friend."
In addition to this honorary doctorate, Norman received the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Literary Studies in 2011 for The Shock of the Ancient.
For several years, Norman has co-taught interdisciplinary graduate seminars with UChicago colleagues such as Assoc. Prof. David Wray in the Departments of Classics and Comparative Literature and Neer in Art History and Cinema and Media Studies.
“Over and above the brilliance and interdisciplinary range of his scholarship, to an extraordinary degree Larry Norman is also a generous and generative collaborator,” said David Wray, associate professor in the Departments of Classics, Comparative Literature, and the College. “Our shared intellectual and pedagogical work on early modern French tragedy, its contexts, its sources, and its receptions across genres, has deeply enriched the experience of many students. I think working with Larry has been a high point of my years at Chicago.”
In his recent scholarship, Norman has worked to merge his ever-present dialogues into a series of reflections on classicisms or neoclassicisms. His comparative work crosses media boundaries and different national and cultural traditions.