Helen Solterer
Professor of Romance Studies

My research focuses on pre-modern literatures and cultures.  I study these French vernacular fictions in historical action, shaped not only by events of their first era, but by many others, including the critic’s contemporary one.  Medieval Roles for Modern Times my last book, tests this model by investigating early theater in its twentieth-century matrix.  Through the case of a troupe of actors, it explores its political, religious, and aesthetic use by the generations of two World Wars.  Un Moyen Âge républicain : paradoxes du théâtre en temps de guerre , an adaptation published by Presses universitaires Paris-Sorbonne, 2014, was featured at the History Book Festival in Blois.

Timely Fictions, the book I’m writing now, deepens this line of thinking in a series of pictorial essays on poetry, drama, narrative and material culture.  Each essay cuts “across the grain of time” considering, for example, Villon, with Hugo and Glissant, Christine de Pizan with Edith Thomas, the mystery play with Sartre and Tansi, Bayeux tapestry with Inuit ivory graphics.  This work has been supported by the  ‘Francophone Digital Humanities” Initiative, which includes my collaborative project on pre-modern literary manuscripts and cultural history, funded by French Cultural Services.

My abiding interest in the social power of literature and language led to my first book,in a feminist vein: The Master and Minerva, was a co-winner of the MLA Scaglione Prize (1995). I pursue this interest actively in my seminar on the History of Free Speech: France-USA where students study incitement to hatred, blasphemy, sedition, pornography, and the press under a ‘state of emergency’.  Today’s controversies are up for debate: Confederate monuments on Duke’s campus, as the recent string of attacks hitting French-speaking communities -  Paris, Beirut, Tunis, Bamako.  Journalists and other activists are regular guests guiding the class’s work.

Other seminars that I offer regularly: Imagining Europe, French Short Fiction, Cultural Memory.

In my work across campus, I co-convene the “inTransit: Arts of Migration” research group bringing together faculty from Romance Studies, Art, Art History and Visual Studies, as well as the Nasher Museum. With support from the Vice Provost of Interdisciplinary Studies, the group addresses the crisis of migration today by making its deep history visible. We concentrate on areas of the world where Romance languages are the lingua franca -- Europe, Africa, the Americas.   Students and colleagues are involved in a series of co-taught courses, a conference, leading to a small experimental installation in the fall 2018.  My focus is on Calais and the North of France : allegories, drawings, textiles expressing dispossession in this region, the Hundred Year’s War to the economic struggles and migrant camps now.

As Director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies (2013-17), I’ve been committed to cultivating collaborations between the Duke community and critics, writers, journalists, artists, as well as scholars from our partner institutions abroad.  I find nothing more rewarding than students who report how working with a writer deepens their understanding of the world, or colleagues who rediscover here how fruitful it is to think with literature --  à travers des langues.

Off campus, I’m also at work on a book of another style: a literary biography and family narrative set in Dublin-Paris.

Office Hours

Wednesdays, 5-6 pm.
& by appt.

Current Appointments & Affiliations

Contact Information

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