Gilbert Chinard (1881-1972)

Gilbert Chinard (1881-1972) was a French-born literary historian who was educated at the Universities of Poitiers and Bordeaux.  Moving to New York in 1908 as a visiting instructor in French Literature, he settled into an American academic career that led him to teaching positions at Brown University (1908-12), the University of California, Berkeley (1912-1919), Johns Hopkins University (1919-36), and Princeton University (1937-1950).

Chinard published more than 40 books and edited volumes as well as hundreds of articles and reviews, focusing on French-American exchanges and cross-cultural perceptions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His early work examined French views of Native Americans and appeared in books such as L'exotisme américain dans l'oeuvre de Chateaubriand (1918).  He also wrote biographies of John Adams (1929) and Thomas Jefferson (1933), bringing a distinctive French perspective to his interpretations of American lives and ideas.

Chinard published carefully edited collections of correspondence between French and American writers and political figures, including the letters of Jefferson-Volney (1923), Jefferson-Destutt de Tracy (1925) and Jefferson-Lafayette (1929). He also brought out new editions of early French accounts of North American societies and natural history.  Chinard always emphasized the Enlightenment and Romantic-era literary-political values that writers shared on both sides of the Atlantic, and he viewed these values as an enduring humanistic tradition that France and the United States defended through their alliance in the twentieth-century world wars (he wrote booklets during the First World War to help American soldiers understand French society).

Chinard believed strongly in the value of academic organizations.  He was, for example, a member of the American Philosophical Society and a president of the Modern Language Association. He was also a Founding Trustee and longtime leader of the Institut Français de Washington—which eventually became the Institut Français d’Amerique (IFA).  The IFA’s endowment continues to support the Gilbert Chinard research fellowships and the Gilbert Chinard Book Prize (awarded annually by the SFHS for an outstanding book on “the history of themes shared by France and North, Central, or South America”).

Gilbert Chinard enjoyed French wines, and he prepared fine French cuisine for Americans who visited him in all the places he lived, thereby affirming that vibrant cross-cultural exchanges go well beyond ideas.  He and his wife Emma Blanchard were the parents of two children: Francis Chinard and Lucienne Chinard Clemmons.

Lloyd S. Kramer
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill