THE BLOG
01/29/2013 11:46 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Victor Hugo and Abraham Lincoln

In this film awards season, two works embody enduring pinnacles of idealism.

I have a horse in this race, I confess. In 1986, I translated with Lee Fahnestock, the Signet Classics edition of Les Miserables. Published in 1987 for the opening of the musical on Broadway, it is the official tie-in edition to the show, with the same logo: little Cosette and the tattered French flag. It is the only complete, unabridged, modern American translation of the novel. Over the past 25 years, our book has become the most popular English-language translation of Les Miserables.

In the spirit of awards season, Lee Fahnestock and I want to publicly thank our predecessor, C. E. Wilbour, on whose impassioned 1862 translation we based ours, and our brilliant editor, LuAnn Walther.

A word about Charles Edwin Wilbour (1833-1896). He was a journalist and lawyer in New York. His translation of Les Miserables was made during the American Civil War. In the 1870s he traveled to Egypt on archaeolgical digs, and his collection of books and artifacts forms the basis of the Brooklyn Museum's Egyptian collection.

Hugo, Lincoln, and Wilbour lived in times of revolution and civil war. The nightmare society Hugo depicts in Les Miserables is one so cruel that it sends a poor man to prison for nineteen years because he stole a loaf of bread, and then persecutes him for the rest of his days. "Then he asked himself if it was not a serious thing that he, a workman, could not have found work and that he, an industrious man, should have been without bread" (p. 88 of our edition of Les Miserables).

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was in his time the world's most popular writer. He was one of the century's two great world-encompassing novelists, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), with War and Peace, the other.

Hugo was an indomitable opponent of slavery and capital punishment and a champion of the rights of the people. When he died at age 83 in 1885, two million people lined the streets of Paris to pay their respects as his coffin passed by on the way to the Pantheon.

"Look through the medium of the people, and you will discern the truth. This lowly sand that you trample underfoot, if you throw it into the furnace and let it melt and seethe, will become sparkling crystal." (p. 593 of our translation of Les Miserables)

Hugo is the first in the line of committed writers, which include Whitman, Tolstoy, Dickens, Sartre, Dos Passos, Neruda, Pasolini, Ginsberg, stretching into the future. He was, and remains, a hero of democracy and social justice to the people of the world. If someone's first name is Hugo, it is likely his parents named him after the author of Les Miserables.

Les Miserables, though very, very long, is distilled like a poem. It endures because of the meanings embodied by the main characters, Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Cosette, and Marius: injustice, repression, hate, redemption, reinvention, rebellion, revolution, and love.
In the new issue of the magazine Jacobin, David Hancock Turner gives a most helpful history of the critical reception of Les Miserables from 1862 to the present. He notes that the most reactionary and elitist elements of society have been the least receptive to the work's messages and methods.

I am happy with the new film. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg, who wrote the musical, the musical's producers--the Royal Shakespeare Company and Cameron Mackintosh--the film's actors and director, are all serious people, and especially so with this great work. They treat the story like a poem. It is sung through, all feeling, like an opera. I cried about Anne Hathaway's Fantine and when Eddie Redmayne as Marius sang "Empty Chairs," thinking of those I have loved who are gone.

Now back to Victor Hugo and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865): Les Miserableswas published in 1862 in Paris and in the Wilbour translation in New York that same year. Everyone who could get a copy read it avidly. It is likely that President Lincoln was among them. We know that Hugo in France was enthralled with Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. He wrote letters to the president, expressing his fraternal feelings.

In 1865, the year of Lincoln's death, the president responded. He sent the writer a photograph of himself inscribed "To Victor Hugo, Abraham Lincoln."

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