11/07/2013 07:38 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why Camus Has Endured

World War II produced a pantheon of great statesmen who rallied their countries in their hour of need. But even the immensely popular Churchill and de Gaulle promptly fell out of favor after victory. One prominent voice of the war, however, managed not only to grow in influence in peacetime, but continues to enjoy widespread admiration and popularity today: the writer Albert Camus.

On the centennial of his birth into a poor family in Algiers, and more than 50 years after his tragic death in an auto accident, Camus and his works still attract intense interest around the world. The struggles in which Camus fought -- World War II, the Cold War, Algeria -- have long passed, why has he endured so well?

Camus discovered the secret himself at a low point in his life.

In 1951, publication of his essay The Rebel with its damning critique of Stalin and Soviet-style communism estranged him from much of the French left-wing, and permanently ruptured his friendship with fellow celebrity philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Stung by very public and personal attacks, and weary from many years of frontline activism, Camus retreated the following winter to Algeria and a favorite site of his youth, the Roman ruins on the coast at Tipasa. Strolling amid the columns and gazing across the still blue Mediterranean, he regained his strength:

"[Y]ears of wrath and night melted away. I listened to an almost forgotten sound within myself as if my heart, long stopped, were calmly beginning to beat again...

I discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice, and return to combat having won that light...

In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer."

Readers have long responded to that invincible summer. Although trapped in occupied France during much of the war, Camus managed to publish his first seminal works, the novel The Stranger (ranked by Le Monde as the most important book of the 20th century) and his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Amid the hell of occupation, Camus urged that the path to happiness was to be the master of one's own life, and to live fully in the present.

He later contributed his literary skills to the Resistance newspaper Combat. Because of the attrition of staff, he found himself its de facto editor as the battle for liberation approached. After the Allied landings in Normandy, Camus appealed to his countrymen to ignore Vichy propaganda that demanded citizens stay on the sidelines, and to summon the courage to join the fight:

"Frenchmen, the French Resistance is issuing the only appeal you need to hear... The flower of the nation is preparing to sacrifice itself...Anyone who isn't with us is against us. From this moment on there are only two parties in France: the France that has always been and those who shall soon be annihilated for having attempted to annihilate it."

His anonymous front-page editorials, hurrily crafted each night in makeshift quarters amidst the gunfire and confusion of the battle in Paris in August 1944, are some of the most stirring and eloquent pieces of twentieth-century journalism. As the first French tanks entered the capital, and the city erupted in joy, Camus captured the moment, framed history, and launched the narrative for a new France all in one stroke:

"Those who never lost hope for themselves or their country are finding their reward tonight...

Four years ago, a few men rose up amid the ruins and despair and quietly proclaimed that nothing was lost yet. They said that the war must go on and that the forces of good could always triumph over the forces of evil provided the price was paid. They paid that price."

When the French people learned who had written such passages, Camus became a national figure. His post-liberation columns prompted thousands of letters a week. More than a few claimed that Camus taught them how to live after two world wars in less than a generation, and as the rest of the world discovered Camus' works, he became an international figure and one of the youngest Nobelists for literature in 1957, at age 44.

Susan Sontag noted that Camus had a special bond with his readers: "No modern writer that I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love. His death in 1960 was felt as a personal loss by the whole literate world." The creative root of that affection lies in a comment Camus jotted in one of the series of notebooks he maintained throughout his life.

In the middle of the war, as he plotted a new novel that would portray the occupation as a plague, Camus reminded himself, "The first thing for a writer to learn is the art of transposing what he feels into what he wants to make others feel." Camus's genius was his ability to make readers feel what he felt and to inspire our more noble selves -- to find one's courage to join the resistance, to act for peace and justice, or to find one's own inner wellsprings.

In the years following the assassination of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy discovered Camus, and read and re-read all of his vast body of work. The experience profoundly affected Kennedy. Camus's thoughts about how to live with the full knowledge of the inevitability of death helped Kennedy accept the tragedy. Camus's arguments against capital punishment changed Kennedy's mind on the issue, and other writings inspired Kennedy to focus on civil rights, children, and the poor.

The senator and eventual presidential candidate started carrying Camus's writings around with him, kept favorite sayings at the ready on index cards, and quoted him in debates and interviews, even on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Signs appeared at campaign stops: "Kennedy and Camus in '68."

In the summer of 2006, President George W. Bush took The Stranger with him on vacation. One has to wonder what might be different had he encountered something like this from Camus a few years earlier:

"Henceforth there will be only one honorable choice: to wager everything on the belief that in the end words will prove stronger than bullets."

Sean B. Carroll is the author of the book BRAVE GENIUS: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize.