petit miroir
1938 edition, my new treasure!

How French literature changed from 1938 to 1949, post WWII

As was true in my previous blog concerning the changes in France from 1938 to 1949, my text, and lens, for this blog is from one of the great treasures of my French library: a survey comprehensive textbook, Petit Miroir de la Civilisation Francaise, by Francois Denoeu. This is a revised edition published in 1949. I stated in my previous blog that, “ I would LOVE to have a copy of the original, pre-war, publication (1939 edition) when France was a rich civilization in music, art, literature, science, and cuisine” in order to compare the revisions. Well, thanks to the advice of one of my loyal readers from the great blogosphere, I found and purchased the 1939 edition of Petit Miroir from AbeBooks.

The first publication of Petit Miroir was in 1939, at the beginning of World War II. The revised publication from 1949 includes these notes from the author: “The tragic years of World War II, which started soon after the publication of this book, brought about many changes in France… a whole chapter has been added with emphasis on first-hand information and personal judgments…free from any jingoistic coloring (vi).”

In this blog, I will discuss some of Denoeu’s changes to his text, free from any “jingoism coloring”? [How is that possible after the four-year German Occupation of your country?]

Denoeu was born in Pas de Calais, France in 1898. He was a professor in France before moving to the United States in 1939 to teach for Dartmouth College until his retirement in 1963. He published over 50 books including a popular book on French Idioms. Denoeu wrote Petit Miroir “to aid French professors to recognize the importance of the outstanding physical, intellectual and social traits of France”. This is to be used as a complementary text to a third-year French language student.

As with any new edition of a textbook, there will be sociological, political or geographical changes, updates, corrected errors. As a content/copy editor of academic texts, this is a big part of my job.   My most recent content editing job involved a Sociology textbook written by a professor at the University of Texas in which the super socio-cultural systems had declined and been replaced over just a span of a decade by another socio-cultural system. These changes are very important to sociologists and therefore, needed to be cited.

However, imagine that you had written a survey textbook which reflects the outstanding physical, intellectual, and social traits of France and the French and possibly, while this textbook was being published, your country had been taken over by another civilization? In a few short years of this occupation, everything would change: the language, cuisine, music, worship, culture, the political system, currency, etc.

In Petit Mirror de la Civilisation Française, these are the issues that author and historian Francois Denoeu would be facing as he revised his textbook in 1949, five years after the end of the war. [The year of publication was 1949 so he could have begun his revising much sooner]. What would he change and how would he change it? How can Deneou still continue to,” bring out vividly the general lines of his French culture and civilization” of his homeland to the world after the tragedy of World War II?

As a survey text, the changes would not be political in nature or a commentary on the social changes in France. Isn’t it true that it takes decades to really determine these changes to a culture after a major event?

In the revised edition, there are no changes in the first sections: GÉOGRAPHIE DE LA FRANCE, HISTOIRE DE FRANCE (until 1938), L’ADMINISTRATION POLITIQUE, or PARIS (until 1938).

Of course, there are many revisions in the sections of : PARIS D’AUJOURD’HUI (TODAY), LA LITTÉRATURE FRANCAISE, LES ARTS ET LES SCIENCES and L’EDUCATION NATIONALE ; LA VIE FRANCAISE. In this post, I will highlight some of the changes that were fascinating to me; not just the content, but the intent!

  1. HISTOIRE DE FRANCE DE 1938 À 1948 :

In this section, Denoeu summarizes an entire World War and German Occupation in fourteen pages. In the first three paragraphs we learn of the impetus of the war: the capitulation of Munich and the Treaty which marked a complete political change in France, Hitler marching into Tchécoslovaquie in 1939, and the signing of a non-aggression pact with Russia. The following pages highlight : La drôle de guerre (the phony war), La guerre-éclair (the Blitz), La honte de Vichy, Afrique du Nord, and ends with La libération de la France.

In the Libération section, Deneou gave most of the credit to the Americans and the British starting with the Normandy battles. He salutes American General’s Bradley and Patton, French General Leclerc and British General Montgomery for their brilliant command. Concerning the Occupation of four years by the Germans, Deneou states:

Plus que jamais c’était la lutte pour la vie, la lutte pour se nourrir, s’habiller, se loger, avoir un peu de chaleur l’hiver. Du fait du pillage systématique allemand pendant plus de quatre années d’occupation les choses nécessaires a la vie étaient rares chères, de sept a dix fois qu’en 1938 pour les prix officiels.

[More than ever, it was the struggle for life, the struggle to feed oneself, to dress oneself, to be housed, to have a little heat in the winter. As a result of systematic German looting for more than four years of occupation, the things necessary for life were rare, seven to ten times as much as in 1938 for official prices, (my translation, 135)]


Interestingly, there are four short paragraphs devoted to the four-year occupation of Paris by the Germans. This includes only one sentence about the “persecution, executions and deportation of the Jews” (161). Most of this section is about the architectural changes around Paris including the changing of street names to honor American heroes: les avenues du Président Franklin D. Roosevelt, Président Washington, Lincoln and Franklin.


The iconic culture of Paris resumes post war. Denoue has not changed this section. The right bank, la rive droite, is always busy; banks, stores, cinemas, and showrooms. The left bank, la rive gauche, includes “Le Quartier Latin”, the Sorbonne, many schools and libraries and antique stores. He continues word for word from the 1938 edition to describe the Opera and theater districts, Champs Elysees, Pantheon, Luxembourg gardens, the Eiffel Tower. All of the things that make Paris the number one tourist destination in the world. How has the war and German occupation changed this? On the surface, it hasn’t.

We now know that Hitler had planned total annihilation of Paris [see my blog “Is Paris Burning?”  ]

If Von Choltitz had obeyed a direct order by Hitler to detonate the bombs place under all of the major monuments of Paris, it would be a different story. By a miracle, this did not happen.

What is of great interest to me in this section are the changes in the last few paragraphs of the Paris Today section.

In the 1938 edition, Deneou states, “Some prefer Vienna, Munich, Brussels to Paris, for the charm…New-York, London, Tokyo, Berlin, Chicago, Shanghai have more people, but Paris, the City of Light, gives visitors a fertile intellectual impetus [my translation, 148]

Revised edition, “Some prefer Brussels or Washington D.C…. New-York, London, Tokyo, Chicago, Shanghai…”. He omitted Vienna, Munich and Berlin in the revision, for obvious reasons. Heartbreaking.


Some interesting revisions and additions in this section are:

-Gabrielle Colette (Dialogue des bêtes, Gigi) ; André Maurois, a refuge to the United States during WWII where he taught at Princeton (les Silences du colonel Bramble);

-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Pilote de guerre, Lettre à u otage). Deneou does not include Saint-Exupéry’s most famous work, Le Petit Prince (1943), in this section possibly because his works had been banned by the Vichy Regime during the war. This great work was published posthumously in France after the liberation.

-Jean-Paul Sartre (l’Etre et le néant, le Mur) ; Albert Camus (la Peste, l’Etranger) ; André Gide ; Jean Cocteau (la Belle et la Bête)

Deneou concludes this section on literature with this declaration, “ If it were necessary to characterize today’s literary production, it would be called cerebral and abstract rather than affective and concrete, objective and even cynical rather than subjective and candid, amoral and even rather than moralizing, pessimistic rather than optimistic, in short, more classical than romantic [my translation, 252]. There is no doubt that the recent war and occupation had much to do with this [see my post Jean-Paul Sartre]


Deneou entitles his new section of French painting “Les traditionalists” and “Le néo-impressionisme”. The description of this new style of painting includes “rendering the canvas with stronger illumination, the néo-impressionists use scientific work in the division of color. This division is known as “pointillisme” [my translation, 308]. These new artists include Paul Signac, Georges Seurat, Camille Pissarro, Henri Martin and Jean-Louis Forain.

He gives more prominence in the new edition to Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh; the 1938 edition these artists were combined in one single sentence as “artists known for their effects of light and vigor of colors in the region of Arles” [my translation, 280].Now that the world has had half a century to discover and appreciate Van Gogh’s unique talent, he deserves the half-page tribute.

Pablo Picasso also went from a name in a list of modernists to a featured paragraph claiming “le plus fameux des modernists (the most famous of the modernists!). He is also given credit for his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Picasso and Georges Braque launched “cubisme” which was labeled as analytic and synthetic.

Still Life, my first attempt at Cubism!

[I recently ventured from Impressionist painting to try Cubism and loved the experience. It is very exact, measured, no room for errors which is much different from the more free styled impressionist strokes.]

Some other notable artists added to Denoeu’s 1949 edition are: Henri Matisse, initiator of “fauvisme”; Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Picabia, created the Dadaism movement, and one of my favorites, Marc Chagall, a young abstractionist of geometry, as if he were assembling a jigsaw puzzle! Chagall would soon paint the ceiling of the Opera Garnier. To view these paintings after World War II, Deneou notes that one must visit the Le musée du Louvre, le musée Jeu de Paume, and l’Orangerie.


The 1949 edition of Petit Miroir focuses on the “Group of Six”: Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Louis Durey, Georges Auric and Germaine Tailleferre. This movement came about as a reaction against romantism and impressionism, according to Denoeu (321). The only mention of the French music which was discouraged during the German occupation is the closing of the Conservatoir franco-americain de musique which was installed at the Fontainebleau Palace during the war. It was re-opened in 1946.

The French contribution to the Sciences which were added after the war include the physicists Langevin, Jean Perrin, Fabry and Georges Claude who were known on their work in liquid-air. The most notable are Charles Richet, at the Rockefeller Institute and Dr. Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize winner for his work in grafting tissues.

VII. LES FRANCAIS. LA VIE FRANCAISE. The last section of Denoeu’s textbook is about French life. In the new edition, he claims there are three great dangers that are menacing to France (there were two pre war): birth rate, inflation and the political fanaticism that breeds disunity. There was much fear of communism taking over the state.

Now, we are getting to the real issues. France is not there yet, alas. As the German repairs are insignificant, only ten million dollars until the end of 1947, the state’s expenditures rise annually to the national income, about 85 billion dollars.

According to Denoeu, France’s population decreased by nearly 1 million people from 1939 to 1947 (344). He attributes this to suffering from the war, shortage of food and harsh economic conditions. During this period, however, France also added refuges from Russia, Spain and Germany: two and a half million. The cost of living increased 20%. It is “un cercle vicieux”, a vicious cycle. How do we get out of this? he asks. The future is somber for France; but, as in its history, with courage and a strong spirit, France will again conquer these difficulties.

Denoeu concludes his revised edition of Petit Miroir with the assurance that America will aid France through the Cap Atlantique de l’Europe. As in his 1939 edition, Denoeou ends with his poem “J’AIME LA VIEILLE France » “with every turn of the road, a surprise.”

Just as in this revised edition, a wonderful surprise!

Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (


Francois Denoeu. Petit Miroir de la Civilisation Francaise. D.C. Heath and Co. 1938, 1949.