Milton Hindus Meets the Monstrous Giant Céline

Description by Drew Flanagan, PhD student in history

Milton Hindus in his officeMilton Hindus was born in 1916 in New York, New York and studied at City College (CUNY), Columbia University and the University of Chicago. Hindus taught at Hunter College (CUNY), the New School for Social Research and the University of Chicago before joining the Brandeis faculty in 1948. One of the original 13 faculty members, he remained an active part of the Brandeis community until his death in 1998. Hindus studied literatures in a range of languages, including (but not limited to) English, Yiddish and French. In 1959 he received the Walt Whitman Prize for a collection he edited entitled “Walt Whitman: 100 Years Later.” In addition to works on Marcel Proust, Charles Reznikoff and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he published a volume of his own poetry entitled “The Broken Music Box” (Menard Press, 1980). The Milton Hindus papers at the Brandeis University Archives contain a wide range of materials written by and relating to Hindus, ranging from an unpublished memoir to volumes of correspondence with literary greats including William Carlos Williams, E.E. Cummings and Upton Sinclair.

Milton Hindus head shotOf particular interest is Hindus’ complex relationship with the French modernist novelist Louis Ferdinand Céline. Hindus worked to popularize French literature in the United States, and became fascinated by Céline (born Louis Ferdinand Destouches), writing a preface to his classic novel “Death on the Installment Plan” when it was first published in the United States. Céline was a controversial literary talent whose style was marked by short, declarative sentences, near-constant use of slang and profanity and ubiquitous exclamation points. The world described and satirized in his novels was full of filth, cruelty and folly, a fact that likely had something to do with Celine’s service in the First World War during which he was severely wounded. Just before the Second World War, Céline penned the first of three virulently antisemitic pamphlets, the last of which was published in 1941 during the German occupation of France. He also served as a physician to members of the leadership of the collaborationist Vichy regime, and was labeled a collaborator by de Gaulle’s French government. Céline responded to this allegation by fleeing into exile in Denmark.

Hindus, who was proud of his Jewish heritage, had difficulty believing that his literary idol was an antisemite. He met with Céline in Denmark in 1948, and their harrowing series of meetings became the basis for Hindus’ 1950 book “The Crippled Giant.” Hindus’ papers include a large volume of materials relating to the writing and critical reception of “The Crippled Giant,” including a great deal of unpublished correspondence with and about Céline. The collection includes a petition supported by Hindus that argued for Céline’s innocence of the charge of collaboration, as well as Hindus’ correspondence with both French foreign office and U.S. State Department officials in defense of Céline. It also includes handwritten notes from the early stages of the writing of “The Crippled Giant” that show Hindus’ thought process in great detail.

December 1, 2011

Photos of Milton Hindus are from the collections of the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections, Brandeis University.