Allegheny College Associate Professor of French Briana Lewis has started a podcast that she hopes will open a dialogue about the relevance of Victor Hugo’s work in the 21st-century world. Lewis, who received degrees from Furman University, Boston University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has taught at Allegheny for the past nine years.
On most Tuesdays, Lewis releases a new episode of “The Les Misérables Reading Companion,” which she says “aims to break down the walls of academia, and make Victor Hugo’s legendary novel more accessible to the general public”.
Lewis says her inspiration for the podcast stems from her interest in the media form herself. As she listened to a variety of podcasts, she noticed the lack of shows about literature, recognizing that many podcasts focus on television shows and movies — often neglecting rich literature such as Hugo’s Les Misérables. Hugo was a 19th-century poet and novelist who wrote Les Misérables — a story that follows Jean Valjean throughout the early years of the nineteenth century. The 1862 novel has since been adapted for the screen and the stage.
Lewis noted the relevance of Les Misérables to the current political state of our world–and particularly, the United States. Given the contentious nature of the modern political scene, clear lines can be drawn from our current world to that of the novel, she said. So Lewis found it important to create an open discussion about the classic French novel that was aimed at the general public.
By using language relevant to all listeners regardless of their prior knowledge about French culture, Lewis is able to immerse people in the rich messages associated with Hugo’s most famous work. One such message is that social forces can make a person’s past cast a long shadow over their life.
Lewis noted that she intends for her audience to consist of people reading the book because the podcast is constructed as a reading companion, rather than a lecture series. The episodes, she said, act as a liaison between the general public the academic community of Hugo studies. By gearing the project toward a general book-loving audience, including those who might not speak or read French, Lewis makes knowledge about Hugo, Les Misérables, and French history and culture more broadly accessible.
For example, in Episode 33 of “The Les Misérables Reading Companion,” Lewis states that Hugo’s style “allows him to speak to individual readers, alone in the tranquility of their reading minds.” Moreover, readers are called to “question the boundaries” and act against “social damnation”.
The podcasts themselves will be a limited run, lasting 60 episodes. Lewis has some additional episodes and specials planned. That said, she hopes the podcast acts as a spark of passion for the novel, rather than a one-time experience for her listeners. As far as Lewis’ professional plans, she looks forward to remaining a part of the Allegheny family by continuing her career as an associate professor of French.