Joan DeJean, Professor of Romance Languages and Comparative Literature and Literary Theory died December 2, 2023

Joan DeJean

Joan DeJean, Trustee Professor Emerita of Romance Languages in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Comparative Literature and Literary Theory Program, renowned scholar of 17th- and 18th-century French literature,  died on December 2 of ALS.   She was 75 years old.

Dr. DeJean was born in Opelousas, Louisiana and grew up in a French-speaking family.  She received her B.A. in 1969 from Tulane (Newcomb College) and earned her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1974, where she studied with Sterling Professor of French Georges May.  Her first teaching position was at the University of Pennsylvania, where she  received a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1977.  She then taught French literature at Princeton and Yale before returning in 1988 to the University of Pennsylvania as Trustee Professor of Romance Languages, with affiliations in English and Women’s Studies.  Dr. DeJean remained at the University of Pennsylvania from 1988 until her retirement in 2022.  

The author of twelve books, Dr. DeJean was recognized with numerous honors and awards for her work on women’s writing, the history of sexuality, the development of the novel, and material culture.  The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began (Bloomsbury) was named one of 2009’s top Art and Architecture books by The New York Times.  Dr. DeJean was the winner of the 2003 MLA Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Studies for her book The Reinvention of Obscenity: Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France (The University of Chicago Press). Dr. DeJean was awarded fellowships by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies for her research and her work on fashion and style in pre-Revolutionary France gained notice beyond the academy through interviews in venues such as NPR, the New York Times, and Rick Steves’ Europe

“Joan was a pioneer in the feminist readings of French texts, and in the feminist literary critical movement, a field that was neglected for many years,” writes Dr. Lance Donaldson-Evans, a former colleague in Romance Languages.  He adds, “I know very few scholars who were as passionate about their scholarship as Joan.”  In addition to authoring books on 17th-century fiction (Scarron’s Roman comique, 1977); the history of women's writing in France (Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France, 1991); the history of sexuality (Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937, 1989); the development of the novel (Literary Fortifications, 1984; Libertine Strategies, 1981); and the cultural history of late 17th- and early 18th-century France (Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle, 1996 ; The Essence of Style, 2005), Dr. DeJean published the first uncensored edition of Molière's Dom Juan, as well as editions of Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne and Duras’ Ourika.

In 2020, Dr. DeJean was made a Fellow of the prestigious British Academy for the humanities and social sciences. Past Fellows include Winston Churchill and C.S. Lewis.  In 2021, the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF) published a volume of essays edited by Amy S. Wyngaard and Roland Racevskis in Dr. DeJean’s honor:  How to Do Things with Style: Essays in Honor of JoanDr. DeJean’s 2022 book Mutinous Women: How French Convicts Became Founding Mothers of the Gulf Coast, which investigates the lives of female prisoners deported in 1719 from Paris to the French colony of Louisiana, led to the creation of an interactive digitized map that situates these women’s biographies in New Orleans settlements:

Dr. DeJean was a committed researcher in French and American archives and libraries. The Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries has been the beneficiary of significant collections, focused primarily on early modern French literature, culture, and women's writings, donated over the years by Dr. DeJean.  She was also a lover of opera and a devoted supporter of the arts, especially Philadelphia’s contemporary dance company BalletX and the Curtis Institute of Music.