News & Announcements for French and Italian

Phillip Kolb featured in LAS Gallery of Excellence

Department of French
4/13/2014  8:00 am

Professor Philip Kolb (1907-1992) devoted sixty years to the immense task of editing the letters of Marcel Proust, one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. His diligent and meticulous scholarship completely transformed our understanding of this great artist’s life and work, and researchers from the world over who study Proust, modernism, and French intellectual history continue to owe him an immeasurable debt. Philip Kolb’s legacy lives on at Illinois in multiple ways, including the collection of 1,100 autograph letters – by far the largest in the world –, manuscripts and books by Proust that he patiently helped the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library assemble. Today the Kolb-Proust Archive for Research, the unit spearheading an international project of digitization of Proust’s vast correspondence, continues to oversee the expansion of this unique library collection.

Born in Chicago, Philip Kolb earned his PhD at Harvard in 1938, and was decorated for his service as a Naval Intelligence Officer during the Second World War. He taught for thirty years in the Department of French at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1945-1975); after his retirement, he kept working on his edition of Marcel Proust’s letters, publishing a new volume almost every year. Professor Kolb’s edition of Proust’s correspondence is over 10,000 pages long; the twenty-first and final volume appeared in 1993, a year after his death. To this day, it remains an authoritative reference and a celebrated model of literary scholarship.

Today Proust is perhaps the most famous and beloved of all French writers; this past year, the centenary of the publication of his great novel’s first volume (Swann’s Way, 1913) was celebrated with symposia, exhibitions, publications and articles around the world (The New York Times, to give but one example, featured a month-long series on A Century of Proust). This was not always the case. When Philip Kolb started to work on his letters in the 1930s, Proust had been dead for about a decade, and was not considered a major writer. The novelist’s letters were not an obvious or easy topic for a PhD dissertation. The vast majority of his letters were still in private hands; when their recipients published a few selections, these letters were often bowdlerized, and sometimes even falsified. They were published with very few explanatory notes, and without precise dates.

The greatest challenge faced by Kolb was that Proust almost never dated his letters. In order to  make sense of the immense mass of his correspondence (Kolb estimated that Proust wrote at least 20,000 letters during his lifetime, of which only about a quarter have been found and published to this day), he had to reconstruct the novelist’s existence almost day to day, using clues found in the letters themselves, as well as a huge array of secondary sources: multiple newspapers from France and elsewhere, weather reports, society almanacs, performance and exhibition reviews, letters or diaries from other correspondents… Over his decades of work starting in the 1930s, Kolb constituted a database of nearly 40,000 notecards about people, places, events, works of art, businesses and other entities connected to Proust’s life; each card was linked to others through a system of references. Using this paper database, Kolb was able to date almost every one of the thousands of letters he published, and to elucidate, in his scrupulous annotations, all but the most obscure references they contain. In doing so, he made Proust’s entire world – the fascinating artistic, technological and social effervescence of Paris at the turn of the twentieth century – accessible and legible to researchers, readers and enthusiasts of all eras to come.

Kolb worked entirely with analog sources (printed books, manuscript letters, photocopies, microfilms); he never experienced the Internet. Yet the elaborate system he devised anticipates, in many ways, the tools and features of digital scholarship. It’s only fitting, then, that his database lives on digitally through the Kolb-Proust Archive for Research (library.illinois.edu/kolbp), now accessible to researchers worldwide.

Proust’s biographers since the 1990s (Jean-Yves Tadié, Marcel Proust, 1996; William C. Carter, Marcel Proust: A Life, 2000, to cite but the two most authoritative) all acknowledge a major debt to Philip Kolb. The huge quantity of contemporary scholarship on Proust, including the steady flow of new editions and translations of his masterwork In Search of Lost Time in all major world languages, would be substantially poorer if it were not for his work. At Illinois, Professor Kolb directed many PhD theses on Proust and other authors, and trained some of the foremost Proust scholars of today. One of them, Virginie Greene (PhD Illinois, 1998) is currently Chair of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. Another, Françoise Leriche, is the editor of an updated selection of the Proust’s letters (Lettres. Plon, Paris 2004), and the editorial director of the digitization project of his correspondence, a high-profile collaboration between the University of Illinois and a number of prestigious French research institutions.

Professor Kolb was the recipient of many awards including the Prix de l’Académie française (1951), the world-famous French Legion of Honor (1983), and the Médaille de la Société des Gens de Lettres (1985). He is the author and editor of numerous scholarly works, listed below:

•       La correspondance de Marcel Proust : chronologie et commentaire critique. Univ. of Illinois Press, 1949
•       Marcel Proust : correspondance avec sa mère (1887-1905). Plon, Paris 1953
•       Marcel Proust et Jacques Rivière : correspondance (1914-1922). Plon, Paris 1955
•       Marcel Proust : lettres à Reynaldo Hahn. Gallimard, Paris, 1956
•       Marcel Proust : choix de lettres. Plon, Paris, 1965
•       Marcel Proust : lettres retrouvées. Plon, Paris, 1966
•       Marcel Proust : textes retrouvés. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Il. 1968
•       Marcel Proust : textes retrouvés éd. augmentée. Gallimard, Paris, 1971
•       Marcel Proust et Jacques Rivière : correspondance éd. augmentée et corrigée. Gallimard, Paris, 1976
•       Marcel Proust : le carnet de 1908. Gallimard, Paris, 1976
•       L'indifférent : nouvelle. Gallimard, Paris, 1978
•       Marcel Proust : correspondance, Plon, Paris, 1970-1993: 21 volumes


More than twenty years after his death, Philip Kolb’s extraordinary scholarship continues to enhance the reputation of the University of Illinois, its nationally ranked Department of French, and its world-class library collections. His lifetime of dedicated work also continues to enrich the experience of readers and lovers of Proust the world over.