French Scholar Wylie Dies at 85

Laurence Wylie, Dillon professor of the civilization of France emeritus, died Tuesday at his home in Cambridge of prostate cancer, according to a University spokesperson. He was 85.

During a 50-year teaching and research career that spanned sociology, anthropology and the study of French language and literature, Wylie sought to help improve Americans' understanding of France.

Jerome Kagan, the Strach professor of psychology, called Wylie "a gentle, perceptive, and very wise scholar. He was generous in his interactions, he had a good sense of humor and he was greatly admired by his students. We will miss him."

Former student William A. Christian Jr. '65 recalled how Wylie encouraged his students to listen carefully and to help each other.

"It was a unique exercise in sharing," he said. "All of us learned how to learn together," he said. "[Wylie] lived out the ideas of generosity, openness and humility. For him, every person was an equal."


Among undergraduates, Wylie was known in part for incorporating body language into his lessons, moving beyond the grammar and syntax of spoken French to include gestures and facial expressions. He sometimes began classes with films and limbering exercises; one of his popular courses at Harvard--nicknamed "Frogs and Flicks"--conveyed French civilization through film.

In an effort to bring alive French culture to his language students, Wylie spent a year studying everyday life in Roussillon, a rural town in Southern France. The book which records his experience and observations there, titled Village in the Vaucluse (1957), became a classic of European ethnography.

Wylie's 1977 book Beaux Gestes, A Guide to French Body Talk (with Harvard photographer Rick Stafford), shows a bespectacled Wylie biting his thumb, tapping his nose and demonstrating other gestures common to French culture.

Wylie hoped the book would draw attention to the need to broaden conceptions of language learning, according to a 1977 New York Times Book Review article, Many Americans with asuperb command of verbal French "simply do notunderstand the nonverbal messages that reflect agreat deal of the culture of a people," he said.

Wylie also authored the standard textbooksLes Francais (with Armand Armand Begue,1970), which had its second edition published thisyear, and participated in a number of films.

Stanley Hoffmann, who was named C. DouglasDillon Professor of the Civilization of France in1980 after Wylie's retirement, called Wylie "aremarkable man, quite unique, He didn't fit intoany academic category,"

According to Hoffmann, Wylie was "anextraordinary teacher and trainer ofundergraduates" who distrusted theoreticalapproaches and concentrated instead on theconcrete details of everyday life.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana on Nov. 19, 1909,Wylie began his French studies at IndianaUniversity, where he received his B.A. in 1931 andM.A. in French language and literature in 1933.

He studied at the Institut des SciencesPolitiques, Paris in 1929-30, He earned a Ph.D.from Brown University in romance languages andliterature in 1940 and did postdoctoral work inanthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wylie's teaching career began at IndianaUniversity and at Simmons College and included 16years at Haveford College, where he served aschair of the Department of Romance Languages for adecade.

He became Harvard's Dillon Professor in 1959, apost he held until his retirement in 1980. Afterhis retirement, he continued to write, teach,travel and study non-verbal communication.

At Harvard, he was a member of the SignetSociety and an active fellow and associate ofKirkland House. He served as Acting Master ofQuincy House in 1962-63.

He is survived by his wife, Joan (Dreyfus)Wylie of Cambridge; two sons, Jonathan of Belmont,Mass., and David of Concord, Mass.; threestepchildren, James Blout of Concord, Mass., SusanB. Merry of Chicago, and William Blout ofLexington, Mass.; 14 grandchildren from thecombined families; and his brother, Francis E.Wylie of Hingham.

A memorial service will be held September 24 at3 p.m. at the friends Meeting at Cambridge. Inlieu of flowers, contributions may be made inmemory of Laurence Wylie to the Friends Meeting atCambridge