Furniture has mattered to DeJean since her childhood in Opelousas, Louisiana, a small town deep in the heart of Cajun country. “Growing up there in the 1950s and ’60s,” she says, “was probably closer to growing up in France than it was to growing up in the United States.” In line with French custom, her family ate a large meal at midday. Her grandmother tatted her own lace, baked her own bread, and sourced all the ingredients for family meals from the garden. There was no TV and no way to know the rest of the country wasn’t living this same small-town life. (Once TV did arrive and DeJean saw what other children were eating, she begged her mother for canned food.)

DeJean’s family arrived in Louisiana from France in the early 1800s— they’ve deduced from documents that the first to emigrate was an officer in Napoleon’s army—and would go back and forth between their new and old countries, the professor says. One relative was sent to France as the ambassador of the Confederate states. When France decided not to favor the South in the American Civil War and put an embargo on everything coming from the region, his ship was stuck off the coast of southern France for most of the war. He and the other men on board passed the time by staging marksmanship contests. The journeys across the water went in both directions. Relatives in France would send young cousins with nothing else to do over to Louisiana for a spell. “There are some very touching letters written by these young people arriving in Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi,” says DeJean. “I imagine it must’ve been fairly terrifying leaving a slightly more advanced society in France to come here.”

DeJean’s parents and many of her relatives worked in the family business, a company that packaged and sold balms, salves, and natural remedies to drugstores all over Cajun country. Summer vacations were spent making up little packages of Epsom salts.

DeJean traces the beginnings of her appreciation for furniture back to watching her mother at her sideline business of restoring antiques. “I think the work on furniture definitely began then,” she says. An antiques dealer in town also had an influence. Mr. Leonce, a Frenchman who specialized in art glass from Lunéville in Alsace-Lorraine, took DeJean under his wing. “I had permission to go to his shop after school every day,” she says. “He would sit me up on the counter and teach me very seriously about all different kinds of French glass.”

With the advantages of such a background, a career studying French literature and cultural history would seem preordained for DeJean, but she was actually acting against her family’s wishes in her choice of profession. Her grandmother spoke French with nearly everyone except her granddaughter. “By the time I came along she had come to the conclusion—and she was not wrong—that French was over and English was the language of the future,” DeJean says. “She wanted to make sure my English was good, so she ordered everyone to speak English with me.” Her wish for her granddaughter was to get an education in English and become a doctor. “Rebellion was easy,” says DeJean. “Doing French was a rebellion.”

That would come a little later. At first, DeJean adhered to her parents’ and grandmother’s wishes, staying in Louisiana and in 1966 starting at Newcomb, the women’s college at Tulane University, as a pre-med. But pre-med didn’t last long—she was the only woman in the program and the professors weren’t eager to have her in their classes, she recalls. Shifting to languages, she studied some Russian and French and ultimately decided she wanted to go on to study with Georges May, a professor of 17th and 18th century literature at Yale, who, she says, turned out to be a great mentor.

“I went over my parents’ dead bodies,” DeJean adds. “My father didn’t think women needed an education. He was quite clear—he felt that perhaps a year or two of college were in order to be a good secretary, and if I were lucky enough I’d marry a doctor.” Instead, she earned a master’s and a doctorate in French literature at Yale and began her career as an assistant professor at Penn in 1974. In 1978, DeJean left for stints at Yale and Princeton, returning to Penn 10 years later.


 

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