Photo of Elah (Libby) Murphy
  • Associate Professor of French


  • BA, University Georgia Athens, 1997
  • MA, University of Virginia, 1999
  • PhD, Stanford University, 2006


My research interests center on French literature and cultural history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I have published articles and book chapters on print culture and the First World War, literary representations of the French Infantryman, the reception in France of the films of Charlie Chaplin, representations of the female soldier, and the history of the French and Francophone concept of Le Système D. My research on the First World War culminated in my book The Art of Survival: France and the Great War Picaresque (Yale UP, 2016). In this book I argue that key features of the European picaresque tradition—the types of characters, plot structures, and basic worldview implied—are to be found not just in novels published during the war, but also in the wider cultural fabric of the time. With its spirit of self-preservation as opposed to self-sacrifice, the picaresque was a literary and cultural mode uniquely appropriate for expressing and attenuating the anxieties provoked by industrialized warfare.

My interest in French media and visual culture led to the 2013 exhibition of nineteenth century satirical prints I curated the AMAM: “The Human Comedy: Chronicles of 19th-Century France.” Social types featured in the exhibition ranged from the bourgeois to the law student to the dandy, and from the proper bourgeois housewife to the woman writer (bas bleu) to the aspiring courtesan (lorette). The exhibition charted the major social and political mutations of the nineteenth century, including revolution, feminist activism, colonial expansion, industrialization, migration, and urbanization.

I am currently at work on two new projects that grow out of that research. The first is a collaboration with Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of GSFS Greggor Mattson and Oberlin Library Digital Initiatives Coordinator Megan Mitchell. In Search of Lost Women: On Prostitution in the City of Paris and Beyond is a scholarly introduction to, and an invitation to participate in, the multi-phased, crowd-sourced digital humanities project of the same name. The project is built around On Prostitution in the City of Paris (1836), a monumental and precocious work of social science and a precursor for literary realism. On Prostitution was vital in establishing the first national system of prostitution regulation. It was also a text very much of its moment, marking a shift in the literary imagination from the local color and high melodrama of Romanticism toward the pseudo-scientific representation of contemporary life that we understand as Realism.

I am also working on another book project. Les Baigneurs: French Swimming Culture from Balzac to the Burkini is a study of urban leisure politics and sociability through the lens of recreational swimming. Beginning with a look at the floating swimming pools on the Seine that were popular in Daumier’s time (distant precursors of the Paris plages movement of the 2000s) and moving to an examination of the cultural politics of municipal swimming pools and seaside resorts in metropolitan France and the colonies, this book charts changing attitudes to the public performance of leisure (and, with the burkini ban of 2016, of laïcité and Republicanism) through fashion, fitness, environmentalism, and conspicuous consumption.

I am also on the look out for a new translation project. In 2013, I co-translated, with Creative Writing professor Kazim Ali, Marguerite Duras’ 1971 novel L'Amour (Open Letter Books).