Victor Hugo, arguably France's greatest literary figure, wrote poetry, plays, and novels with equal facility, and while his novels (including Notre Dame de Paris [aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame] and Les Misérables) are his most influential works today, his works in all three genres have inspired composers of not just classical, but popular music. During the Romantic era, there was hardly a single French composer who didn't set at least one of Hugo's works, few Italian opera composers who didn't at least consider one of his plays, and while his influence was strongest in those two countries, it was also felt worldwide. His writing also had a profound impact on other writers, calling for an end to the neo-Classicism that had dominated French literature, particularly its deliberate elegance and restraint in expression and choice of subjects, introducing "orientalist" influences, and insisting on juxtaposing humor and tragedy, as well as the ugly and the beautiful. (This emphasis on freedom found particular resonance in Giuseppe Verdi and sparked several of his wars with censorship in Italy, particularly over Rigoletto, based on Le roi s'amuse.) Though his later writing in particular, he tended to be sentimental and moralizing, his trailblazing spread Romanticism throughout Europe, and his humanism inspired Tolstoy. Despite his populism, he was well aware of his fame and influence and not modest about it; for example, he declared that the city should be renamed Hugo in his honor. His writing brought him early fame, earning him membership in the Legion of Honor at the age of 23 and membership in the prestigious Academie Française at 39. He was also controversial from an early age; the premiere of his play Hernani in 1830 actually sparked brawls and riots. Like Beethoven, Hugo was first deeply inspired by Napoleon and later, deeply disillusioned; he was even exiled from France in 1851 for his highly vocal criticism of and opposition to Napoleon III. In 1870, he returned to Paris, where he was lionized by both political and literary circles.
by Anne Feeney