Ferdinand Brunetière, literary historian and Catholic apologist, achieved fame for his teaching as a professor at the École Normale Supérieure and, above all, as editor from 1893 to 1906 of the influential Revue des Deux Mondes (Review of two worlds).
Brunetière was introduced to the review in 1875 by Paul Bourget, when an essay on contemporary literature was required. Like the editors François and Charles Buloz before him, Brunetière contrived to be slightly ahead of the public opinion he led. A pessimist of the school of Schopenhauer, hostile to Zola and his “naturalist” school, Brunetière also moved toward Catholicism slightly ahead of the general revival of interest in religion in early 20th-century France. He was opposed to Anatole France, whose work he nevertheless published, in his desire to limit the permissible bounds of philosophical speculation in matters of morality, and was favorable to the “Parnassian” poets, particularly Leconte de Lisle and Heredia.
Brunetière’s contribution to the essay form in France was concerned with the elevation of pieces of literary criticism above Sainte-Beuve’s affectations of intimacy and social analyses into a critical genre based on a strong moral vision. His collected volumes are typically entitled Études critiques (1880–1925; Critical studies), Questions de critique (1889; Questions of criticism), Essais sur la littérature contemporaine (1892; Essays on contemporary literature), Discours académiques (1901; Academic discourses), and Variétés littéraires (1904; Literary varieties). It was the need to find support for his moral vision which led Brunetière to his conversion to Catholicism, writing, “I hope that symbolism will bring poetry toward the realization of its highest definition, which is to be a metaphysic manifested in images and enabled to touch the heart…a conception of the world, or a theory of the relations between individuals.” This view was also behind Brunetière’s hostility to naturalism, which he felt deliberately restricted our vision to the external aspects of life. The whole corpus of his critical writing was essentially directed at detecting in the past the true sources of the national spirit which had been extinguished by defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. He found it, no doubt too exclusively, expressed in the literature of the 17th century.
Brunetière’s name is also too exclusively linked to a new critical method, more forcefully expressed than consistently realized by him at the apogee of Darwin’s intellectual influence. It is not surprising that the idea of linking methods of literary criticism to those of scientific inquiry should be conceived and prove attractive in the last decade of the 19th century in France, but Brunetière’s expressions, derived from Hippolyte Taine, go beyond an interest in “the evolution of genres” to assume some process of natural selection. He believed he could achieve a balance between understanding the variety of literary genres and the individual personal contribution of each great author. The famous course given at the École Normale in 1889–90 was published in essay form in 1890 as L’Évolution des genres (The evolution of genres), with the 55 lectures divided into four groups. They were devoted to the history of criticism in France, the theory of the evolution of genres, a detailed study of three applications of the theory, and a protracted consideration of the conclusions to which the whole course had led. The three examples chosen for detailed consideration illustrated the history of tragedy, the development of sacred eloquence into lyric poetry, and the genesis of the novel.
The combination of criticism, of editing France’s foremost literary review, and of giving important professorial lectures naturally led Brunetière to the essay form.
Arguably a stricter form than the large academic study, it obliged Brunetière to make his points succinctly and thus sharpen his ideas for presentation to a potential readership of educated nonspecialists and students. In fact, despite the considerable impact of his essays, Brunetière was not a master of the essay form. Indeed, the celebrated article “Après une visite au Vatican” (1895; After a visit to the Vatican) scarcely hangs together in any formal way. It consists of three badly connected parts: the first attacks the scientism of Ernest Renan’s 1890 L’Avenir de la science (The Future of Science), while the other two deal with the development of social Christianity and with the prospect of eventual agreement between the Church and the social moralists. The arguments are intelligent and powerful, and in 1895 capable of stirring considerable passion, but their formal presentation does not suggest a natural essayist, however much Brunetière was accustomed to thinking in terms suitable for articles or lectures.
The essay, or such of its analogues as the letter, were, however, the forms to which Brunetière, by trade more a journalist than a professor, most naturally turned. When, in September 1903, the government wanted officially to inaugurate a statue of Renan, who had died in 1892, Brunetière was invited to attack Renan’s lingering influence. The form he chose was the letter, of which he wrote five, the Cinq lettres sur Ernest Renan (1904; Five letters on Ernest Renan).
Brunetière has never passed for a great writer, though he was, in his day and for some time thereafter, an influential thinker. It is not specifically as an essayist that he is best remembered, but as a contributor to the necessary re-evaluation of France’s literary culture after the era of positivism which nourished him had passed away. His work emphasizes above all the social and moral value of religion in a way which helped to restore the balance between secular and religious spheres at a time, during the last decade of the 19th century, when French academic life was permeated with hostility to the church and its institutions.
Born 19 July 1849 in Toulon. Studied at a lycée in Marseilles; Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Paris, until 1869; studied law briefly at Rennes, 1871. Tutor for five years. Book reviewer, Revue Bleue, from 1874; contributor, from 1875, editorial secretary, 1877–93, and director, 1893–1906, Revue des Deux Mondes. Professor of French literature, École Normale Supérieure, Paris, 1883–1904. Director, Revue de Paris, from 1894. Elected to the French Academy, 1894.
Died in Paris, 6 December 1906.
Essays and Related Prose
Études critiques sur l’histoire de la littérature française, 9 vols., 1880–1925
Questions de critique, 1889
L’Évolution des genres dans l’histoire de la littérature, 1890
Nouvelles questions de critique, 1890
Essais sur la littérature contemporaine, 1892
Nouveaux essais sur la littérature contemporaine, 1895
Conférence de l’Odéon: Les Époques du théâtre français (1636–1850), 1896
Essays in French Literature (selection), translated by D.Nichol Smith, 1898
Discours de combat, 3 vols., 1900–07
Discours académiques, 1901
Variétés littéraires, 1904
Cinq Lettres sur Ernest Renan, 1904
Other writings: many works on French literature, including a fourvolume history of classical French literature (1904–17) and a study of Balzac (1905).
Bondy, Louis J., Le Classicisme de Ferdinand Brunetière, Paris: Flor Burton, 1930
Clark, John, La Pensée de Ferdinand Brunetière, Paris: Nizet, 1954
Giraud, Victor, Brunetière, Paris: Flammarion, 1932
Gullace, Giovanni, Taine and Brunetière on Criticism, Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado Press, 1982
Hocking, Elton, Ferdinand Brunetière: The Evolution of a Critic, Madison: University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, 1936
Jequier, Walter, Ferdinand Brunetière et la critique littéraire, Tübingen: Laupp, 1923
Nanteuil, Jacques, Ferdinand Brunetière, Paris: Bloud et Gay, 1933
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