Despite his grandiose overarching projects, titles, and suggestions, Chateaubriand’s writing is expressed, as often as not, as familiar conversation and concrete fragmentariness. Having spent several years of his youth in England, and gained an acquaintance with the traditions of English literature (he wrote a sketchy, subjective history of English literature and culture), Chateaubriand was also influenced by a mode of writing much better established north than south of the English Channel.
Some of Chateaubriand’s writings, particularly in the second half of his life, have the length and manner usually expected from the journalistic essay and feuilleton. These appeared largely between 1815 and 1830 when the author was deeply involved in French political life. He fiercely defended the freedom of the press, argued in favor of a constitutional monarchy based on legitimacy and continuity, and philosophized on the accelerated modernization of society and the resulting implicit dangers. Although the purposes of these essays (many of them in periodicals he himself initiated, such as Le Conservateur [The conservative]) are ideological and political, they are always founded on a tone of unabashed subjectivity and appeal to personal preferences and choices.
More significantly and typically, Chateaubriand’s two chief works, Les Mémoires d’outre-tombe (wr. c. 1811–41, pub. 1849–50; Memoirs from beyond the grave, translated simply as Memoirs) and Le Génie du christianisme (1802; The Genius of Christianity), consist of short pieces that are not always connected, unless in a somewhat general and abstract way. Thus the latter, which made the young author famous, contains pieces of literary criticism (e.g. the famous comparison between biblical Hebrew poetics and Homeric writings, claiming the superiority of the former), as well as passages of whimsical erudition such as the detailed parallels between the tables of laws and commandments of different cultures, or between the cosmogony of Moses and various philosophies of classical antiquity. Even more typically recognizable as autonomous essays within The Genius of Christianity are “chapters” such as those on the aesthetic appeal of ruins, the vindication of reptiles and amphibians within natural economy, the human relevance of bird song, the evocative power of church bells, and the typology and meaning of cemeteries.
The memoirs of Chateaubriand, perhaps his most durable literary work, are formed from disjointed fragments of varying lengths arranged in approximately chronological order; the great majority can be read separately without any significant loss of sense.
Among these are memorable portraits, often devastatingly sarcastic, of major historical figures of the French Revolution and Restoration, or of different imperial and royal courts.
Some of the units or modules into which the text of the memoirs is divided are meditations on issues of political and historical interest, such as the future of the United States, a global society in which mass democracy prevails, or, even more important, the long essay on the life of Napoleon placed at the center of the book. Others are straightforward essays on, for instance, the description of Venice and of Silvio Pellico’s prison, an anti-mountain diatribe during his 1832 journey from Paris to Lugano and back via Switzerland, or the parallels between Washington and Bonaparte.
More generally it must be said that Chateaubriand lived and worked under the sign of the essay to the extent to which he rejected the definitive and the complete. He decided he was not in a position to write a history of English literature, but simply a connected series of separate vignettes on some of its highlights, and thus called his work an “essay.”
Similarly he could not convince himself that his comments on the patterns of revolutions in different historical ages added up to a treatise or manual on the philosophy of history and so, again, he gave it the title of “essay.” An exquisite mixture of erudition, subjectivity, moral gravity, and dreamy delight in the face of the world’s spectacle characterizes all of these works.
Chateaubriand’s style was flamboyant and passionate, expressing his proud, bold, and egocentric temperament. His daring ideological intiatives proved to be of lasting influence: the whole of Christian apologetics of the 19th century was deeply marked by his argument that beauty and the emotional and subjective resources of humankind are the proper environment for spiritual and religious concerns, rather than logic, science, or even the realm of ethical action. Chateaubriand differs from other essayists of the day (particularly from the English tradition) in that he lacks their lightly humorous and playful manner, choosing a discourse of melancholy and pathos. (There are a few exceptions, for instance in parts of the memoirs.) Nevertheless, he shares in the general project of Romantic essayism: finding a place where a trust in completeness and universality meets a firm commitment to the fragmentary and the symptomatic. In this respect, Chateaubriand can be classed with both Lamb and the Schlegel brothers.
François-René August, Vicomte de Chateaubriand. Born 4 September 1768 in Saint- Malo. Studied at the Collège de Rennes, 1781–83; Collège de Dinan, 1783–84. Entered the army, 1786; visited America, 1791; served briefly in the Prussian army, 1792.
Married Célèste Buisson de la Vigne (died, 1847), 1792. Exiled to Jersey, 1792, and England, 1793–1800, then returned to France; diplomat, 1803–04. Traveled to the Middle East and Spain, 1806–07. Elected to the French Academy, 1811; exiled by Napoleon to Ghent, 1815; appointed Minister of Interior of the Government in exile, 1815; created peer of France, 1815, and President of the Electoral College of Orléans, 1815. Founder, Le Conservateur, 1818–20. Ambassador to Berlin, 1820–21, London, 1822, and Rome, 1828; Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1822–24. Arrested briefly on suspicion of a conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy, 1832. Liaisons with many women throughout his life. Died in Paris, 4 July 1848.
Essays and Related Prose
Essai historique, politique, et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes, 1797; edited by Maurice Regard, 1978
Le Génie du christianisme; ou, Beautés de la religion chrétienne, 5 vols., 1802; edited by Maurice Regard, 1978; as The Genius of Christianity, translated by Charles I.White, 1802, and Rev. E. O’Donnell, 1854; as The Beauties of Christianity, 3 vols., translated by Frederic Shoberl, 1813
Reflexions politiques, 1814; as Political Reflections, translated anonymously, 1814
Mélanges de politique, 2 vols., 1816
Études ou discours historiques sur la chute de l’empire romain, la naissance et les progrès du christianisme, et l’invasion des barbares, 4 vols., 1831
Essai sur la littérature anglaise, 2 vols., 1836
Les Mémoires d’outre-tombe, 12 vols., 1849–50; edited by Maurice Levaillant and Georges Moulinier, 2 vols., 1951, and Jean-Claude Berchet, 1989; as Memoirs, translated anonymously, 3 vols., 1848, and by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, 6 vols., 1902; selections edited and translated by Robert Baldick, 1961
Réflexions et aphorismes, edited by Jean-Paul Clément, 1993
Grands Écrits politiques, edited by Jean-Paul Clément, 2 vols., 1993
Other writings: two short stories (Atala, 1801; René, 1802), a novel (Les Martyrs [The Martyrs], 1809), a play (Moïse, 1831), travel writing (including Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem [Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt, and Barbary], 1811), studies of literary history, a biography (La Vie de Rancé, 1844), and numerous political and ideological pamphlets and articles.
Collected works editions: OEeuvres complètes, 31 vols., 1826–31, 36 vols., 1836–39, and 12 vols., 1859–61; OEuvres romanesques et voyages (Pléiade Edition), edited by Maurice Regard, 2 vols., 1969.
Dubé, Pierre H., and Ann Dubé, Bibliographie de la critique sur François-René de Chateaubriand: 1801–1986, Paris: Nizet, 1988
Barberis, Pierre, À la recherche d’une écriture: Chateaubriand, Tours: Mame, 1974
Barberis, Pierre, Chateaubriand: Une Réaction au monde moderne, Paris: Larousse, 1976
Clarac, Pierre, À la recherche de Chateaubriand, Paris: Nizet, 1975
Lelievre, Michel, Chateaubriand polémiste, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1983
Moreau, Pierre, Chateaubriand, l’homme et l’oeuvre, Paris: Hatier, 1956
Painter, George D., Chateaubriand: A Biography, vol. 1, London: Chatto and Windus, 1977
Porter, Charles A., Chateaubriand: Composition, Imagination, and Poetry, Saratoga, California: Anma Libri, 1978
Richard, Jean-Pierre, Paysage de Chateaubriand, Paris: Seuil, 1967
Sainte-Beuve, Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire sous l’Empire, Paris: Garnier, 2 vols., 1948 (original edition, 1861)
Switzer, Richard, Chateaubriand, New York: Twayne, 1971
Vial, André, Chateaubriand et le temps perdu, Paris: Julliard, 1963
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