When Albert Thibaudet died in 1936, he left unfinished his most important work, the Histoire de la littérature française de 1789 à nos jours (French Literature from 1795 to Our Era), posthumously published in the year of his death. It was innovative in treating authors strictly according to generations rather than slotting them into genres or movements. Thibaudet’s agrégation was in geography, and his initial training continued to color his later literary criticism, which was to remain dependent on an awareness, unusual for his time, of the way in which imaginative literature and literary criticism were rooted in the place, date, and circumstances of their composition. Thibaudet taught at a number of lycées before becoming professor of French literature at Geneva. Most of his essays and reviews, subsequently gathered as Réflexions on literature, on the novel, and on literary criticism, were first published in the Nouvelle Revue Française (New French review).
Thibaudet first became prominent with La Poésie de Stéphane Mallarmé (1912). This book was followed by one on Flaubert in 1912, which is still regarded as a standard work; Thibaudet went on to publish essays on Valéry, Fromentin, Amiel, Verlaine, and Rimbaud in 1923 and 1924, and a book on Stendhal in 1931. In the context of his contribution to the essay form, his most important work is the set of six lectures delivered in 1922. at the Theatre du Vieux-Colombier, subsequently published separately in a series of journals before being collected into a single volume and published in 1930 as Physiologie de la critique (Physiology of criticism). They are an important landmark in the development of the essay not only on account of their own form, but also for what they say about the nature of the critical essay.
Formally, Thibaudet’s critical essays pick up where those of Sainte-Beuve left off, developing Sainte-Beuve’s journalistic impressionism by adding academic structure and rigor. Thibaudet regarded la critique, by which he means literary criticism as a genre produced by a body of professional specialists, as a 19th-century creation which he assumed had not yet, in 1922, reached the peaks of which it was capable. Thibaudet felt that the literary-critical essay was a genre gestated by the post-revolutionary emergence in France of a properly professional academic body no longer nurtured and subsequently controlled by the church. Its inaugurators had been the generation of professors around 1830, François Guizot, Victor Cousin, and Abel-François Villemain, abetted by the newly emergent body of professional journalists, whose precursors and models had been the 18th-century writers Voltaire and Diderot in their roles as pamphleteers. Academic criticism was exemplified for Thibaudet by Désiré Nisard, director of the École Normale Supérieure from 1857 to 1867, while the journalistic literary-critical essay had originally been developed by Sainte-Beuve, only subsequently adopted as the object of an academic cult.
The literary-critical essay for Thibaudet was necessarily historical, “cutting a section in a slice of duration,” and could be bred only from the interaction of opposing coexistent attitudes. At least in Thibaudet’s mind, the dual academic and journalistic parentage of literary criticism made the essay its appropriate form. His own criticism is at its best when expressed in essay form, partly because the chronological dimension which he considers essential forces the critic to limit the content of a piece to precisely defined
individual points if criticism is not to degenerate into survey.
Thibaudet’s individual essays on criticism are limited to a single point of view often applied to more than one author or critic and invariably contextualized historically. They do not eschew harshness toward such predecessors as Émile Faguet, Jules Lemaître, and Ferdinand Brunetière, but are often deeply perceptive in their understanding of great authors, like Montaigne, and frequently cogent in the analysis of such complex matters as the nature of historical criticism and the inevitability of changes in evolving attitudes toward the past. Nonetheless, they are kept conversational in tone.
Thibaudet himself draws attention to his tone, sometimes flagrant in its irony. He also makes it plain by employing a register of language which is sometimes provocatively colloquial. His model is Montaigne, whose Essais he notes are the work of someone who, having early lost “the only friend with whom he could really converse”—referring to Montaigne’s close friendship with Étienne de La Boétie—had to write about “everything and nothing, and above all about himself” to free himself from the tensions imposed by his environment and his way of life. From Montaigne’s one-sided conversation, with the reader as interlocutor, derived an early example of what Thibaudet regarded as model criticism. It is true that Essais does not mean “essays,” but something like experiments or attempts. However, there is in Thibaudet’s mind an equation, apparent in the text of the Physiotogie de la critique, between criticism, the essay genre, and a conversational tone.
Thibaudet’s contribution to the literary-critical essay is precisely to insist on its conversational tone and sinuosity of approach on the model of Montaigne, as it cuts and labels its historical section through the troughs as well as the peaks of literature.
Born 1 April 1874 in Tournus, Burgundy. Studied at the Lycée Henri IV, Paris, where he was taught by Henri Bergson, agrégation in history and geography; University of Dijon, licence in philosophy, 1894. Traveled to Greece, 1902–03. Taught French at the Universities of York and Uppsala; chair in French literature, University of Geneva, 1924–
36. Contributor, Nouvelle Revue Française, 1911–36. Died in Geneva, 16 April 1936.
Essays and Related Prose
Le Liseur des romans, 1925
Physiologie de la critique, 1930
Réflexions sur le roman, 1938
Réflexions sur la litterature, 2 vols., 1938–40
Réflexions sur la critique, 1939
Other writings: a book on Bergsonism (1923), Histoire de la littérature française de 1789 à nos jours (1936; French Literature from 1795 to Our Era), works on Montaigne, Mallarmé, Flaubert, Valéry, Stendhal, and other writers, and a sociological study of French intellectuals. Also edited editions of works by Flaubert and Montaigne.
Davies, John C, L’OEuvre critique d’Albert Thibaudet, Geneva: Droz, and Lille: Giard, 1955
Devaud, Marcel, Albert Thibaudet: Critique de la poésie et des poètes, Fribourg: Éditions Universitaires, 1967
Glauser, Alfred, Albert Thibaudet et la critique créatrice, Paris: Boivin, 1952
Nouvelle Revue Française issue on Thibaudet (July 1936)
O’Neill, James, The Critical Ideas of Albert Thibaudet (dissertation), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1942.
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