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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
François-René vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768–1848)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
VISCOUNT DE CHATEAUBRIAND, the founder of the romantic school in French literature, and one of the most brilliant and polished writers of the first half of the nineteenth century, was born at St. Malo in Brittany, September 14th, 1768. On the paternal side he was a direct descendant of Thierri, grandson of Alain III., who was king of Armorica in the ninth century. Destined for the Church, he became a pronounced skeptic, and entered the army. In his nineteenth year he was presented at court, and became acquainted with men of letters like La Harpe, Le Brun, and Fontanes. At the outbreak of the Revolution he quitted the service, and embarked for America in January, 1791. Tiring of the restraints of civilization, he plunged into the virgin forests of Canada, and for several months lived with the savages. This remarkable experience inspired his most notable romantic work.  1
  Returning to France in 1792, he cast his lot with the Royalists, was wounded at Thionville, and finally retired to England, where for eight years he earned a bare support by teaching and translating. His first book was the ‘Essay on Revolutions’ (1797), which displayed some imagination, little reflection, and an affectation of misanthropy and skepticism. The subsequent change in his convictions followed on the death of his pious mother in 1798. Returning to France he published ‘Atala,’ an idyll á la mode, founded on the loves of two young savages. Teeming with glowing descriptions of nature, and marked by elevation of sentiment combined with a sensuousness almost Oriental, this barbaric ‘Paul and Virginia’ immediately established the author’s fame. Thus encouraged, in the following year he gave the world his ‘Genius of Christianity,’ in which the poetic and symbolic features of Christianity are painted in dazzling colors and with great charm of style. The enormous success of this book during the first decade of the century unquestionably did more to revive French interest in religion than the establishment of the Concordat itself. Napoleon testified his gratitude by appointing the author secretary to the embassy at Rome, and afterward minister plenipotentiary to the Valais. When the Duke d’Enghien was assassinated (March 21st, 1804), Chateaubriand resigned from the diplomatic service, although the ink was scarcely dry in which the First Consul had signed his new commission. Two years later the successful author departed on a sentimental pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He visited Asia Minor, Egypt, and Spain, where amid the ruins of the Alhambra he wrote ‘The Last of the Abencerrages.’ To this interesting tour the world owes the ‘Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem’ (1811), that book which in Saintsbury’s opinion remains “the pattern of all the picturesque travels of modern times.”  2
  With the publication of the ‘Itinerary’ the literary career of Chateaubriand virtually closes. On the return of the Bourbons to power, the man of letters was tempted to enter the exciting arena of politics, becoming successively ambassador at Berlin, at the court of St. James, delegate to the Congress of Verona, and Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 1830, unwilling to pledge himself to Louis Philippe, he relinquished the dignity of peer of the realm accorded him in 1815, and retired to a life of comparative poverty, which was brightened by the friendship and devotion of Madame Récamier. Until his death on the 4th of July, 1848, Chateaubriand devoted himself to the completion of his ‘Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe,’ an autobiographical work which was published posthumously, and which, although diffuse and even puerile at times, contains much brilliant writing.  3
  His contemporaries pronounced Chateaubriand the foremost man of letters of France, if not of all Europe. During the last half of this century his fame has sensibly diminished both at home and abroad, and in the history of French literature he is chiefly significant as marking the transition from the old classical to the modern romantic school. Yet while admitting the glaring faults, exaggerations, affectations, and egotism of the author of the ‘Genius of Christianity,’ a fair criticism admits his best passages to be unsurpassed for perfection of style and gorgeousness of coloring. ‘Atala’ is a classic with real life in it even yet,—powerful, interesting, and even thrilling, in spite of its theatricality, and often magnificent in description.  4
  In 1811 Chateaubriand was elected to the French Academy as the successor of the poet Chénier. Among his works not already mentioned are ‘René’ (1807), a sort of sequel to ‘Atala’; ‘The Martyrs’ (1810); ‘The Natchez’ (1826), containing recollections of America; an ‘Essay on English Literature’ (2 vols.); and a translation of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (1836).  5
 
 
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