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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Jules Michelet (1798–1874)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Grace Elizabeth King (1852–1932)
 
MICHELET said of himself: “My book created me; it was I that was its work.” The book he referred to was his ‘Histoire de France,’ in sixteen volumes, the laborious task of forty years; the work of his life, the work that was his life. His other books were accessory to it; the sprouts, as it were, from its roots in the over-rich soil of his mind. “I have been much favored by destiny,” he continued. “I have possessed two rare gifts which have made this work: First, liberty, which was the soul of it; then, useful duties, which, by dragging it out and retarding its execution, made it more reflective and stronger,—gave it the solidity, the robust foundation of time…. I was free, by my solitude, by my poverty, and by my teaching…. I had but one master, Vico. His principle of vital force—Humanity, which created itself—made my book and made my education.”  1
  Michelet’s life confirms this personal testimony. He was born in 1798, of humble parentage; and his childhood was a hard, sad, poverty-stricken one. His father and uncle were printers; and he himself, as soon as he was old enough, was apprenticed to the same trade. But at the same time he began his other apprenticeship to the spiritual head of printing,—Literature; and while learning to set type he made his first efforts at study under an old librarian, an ex-schoolmaster. It was proposed to his family to enter him in the “Imprimerie Royale.” This his father not only refused, but on the contrary employed his last meager resources to enter the youth in the Lycée Charlemagne. Here Michelet began his career at once by hard study, and received his degree in 1821 after passing a brilliant examination. This obtained for him a professorship of history in the Collège Rollin, where he remained until 1826. His first writings date from this period, and were sketches and chronological tables of modern history. Although elementary in character and purpose, and precise in style, they give evidence of the latent tendencies, the personal coloring, which became the distinguishing force of his later work. In 1827 he was appointed “Maître de Conférences” at the École Normale; and in 1831 he wrote an ‘Introduction to Universal History,’ in which his literary originality appears still more marked, and his confidence in his own erudition assured.  2
  The revolution of 1830, by putting in power his old professors, Guizot and Villemain, secured him the position of “Chef de la Section Historiques aux Archives”; and he became Guizot’s deputy in the professorship of history in the University. He also obtained a chair of history in the Collège de France, from which he delivered a course of lectures, attended by all the students of the day. It was from this chair that he also gained popular acclamation by his attack upon ecclesiasticism and the Jesuits, denouncing the latter for their intrigues and encroachments. The ‘History of France’ had already been begun in 1833. The results of his lectures were published in 1843 as ‘Le Prêtre’ (The Priest), ‘La Femme’ (Woman), ‘La Famille’ (The Family), ‘Le Peuple’ (The People). By the influence of the clergy, Michelet’s course of lectures was suspended, and his career seemed permanently arrested. The revolution of 1848 favored him, and he could have obtained reinstatement in his chair; but he refused to avail himself of the opportunity, having resolved to devote himself thenceforth to his studies and his work. As he has said, his history henceforth became his life; interrupted again and again by other work, but always resumed with increasing ardor and passion. “Augustin Thierry,” he said, “called history narrative; Guizot called it analysis: but I call it resurrection.” And to quote him again, as his own master authority:—“I had a fine disease that clouded my youth, but one very proper to a historian. I loved death. I lived nine years at the gates of Père la Chaise, and there was my only promenade. Then I lived near La Bièvre, in the midst of great convent gardens; more tombs. I lived a life that the world would have called buried, with no society but the past, my only friends buried people. The gift that St. Louis asked, and did not obtain, I had,—the gift of tears. All those I wept over—peoples and gods—revived for me. I had no other art.”  3
  All the criticism that has been written about Michelet is little more than sermons from this text, furnished by himself. In it he himself furnishes all the commentary needed upon his work; it is a résumé of all his talent, and of his faults,—which are only the faults of this talent, as Taine points out. Michelet’s exalted sensibility he calls “imagination of the heart.” To summarize Taine’s conclusions:
          “His impressionable imagination is touched by general as well as by particular facts, and he sympathizes with the life of centuries as with the life of men. He sees the passions of an epoch as clearly as the passions of a man, and paints the Middle Age or the Renaissance with as much vivacity as Philippe le Bel or François I…. Every picture or print he sees, every document he reads, touches and impresses his imagination; vividly moved and eloquent himself, he cannot fail to move others. His book, the ‘History,’ seizes the mind fast at the first page; in vain you try to resist it, you read to the end. You think of the dialogue where Plato describes the god drawing to himself the soul of the poet, and the soul of the poet drawing to himself the souls of his auditors…. Is it possible, where facts and men impress themselves so vividly upon an inflamed imagination, to keep the tone of narration? No, the author ends by believing them real;—he sees them alive, he speaks to them. Michelet’s emotions thus become his convictions; history unrolls before him like a vision, and his language rises to Apocalyptic.”
  4
  In his first design or vision of the ‘History of France,’ Michelet saw men and facts not chained to one another, and to past and future, by chains of logical sequence,—he saw them as episodes rising in each period to a culminating and dramatic point of interest; and however interrupted his work was, he pursued his original design. Hence his volumes bear the titles of episodes: ‘The Renaissance,’ ‘The Reformation,’ ‘Religious Wars,’ ‘The League and Henry IV.,’ ‘Henry IV. and Richelieu,’ ‘Richelieu and the Fronde,’ ‘Louis XIV.,’ ‘The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes,’ ‘Louis XV.,’ ‘Louis XV. and Louis XVI.,’ ‘The French Revolution.’ The Renaissance he incarnated in Michaelangelo, the Revolution in Danton. He in fact breathed a human soul into every epoch, period, and event that came under his pen: and “a soul,” he says, “weighs infinitely more than a kingdom or an empire; at times, more than the human race.” “He wrote as Delacroix painted,” Taine says: “risking the crudest coloring; seeking means of expression in the gutter mud itself; borrowing from the language of medicine, and the slang of the vulgar, details and terms which shock and frighten one.” His prolific suggestions swarm and multiply over the diseased tissue of a character, in the tainted spot of a heart, until, as in the description of the moral decadence of Louis XV., the imaginative reader shudders and stops reading; for suggestion has suggested what it is unbearable to think.  5
  It is to the perfect happiness of his marriage to a second wife—an incomparable companion—that we owe that series of books whose dithyrambic strains were poured out under the silvery light of a continuous honeymoon, as a biographer expresses it: ‘L’Oiseau,’ ‘L’Insecte,’ ‘L’Amour,’ ‘La Mer,’ to which later a fifth, ‘La Montagne,’ was added; and which Taine says adds him to the three great poets of France during the century,—de Musset, Lamartine, and Hugo: “for art and genius, his prose is worth their poetry.” The ‘Bible of Humanity’ and some volumes of collected essays complete the series of his published writings.  6
  In 1870 the Franco-Prussian war called out his ‘France before Europe,’ a passionate appeal to the common fraternity of all peoples. He was ardently engaged upon a history of the nineteenth century, his last return to his ‘History of France,’ when he died in 1874 of heart disease contracted during the Prussian invasion of his country. He lies buried in Père la Chaise, where in youth he used to wander among the dead he loved so well; who, responding to the passionate evocation of his imagination, resumed their being before his mental vision with such vivified reality, that in their turn they evoked from his heart the genius that was henceforth to be his life.  7
 
 
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