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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Alfred Rambaud (1842–1905)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
ALFRED NICOLAS RAMBAUD to a generation of men upon whom an extraordinary crisis in the history of their nation had imposed unique duties, and who bravely strove to fulfill them. The general trend of his intellect toward the study of history, from a historical rather than a scholastic point of view, had already manifested itself before 1870; his best work, however, was done in the interest of his country, during that phase of French evolution when, by noble and courageous efforts in all directions, the race once more proved its vitality, and a new feeling of confidence gradually superseded the memory of recent defeat.  1
  Born in 1842 at Besançon, Rambaud spent his childhood and early youth amidst the picturesque surroundings of that small and ancient city, which is full of historical interests. His inquiring and thoughtful turn of mind made him particularly apt to receive and store up impressions from without; some of his earliest reminiscences, supplemented by a ready imagination, are contained in his short story ‘La Chevauchée nocturne,’ which appeared in the Revue bleue in 1885. After a promising school career, at Besançon and at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, he completed his studies at Paris and became lecturer in history at Nancy, Bourges, and Colmar, in quick succession. At Nancy, still very young, he was married.  2
  Teaching, however, did not exhaust his mental activity. His interest became more and more centered on original studies in history. It is curious to note that this young beginner did not lack the courage to attack a subject which was as difficult as it was new, the history of Byzantium. A careful study of Greek and Slavonic, as well as a conscientious perusal of the documents at his command, had preceded the publication of his ‘Empire grec au Dixième Siècle’ (1869). In this work the young author, who had by that time become both teacher and student at the École des Hautes-Études in Paris, gave a first proof of the solidity of his groundwork and of the broad philosophy in the light of which he viewed historical events. A particularly striking word-picture illustrates the dramatic encounter between barbarism and civilization when, in the year 924, the victorious Bulgarian monarch Simeon confronted Emperor Lecapenus at Constantinople.
          “Fourteen centuries of empire since Augustus, seven centuries of Christian monarchy since Constantine, the entire Orient, the peoples from the North, the Bulgars, themselves initiated to Christianity by the Greeks, the very name of Byzantium the synonym of an entire civilization and a whole religious order—all this, joined to the spectacle of those immovable walls, covered with an immense mass of warriors and engines of destruction, was doubtless working on the imagination of the barbarian king while the Greek emperor was speaking to him.”
  3
  The success of this work, which very soon made the subject of Byzantium popular in all branches of literature and even on the stage, might perhaps have induced our writer to pursue his theme still farther; but the year 1870, with its political events, led his thoughts into fresh channels. Called to the University of Caen in 1871, he wrote there two volumes on ‘French Domination in Germany,’ partly to show the influence of the French Revolution on Germany’s development, partly to refute accusations of cruelty made against France by some German historians.  4
  From the more evident questions of the day his mind soon made a new advance; his vision was attracted by the great Slav world which seemed, in more ways than one, to be closely connected with his first field of study. As he says himself: “The state in which the Oriental world found itself in the tenth century showed already the principal outlines of Eastern Europe in our days.” True to his scholarly habits, he first proceeded to study both language and people, partly with the help of books, partly through actual contact during several visits to Russia. So lively were the impressions received on such occasions that he could not refrain from issuing numerous short articles, containing descriptions of towns, translations of popular songs, personal experiences, and so on. In 1874 appeared his first connected publication on the subject, a volume entitled ‘Français et Russes; Moscou et Sevastopol.’ This book brought him the congratulations of the Russian heir to the throne and future Czar, Alexander III., who gave him the tribute of having “helped towards bringing about a closer union between the two nations.” Thus Rambaud was one of the first to foreshadow a policy that has come to a climax in our days. His ‘History of Russia’ (1878) is a masterpiece of dramatic exposition, and has passed through several editions; there is an English translation by Leonora B. Lang. This and the translations and critical extracts from Russian heroic songs, published under the title ‘La Russie épique’ (1876), testify to the universal interest which the author took in matters Russian.  5
  While his hours of leisure had been thus occupied, Rambaud had in the meantime obtained a professorship at Nancy, and had gradually spread his activities into the field of politics by contributing to journals such as the Progrès de l’Est. Being doubly linked to the Eastern provinces of France, by his own family traditions and those of his wife, as well as by the number of years he had successfully spent in that region, he must have been among those who felt the loss of Alsace-Lorraine most keenly. But far from losing his dignity in bitter attacks or useless regrets, he soon found a nobler way in which to prove his zeal for the greatness of France. In 1879, Jules Ferry, who had just then become Minister of Public Instruction, asked him to be his private secretary. For nearly three years Rambaud worked at the side of this statesman, whose chief political aim was the colonial expansion of France. The moment was a decisive one in the history of colonization. The last available parts of the globe hitherto without owners were now in course of being appropriated by various European nations. France, still smarting from the wounds so recently received, had to make a supreme effort in order to protect her interests and those of generations yet unborn. Few were able, at this critical hour, to embrace the policy of momentary sacrifice for the sake of benefits that could be foreseen only vaguely in a far-off future. When the country became involved in two unsuccessful expeditions, in Northern Africa and in Tonkin, Jules Ferry had to bear the brunt of public dissatisfaction and indignation. Rambaud himself never ceased to approve and share the ideals of the unfortunate minister, and in 1903, ten years after the latter’s death, he paid tribute to the brilliant qualities and fearless energy of his leader in a volume which he wrote on Jules Ferry’s life.  6
  In 1885 he had published a work on ‘La France coloniale,’ with the help of experts on matters of geography and commerce. At the same time his enthusiasm had urged him to write numerous articles in the Revue bleue, relating examples of extraordinary exploits or of individual prowess during the expeditions in the newly acquired territories; these were calculated to make their object more popular with the nation.  7
  One of the problems of successful colonization which seemed to attract Rambaud more particularly was that of the education of the natives; in 1881 he went to Kabylia, charged with the mission of organizing the establishment of French schools. He himself also felt the necessity of studying the native language, judging that a mutual understanding could be reached most rapidly and effectively by an approach from both sides. Algeria seemed to have fascinated Rambaud. As late as 1892, he went there for a third time, and undertook an expedition of more than one thousand kilometers through the Algerian part of the Sahara.  8
  About this same period, he first conceived the idea, and worked out the plan, of his greatest work, the ‘General History from the Fourth Century to Our Days.’ This consists of twelve volumes published between the years 1893 and 1904, and covering the whole ground of the World’s history, including also such wider fields as literature and art. The list of collaborators contains names of men each famous in his own special sphere: Émile Faguet, Petit de Julleville, Romain Rolland, and others. Rambaud had reserved to his own pen the chapters on Asia, Oriental Europe, Russia, and the French Colonial Empire. He and Ernest Lavisse shared between them the considerable task of editing the whole work.  9
  Some facts of his life have still to be noted. In 1881 he was called to the Sorbonne as Professor of Contemporary History; in this capacity, he wrote a ‘History of the French Revolution’ (1883), and a ‘History of Contemporary Civilization in France’ (1888). In 1895 he was elected Senator for the Département du Doubs; a year later, he became Minister of Public Instruction, Public Worship, and Fine Arts. He re-organized the system of high schools and helped to promote provincial universities; another cause for which he worked with great intrepidity and frankness, namely the fight against alcoholism, made him some very bitter enemies. In 1902, he had the misfortune of losing his senatorial seat, chiefly owing to the fact that his health broke down before the end of the election campaign.  10
  The last three years of his life were spent in unbroken activity, though marked by repeated illness and much suffering. Besides the book on Ferry already mentioned, he wrote, amongst other things, a historical novel, ‘L’Empereur de Carthage,’ which led his imagination back to the field of his earliest researches; and a number of valuable articles in the Journal des Savants.  11
  Uniting within himself the gift of the pen with the qualities of an eminent historian, Rambaud was remarkable also in private life as a man of high culture, generous feeling, and sound judgment. The ordeals of a political career had not impaired his character. When dignity and power came to him, he remained as he had been before, simple, modest, impartial; when they left him, he quietly resumed his former life of work and study. His death took place in Paris on November 10th, 1905.  12
 
 
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