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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Ferdinand Brunetière (1849–1906)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Adolphe Cohn (1851–1930)
 
FERDINAND BRUNETIÈRE, the celebrated French literary critic, was born in Toulon, the great military Mediterranean sea-port of France, in the year 1849. His studies were begun in the college of his native city and continued in Paris, in the Lycée Louis le Grand, where in the class of philosophy he came under Professor Émile Charles, by whose original and profound though decidedly sad way of thinking he was powerfully influenced. His own ambition then was to become a teacher in the University of France, an ambition which seemed unlikely to be ever realized, as he failed to secure admission to the celebrated École Normale Supérieure, in the competitive examination which leads up to that school. Strangely enough, about fifteen years later he was, though not in possession of any very high University degree, appointed to the Professorship of French Literature in the school which he had been unable to enter as a scholar, and his appointment received the hearty indorsement of all the leading educational authorities in France.  1
  For several years after leaving the Lycée Louis le Grand, while completing his literary outfit by wonderfully extensive reading, Ferdinand Brunetière lived on stray orders for work for publishers. He seldom succeeded in getting these, and when he got any they were seldom filled. Thus he happened to be commissioned by the firm of Germer, Baillière and Company to write a history of Russia, which never was and to all appearances never will be written. The event which determined the direction of his career was the acceptance by the Revue des Deux Mondes, in 1875, of an article upon contemporary French novelists. François Buloz, the energetic and imperious founder and editor of the world-famed French bi-monthly, felt that he had found in the young critic the man whom French literary circles had been waiting for, and who was to be Sainte-Beuve’s successor; and François Buloz was a man who seldom made mistakes.  2
  French literary criticism was just then at a very low ebb. Sainte-Beuve had been dead about five years; his own contemporaries, Edmond Schérer for instance, were getting old and discouraged; the new generation seemed to be turning unanimously, in consequence of the disasters of the Franco-German war and of the Revolution of September, 1870, to military or political activity. The only form of literature which had power to attract young writers was the novel, which they could fill with the description of all the passions then agitating the public mind. That a man of real intellectual strength should then give his undivided attention to pure literature seemed a most unlikely phenomenon; but all had to acknowledge that the unlikely had happened, soon after Ferdinand Brunetière had become the regular literary critic of the Revue des Deux Mondes.  3
  Fortunately the new critic did not undertake to walk in the footsteps of Sainte-Beuve. In the art of presenting to the reader the marrow of a writer’s work, of making the writer himself known by the description of his surroundings, the narrative of his life, the study of the forces by which he was influenced, the illustrious author of the ‘Causeries du Lundi’ remains to this day without a rival or a continuator. Ferdinand Brunetière had a different conception of the duties of a literary critic. The one fault with which thoughtful readers were apt to charge Sainte-Beuve was, that he failed to pass judgment upon the works and writers; and this failure was often, and not altogether unjustly, ascribed to a certain weakness in his grasp of principles, a certain faint-heartedness whenever it became necessary to take sides. Any one who studies Brunetière can easily see that from the start his chief concern was to make it impossible for any one to charge him with the same fault. He came in with a set of principles which he has since upheld with remarkable steadfastness and courage. In an age when nearly every one was turning to the future and advocating the doctrine and the necessity of progress, when the chief fear of most men was that they should appear too much afraid of change, Brunetière proclaimed time and again that there was no safety for any nation or set of men except in a staunch adherence to tradition. He bade his readers turn their minds away from the current literature of the day, and take hold of the exemplars of excellence handed down to us by the great men of the past. Together with tradition he upheld authority, and therefore preferred to all others the period in which French literature and society had most willingly submitted to authority, that is, the seventeenth century and the reign of Louis XIV. When compelled to speak of the literature of the day, he did it in no uncertain tones. His book ‘The Naturalistic Novel’ consists of a series of articles in which he studies Zola and his school, upholding the old doctrine that there are things in life which must be kept out of the domain of art and cannot be therein introduced without lowering the ideal of man. Between the naturalistic and the idealistic novel he unhesitatingly declares for the latter, and places George Sand far above the author of ‘L’Assommoir.’  4
  But the great success of his labors cannot be said to have been due solely or even mainly to the principles he advocated. Other critics have appeared since—Messrs. Jules Lemaître and Anatole France, for instance,—who antagonize almost everything that he defends and defend almost everything that he antagonizes, and whose success has hardly been inferior to his. Neither is it due to any charm in his style. Brunetière’s sentences are compact,—indeed, strongly knit together,—but decidedly heavy and at times even clumsy. What he has to say he always says strongly, but not gracefully. He has a remarkable appreciation of the value of the words of the French language, but his arrangement of them is seldom free from mannerisms. What, then, has made him the foremost literary critic of the present day? The answer is, knowledge and sincerity. No writer of the present day, save perhaps Anatole France, is so accurately informed of every fact that bears upon literary history. Every argument he brings forward is supported by an array of incontrovertible facts that is simply appalling. No one can argue with him who does not first subject himself to the severest kind of training, go through a mass of tedious reading, become familiar with dates to the point of handling them as nimbly as a bank clerk handles the figures of a check list. And all this comes forward in Brunetière’s articles in the most natural, we had almost said casual way. The fact takes its place unheralded in the reasoning. It is there because it has to be there, not because the writer wishes to make a display of his wonderful knowledge; and thus it happens that Ferdinand Brunetière’s literary articles are perhaps the most instructive ones ever written in the French language. They are moreover admirably trustworthy. It would never come to this author’s mind to hide a fact that goes against any of his theories. He feels so sure of being in the right that he is always willing to give his opponents all that they can possibly claim.  5
  Of late years, moreover, it must be acknowledged that Brunetière’s mind has given signs of remarkable broadening. Under the influence of the doctrine of evolution, he has undertaken to class all literary facts as the great naturalists of the day have classed the facts of physiology, and to show that literary forms spring from each other by way of transformation in the same way as do the forms of animal or vegetable life. Already three works have been produced by him since he entered upon this new line of development: a history of literary criticism in France, which forms the first and hitherto only published volume of a large work, ‘The Evolution of Literary Forms’; a work on the French drama, ‘The Periods of the French Theatre’; and a treatise on modern French poetry, ‘The Evolution of French Lyric Poetry during the Nineteenth Century.’ The second and last of these were first delivered by their author from the professor’s chair or the lecturer’s platform, where he has managed to display some of the greatest gifts of the public speaker.  6
  Most of Brunetière’s literary articles have been collected in book form under the following titles:—‘Questions of Criticism’ (2 vols.), ‘History and Criticism’ (3 vols.), ‘Critical Studies on the History of French Literature’ (7 vols.), ‘The Naturalistic Novel’ (1 vol.).  7
  At various times remarkable addresses have been delivered by him on public occasions in which he has often represented the French Academy from the time of his election to that illustrious body until his death. He also made excursions outside of the field of pure literature, in which he was an acknowledged master, to give expression to his views on public questions, especially when these questions involved one’s attitude towards the Catholic Church, to which he was becoming more and more friendly. Thus he thrust himself into the thick of the fight connected with the famous Dreyfus case, taking a leading position among the opponents of the convicted captain. The speeches gathered by him in his two volumes of ‘Speeches of a Fighter’ all belong to this side of his later activities.  8
  In 1895 he was called to the editorship of the Revue des Deux Mondes, which he still occupied at the time of his death. The arduous labors connected with this responsible position, together with his public activities, resulted in somewhat lessening his productiveness in the purely literary domain, a fact greatly to be regretted, as it resulted in his leaving unfinished, or rather hardly entered upon, his most ambitious effort, an exhaustive history of French Literature from the period of the Renaissance to our own times. Of this work, which he called a ‘History of French Classical Literature,’ he published only the first volume and part of the second. Since his death an attempt has been made to complete the work by the help of the copious notes amassed by him and the work has been conducted in this manner to the close of the eighteenth century which completes the third volume. The project seems not to have been given up, as no continuation has been issued since the year 1912.  9
  Other works published by him in the last years of his life are two volumes on Victor Hugo, consisting mainly of lectures prepared under his supervision by his students in the École Normale Supérieure and revised by him and a volume on Balzac.  10
 
 
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