Chateaubriand, François-René

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CHATEAUBRIAND, FRANÇOIS-RENÉ (1768–1848), French statesman and writer

Soldier, diplomat, statesman, one of the foremost authors of nineteenth-century French literature, initiator of the nineteenth-century genre of travel literature to the Middle East, memorializer and translator of Milton's Paradise Lost, François-René Chateaubriand was intimately associated with an age of great upheaval and transformation and may be considered as representative of the currents of thoughts and sentiments of his time. The incidents of his life are all interwoven with politics and the tremendous changes brought about by the French Revolution and the First Empire. His statement reflects accurately his own plight and that of his generation: "I found myself between two centuries like at the meeting of two rivers; I dived in their troubled waters getting away with regrets from the old shore on which I was born and swimming with hope toward the unknown shore where the new generations were landing." ("Preface testamentaire," Mémoires d'outre-tombe, p. 1–6).

Chateaubriand was born in Saint-Malo on 4 September 1768, the youngest son of René Auguste de Chateaubriand, Count of Combourg, Brittany, and Pauline Suzanne de Bédée. He studied in the boarding school of Dol, later in the College of Dinars before returning to the family home. Before his father's death on 6 September 1786, René received a commission of Second Lieutenant in the Regiment of Navarre in Cambrai, in Northern France. During this period he spent time in Paris, witnessing the fall of the Bastille and the subsequent unrest as well as the formation of the National Assembly in Paris. He foresaw the fall of the monarchy. He supported some republican ideas, but disliked the mob violence. In January 1791 he prepared his departure for the United States. Chateaubriand left Saint-Malo on 8 April 1791 on the Saint Pierre, a ship chartered by the Saint-Sulpice Order to transport French seminarians to Baltimore, Maryland. The ship reached Baltimore on 19 July 1791.

Chateaubriand left immediately for Philadelphia, eager to meet President George Washington (1732–1799). He was impressed by Washington's simplicity and courtesy. Chateaubriand called the president "a citizen soldier, liberator of a world" (Mémoire d'outre-tombe, p.280). From Philadelphia, Chateaubriand visited New York; Boston; Lexington, Massachusetts; Albany; and Niagara Falls. He claimed to have visited the Carolinas and Florida and to have followed the Mississippi as far as the Natchez country. The most important element of his journey was that he collected material for Atala (1801) and Les Natchez (1826).

After the arrest of King Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792) in his attempt to escape France, Chateaubriand decided to return to France in January 1792. Upon his return, he married his sister's friend, Céleste Buisson de la Vigne (1774–1847), joined the Émigrés' Army of the Princes, composed mainly of nobles, and participated in the brief campaign against the French revolutionary army. At the siege of Thionville he was wounded and contracted smallpox. Discharged from the Émigrés' Army, he crossed Belgium on foot, finally reaching the port of Ostende, where he was put aboard a ship. He arrived in Jersey Island, where his uncle's family nursed him back to health. Then he left for London. He joined the emigrant colony, surviving by doing translations and teaching French, and published his first work: Essai historique, politique et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes, considérées dans leurs rapports avec la révolution française (Historical, Political, and Moral Essay on Revolutions, Ancient and Modern) in March 1797, began working on a translation of John Milton's (1608–1674) Paradise Lost, and finished Les Natchez and Atala.

Chateaubriand returned to France on 6 May 1801. Le génie du Christianisme (The Genius of Christianity) was published in 1802. Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15) saw the potential of Chateaubriand's book about Christianity as a tool for reconciling his government to Rome and for encourging the acceptance by the French people of the Concordat between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII (r. 1800–1823) on 8 April 1801. When Napoleon appointed Chateaubriand's uncle, Cardinal Fesch, ambassador in Rome, Chateaubriand became secretary of the embassy. However, he was not happy in this position and his rapport with the ambassador was tense. He wished also to return to Paris. Napoleon assuaged him by naming him consul to the Canton of Valais in Switzerland but Chateaubriand never assumed his new position. Horrified by the execution of the Duc d'Enghien (Louis-Antoine-Henri Condé, 1772–1804), the last of the Bourbon-Condé royal princes, on 21 March 1804, he resigned the next day and never served in Napoleon's regime again.

On the advice of his wife, Chateaubriand prepared his voyage to the Middle East. On 13 July 1806 he left Paris. The account of the voyage was published as L'Itinéraire de Paris a' Jérusalem (1811; Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem), which became the nineteenth-century model for nearly all the French travelers to the region.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1815 Chateaubriand served Louis XVIII (r. 1814–1815, 1815–1824) as ambassador to Berlin (1821–1822) and as ambassador to Great Britain (1822), and then became a member of the French delegation to the Congress of Verona held in October 1822. Composed of delegates from Russia, Prussia, France, Austria, and Great Britain, the congress was concerned about the Spanish situation. Chateaubriand played an important role in deciding in favor of a French military intervention. The congress authorized France to send troops. In 1824 Ferdinand VII (r. 1808, 1814–1833) was restored to the throne of Spain until his death.

Chateaubriand was named minister of foreign affairs in January 1823; in spite of the success of the Spanish expedition he was dismissed in 1824. In 1827 the journal of his early travels in the New World was published under the title Voyage en Amérique (Travels in America). In 1828 King Charles X (r. 1824–1830) appointed him ambassador to Rome, where after the death of Leo XII (r. 1760–1829), he began activities to promote the election of a pope favorable to French interests. Indeed, the new pope, Pius VIII (r. 1829–1830), was inclined toward France. In 1829, upon Chateaubriand's return to France, he expected to receive another cabinet position, but when Auguste-Jules-Armand-Marie Polignac (1780–1847), an antiliberal, became prime minister, Chateaubriand resigned his ambassadorship; after the abdication of Charles X in July 1830, he refused to swear allegiance to Louis-Philippe (r. 1830–1848) and resigned from the house of peers. He continued to work on his memoirs from 1833 to 1841. In 1836 he published his Essai sur la littérature anglaise (Essay on English literature) and a French translation of Paradise Lost. In 1844 he published, supposedly as a penance imposed by his confessor , La Vie de Rancé (Life of Rancé), a meditative biography of Armand-Jean Rancé (1626–1700) the founder of the Trappist Order. Chateaubriand had sold the rights to his memoirs to a corporation in exchange for a yearly pension, but in 1844 Émile de Girardin (1806–1881), director of the leading Parisian newspaper La Presse, bought the rights to publish the memoirs in his paper before their publication as a book.

Chateaubriand decided to rewrite certain portions of his memoirs, which he felt were too sensitive for publication in a newspaper serial; in 1847 his memoirs were published. His wife, Céleste, died on 22 February 1847. On 4 July 1848, Chateaubriand died in his apartment on the rue du Bac in Paris, having witnessed the overthrow of Louis-Philippe and the birth of the Second Republic. He is buried on a small island, the Grand Bé, in the bay of Saint-Malo.

In his memoirs Chateaubriand described himself as "a traveler, soldier, poet, publicist, it is among forests that I have sung the forest, aboard ships that I have depicted the sea, in camp that I have spoken of arms, in exile that I have learnt to know exile, in courts, in affairs of the state, in Parliament that I have studied princes, politics, law, and history." (Preface testamentaire, Mémoires d'outre-tombe, p. 4).

As a writer, Chateaubriand was the paramount example of the French Romantic school, the "great Sachem of Romanticism" as Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) put it. His novellas Atala and René embody the ethos and pathos of Romantic emphasis on the self, the emotions, and rapport with nature.

As a traveller, Chateaubriand was one of the foremost interpreters of America to the European public, as well as a forerunner of nineteenth-century Orientalism and the vogue of travel to the Middle East. His Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem awakened new ideas about the Middle East.

As a statesman and a man of letters, Chateaubriand best exemplified the committed writer actively engaged in politics. His pamphlet De Buonaparte et des Bourbons et de la nécessité de se rallier à nos Princes légitimes pour le bonheur de la France et celui de l'Europe (1814; Of Bonaparte, the Bourbons and the necessity of rallying round our legitimate princes for the happiness of France and of Europe) was "worth a hundred thousand men" in the words of Louis XVIII. Chateaubriand's De la monarchie selon la charte (1816; Monarchy according to the Charter) analyzes the nature of representative government and attempts to reconcile the Bourbon dynasty with constitutional government and the nation with the old dynasty. As a statesman and a writer, Chateaubriand saw his main task as effecting reconciliation between the past and the future, between monarchy and democracy, between France and the Bourbons. For him, the constitutional monarchy was the ideal form of government; his political creed was "King, Religion, Liberty." He felt strongly that opposition to governmental policies restricting freedom was not only legitimate but also necessary to a viable constitutional monarchy. In the house of peers, he denounced with eloquence the censorship of the press, believing the periodical press to be an immense force that cannot be stifled by violence and censorship.

It cannot be denied that there appears a certain incoherence in Chateaubriand's political attitude during the Restoration. Personal likes and dislikes had much to do with his conduct; nevertheless, he always strove in his public position for the greatness of France and its glory, even when doing so resulted in personal and financial losses. In his later years' writings, he announced the prevalence of democracy, the constant strife of the individual against the power of the state, foreseeing that progress is also crisis, that history is never finished. Chateaubriand merits his place as a major innovative writer and thinker in nineteenth-century French literature and history.

See alsoFrance; Napoleon; Romanticism.


Primary Sources

Chateaubriand, François-René. Atala/René. Translated by Irvin Putter. Berkeley, Calif., 1952. Has an excellent introduction, a very readable text, and notes clarifying the text, but no bibliography.

——. Chateaubriand's Travels in America. Translated by Richard Switzer. Lexington, Ky., 1969. Introduction deals with the actual travel and the publication of the voyage in 1826.

——. Genius of Christianity. Translated by Charles I. White. Albuquerque, N.M., 1985.

——. Memoirs of Chateaubriand. Selected and translated by Robert Baldick. New York, 1961. An abridged version of Chateaubriand's masterpiece, Mémoires d'outretombe; the translation is of good quality and this book is an excellent starting point for a student.

Secondary Sources

Dubé, Pierre, and Ann Dubé. Bibliographie de la critique sur François-René de Chateaubriand. Paris, 1988. A bibliography of 5,000 entries dealing with Chateaubriand and his family, his correspondence, the literature and culture of his time, theses, and critical books and articles.

Evans, Joan. Chateaubriand: A Biography. 1939.

Lynes, Jr., Carlos. Chateaubriand as a Critic of French Literature. New York, 1973. A scholarly study of Chateaubriand's affinity for Classicism in French literature. Faithful to the age of Louis XIV.

Maurois, André. Chateaubriand, Poet, Statesman, Lover. Translated by Vera Fraser. New York and London, 1938. An enjoyable general biography by one of the best-known French biographers detailing Chateaubriand's achievement in literature, politics, and love.

Painter, George D. Chateaubriand: A Biography. Vol. 1: The Longed-for Tempests. New York, 1978. An outstanding work that presents Chateaubriand in his daily life, describing his private personality and lived experiences in detail.

Porter, Charles A. Chateaubriand: Composition, Imagination, and Poetry. Saratoga, Calif., 1978. Study of Chateaubriand's style, focusing on stylistic traits of contrast and parallelism with emphasis placed on images.

Sieburg, Friedrich. Chateaubriand. Translated by Violet M. MacDonald. New York, 1962. A lucid analysis of the politics of the Restoration; Chateaubriand's political career discussed with balance and keen judgment.

Switzer, Richard. Chateaubriand. New York, 1971. A very readable work presenting all aspects of Chateaubriand's life and works with a focus on Chateaubriand's America.

Switzer, Richard, ed. Chateaubriand Today. Madison, Wisc., 1970. A collection of essays in French and English by various critics on the many aspects of Chateaubriand's life and writings.

Frans C. Amelinckx

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