Grimm, Friedrich Melchior Von (1723–1807)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


GRIMM, FRIEDRICH MELCHIOR VON (17231807), German-born critic of French culture. Friedrich (later Frédéric) Melchior Grimm was born in Regensburg into a family of modest circumstances. While studying law, philosophy and literature in Leipzig, he wrote a tragedy, Banise. In Paris from 1748 on, he served as tutor or secretary to a succession of German aristocrats, allowing him entry into Parisian society as well as relations with dignitaries from many European courts. He quickly gained a solid reputation for his quick wit and fine taste (bon goût ). His friendship with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), albeit brief (the two became bitter enemies beginning in 1757), led to more long-lasting alliances with other French philosophers, such as Denis Diderot (17131784) and Voltaire (16941778). In 1753 the abbot Guillaume Raynal (17131796) charged Grimm with composing the Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, a handwritten newsletter about French literature and culture. It was copied by hirelings and sent to a limited, select body that included King Stanislaw II of Poland (17321798), Queen Louise Ulrica of Sweden (17201782), and Empress Catherine II of Russia (17291796). In this effort he was helped by Diderot, Mme Louise-Florence d'Epinay (17261783), and later the Swiss Jacques-Henri Meister (17441826), as they kept the European courts informed of artistic and social events in Paris. In the 1770s Grimm was named a baron of the Holy Roman Empire. He continued writing the unpublished, and therefore uncensored, missives twice monthly until 1793. The turbulent course of the French Revolution finally forced him to flee Paris and end his Correspondance, and he spent his final years as a Russian minister to Lower Saxony and finally a courtier at Gotha.

The Correspondance, which was first made public in 18121813 and published in reliable texts from 1877 to 1882, provides a uniquely privileged insight into aesthetic and historical events in late-eighteenth-century France. Grimm incarnated the elegant, witty, cosmopolitan ideals of thought and expression of the time; he was an elitist writing to an elite audience. His Correspondance had a varied content, consisting of several pages of criticism of current works, polemical defenses of the philosophers, and short, original works. A few of these had been previously published, although most had not, and while most authors submitted their work for inclusion in the Correspondance, not all authors were aware that Grimm used their material. Unlike his contemporaries, he did not include long extracts to fill his pages. By its tone and liberty of expression the Correspondance was distinguished from, and often opposed to, the print media (the journaux, such as the Mercure de France, L'année littéraire, and the Journal encyclopédique ). He was quite hostile to the eminent French critic Élie Fréron (17181776) and fanatics in general, but quick to praise Voltaire, whose words and deeds he often reported to his interested subscribers. Grimm championed the cause of classical theater but recognized the value of Diderot's more modern conception of drama. Rousseau's novel, La nouvelle Héloïse, occasioned a lively attack in 1761, as Grimm found it to be implausible and poorly structured, indicating an author "deprived of genius, imagination, judgment and taste." Able to offer a firsthand perspective on major cultural events, his originality lay perhaps even more in his personal taste, which he was able to freely and elegantly express to an eager and appreciative audience.

See also Diderot, Denis ; Philosophes ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Voltaire .


Monty, Jeanne R. La critique littéraire de Melchior Grimm. Geneva and Paris, 1961.

Pizer, John. "Friedrich-Melchior Grimm's Views on French Seventeenth Century Literature." Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature 11, no. 20 (1984): 167181.

Schwartz, Leon. "F. M. Grimm and the Eighteenth-Century Debate on Women." The French Review 58, no. 2 (1984): 236243.

Waldinger, Renée. "The Correspondance littéraire : A Document on French Cosmopolitanism in the Eighteenth Century." Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 304 (1992): 910913.

Allen G. Wood