Chateaubriand, François René de
CHATEAUBRIAND, FRANÇOIS RENÉ DE
French writer and politician; b. Saint-Malo, Sept. 4, 1768; d. Paris, July 4, 1848. His isolated tomb is on a tiny island off Saint-Malo, le Grand Bé. He was the last of an old Breton family—his eldest brother, who inherited the title of count of Chateaubriand, having died on the scaffold during the Revolution. One of his sisters, Lucile, a woman of fine but morbid sensitivity, wielded a strong influence on his poetic imagination. He grew up first at Saint-Malo, then at his father's château of Combourg, then in various Breton schools (Dol, 1778–80; Rennes, 1781–82; and Dinan, 1784–86). Destined first to a career as a seaman, for which he studied briefly and unsuccessfully at Brest (1783), he received in 1786 a lieutenancy in the regiments of Navarre and spent several years in garrisons (Cambrai, Dieppe). He passed his vacations with his sisters at Fougères, and led a dissipated existence in Paris among men of letters and philosophers such as Évariste Désiré de Parny, Ponce Écouchard Lebrun, Sébastien de Chamfort, and Pierre Ginguené. After watching the first bloody days of the Revolution he left for the U.S. on April 8, 1791.
His account of this journey, published in 1827 as Voyage en Amérique, has aroused well-founded doubts (especially concerning his intention of discovering a Polar Sea, his unlikely itinerary, and the account of a visit to George Washington) and critics have looked into accounts of various missionaries, naturalists, and historians for its sources. Whatever the case, after arriving in Baltimore on July 10, 1791, he left suddenly on December 10 and arrived at Le Havre on Jan. 2, 1792. He married Celeste Buisson de Lavigne at Saint-Malo on March 19, 1792, then, after a stay with old friends, men of letters at Paris, he joined a company of émigrés and finally went to England (May 17, 1793). He knew the miseries of emigration, in spite of meager resources augmented by his compatriot J. Peltier and by the French lessons he gave during 1795. He did not give up his literary ambitions, however, but worked on Les Natchez, translated English poetry (Milton's and Gray's), and published the Essai sur les Revolutions, his first book (1797).
Genesis of Génie du Christianisme. This essay on revolutions, edited by Deboffe at London, proposes an ingenious parallel between the revolutions of antiquity and the French Revolution. It reveals a troubled 30-year-old Chateaubriand torn between the irreligious skepticism of the 18th century and the need for faith. In confidential notes, scribbled a little later in the margins of this work, the author stresses more boldly his doubts and denials. In a new edition (1826), he inserted severe notations on his unbelieving youth, while emphasizing the religious torment that had then begun.
He soon recovered his faith, however, moved particularly by the death of his mother and of one of his sisters, Mme. de Farcy. Under the urging of his friend Louis de Fontanes, he began the preparation of an apology of Christianity. Whatever doubts have been raised about the account he gave of the genesis of this work, and of the circumstances of his conversion, he appeared, on his return to France (May 1800), as the most brilliant member of the group of social and religious reformers whose organ was the Mercure de France. His reputation grew further by his refutation of Mme. de Staël's De la Littérature, and by the publication (1801) of Atala, an episode of his Génie du Christianisme. Atala is an "American" nouvelle in the genre of the exotic tales so popular in the 18th century; its defense of the "noble savage," echoing the thought of rousseau, ends with an idyllic sketch of the primitive world. Christianity and its benefits, however, are represented in it by an old missionary, Father Aubry. A year later (April 1802), Atala appeared in its proper place in Génie du Christianisme.
This work is divided into four sections, Dogmes et Doctrines, Poétique du Christianisme, Beaux Arts et Litérature,
and Culte. The first part examines the mysteries and the Sacraments, the virtues and the moral law founded on the Decalogue; it affirms the superiority of the Mosaic tradition over all the other cosmogonies; finally, following many apologists of the 18th century, it searches among the wonders of nature for proofs of the existence of God. The second and third parts are given over to the poetry of Christianity and to the philosophical theories it evoked; the epics, the dramatic characters, the portrayal of the passions (and here one chapter is devoted to the "evil of the century" under the title Vague des passions ), the Christian feeling for nature ("The mythology of the Ancients," says Chateaubriand, "depreciates nature"), the music, especially of Gregorian chant, the architecture, particularly of the Gothic churches—all are called forth as witnesses. In addition, the thinking of Pascal, the eloquence of Bossuet, the "harmonies" of art and nature, which Chateaubriand understood as Bernardin de Saint-Pierre had understood them, all are pressed into service. The last part recalls the beauty of the liturgy, the song of the bells, the solemnities of the Church, Christian festivals; the spectacle of the tomb, sad but at the same time comforting; the role of the clergy and the work of the missions; the humanitarian generosities that manifest themselves in hospitals, schools, legislation, and civilization.
Two novels of love and sin, Atala and René, appear in this religious apologetic, to show the harmonies a religious soul may establish between the beauties of nature and the human heart, and the remedy Christianity proposes to the vague des passions. René is autobiographical in large part and concludes with a thought put into the mouth of a missionary priest (but surely Chateaubriand's own): "Solitude is bad for him who does not live with God."
Political Embroilments. The Génie du Christianisme corresponded with Bonaparte's views in that year of the Concordat (1802), and Chateaubriand was sent to Rome as secretary to the French ambassador. His discovery of Italy and the Roman countryside is recounted in Voyage en Italie (1826). On his return to Paris in 1804, he was preparing himself for a new diplomatic post as minister of France in the Valais, when he learned of the execution of the Duke of Enghien; he then resigned. Two years later he went to Greece, the Orient, Africa, and Spain. This trip provided him with the elements for a novel begun in 1802 or 1804, Les Martyrs de Dioclétien, which became the prose poem Les Martyrs (March 1809). In its picture of Roman decadence, Les Martyrs is partly Chateaubriand's own confession and partly an attack on Napoleon. But its general design, the clash between dying paganism and nascent Christianity, is an illustration of the thesis of the Génie du Christianisme.
Napoleon recognized the polemic intent that had been directed against him. To be sure, Chateaubriand admired the great man; but even though he admitted this, it pleased him to be defiant, to "feel his claws." He had served the political aims of the First Consul in his work toward social restoration; but the aristocratic connections of the author of the Martyrs turned him against the Emperor who had attacked the very life of the old France in the person of a prince of the blood, the Duke of Enghien, that is, the last of the line of Condé. And Napoleon, who had cherished the idea of turning to his own ends the genius of Chateaubriand, sensed in him the daily growth of a rebellious and rival force. Chateaubriand had clearly aimed at Napoleon, under the names of Neron and Sylla in an article in the Mercure (July 1807). Nevertheless the Emperor nominated him to the French Academy (1811), but the rebellious genius wanted to make his reception speech a new weapon against the Emperor, and therefore the talk was never given.
In 1811 the Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem recounted Chateaubriand's pilgrimage from April 23, 1806, to March 19, 1807, during which he became a knight of the Holy Sepulchre. Only 3 days out of 332 had been spent in Jerusalem, and such haste, the borrowings from numerous books, and the contradictions between the Itinéraire and the journal edited by Chateaubriand's servant, Julien, published in 1904, have cast doubt on the authenticity of Chateaubriand's work. But a Journal de Jérusalem by Chateaubriand, found and published in 1950, but probably contemporaneous with the journey, restores confidence in the account.
When the Empire fell, Chateaubriand zealously championed the restoration of the Bourbons with De Buonaparte et des Bourbons (1814) and Reflexions politiques (1814). With the return of Napoleon during the Hundred Days, he followed Louis XVIII to Ghent and acted as minister of state for political affairs. But when the King again ascended the throne, Chateaubriand judged himself to have been poorly rewarded for his services in spite of his elevation to the title of peer of France (Aug. 17, 1815). He fought against the ministry in De la Monarchie selon la Charte (1816), was active in the campaign of the ultraroyalists in Le Conservateur (1818–20), and shared their triumph following the assassination of the Duke of Berry (Feb. 13, 1820). He was in turn minister to Berlin (January–July 1821) and ambassador to London (January–September 1822), and he was sent to Congress of Verona and entered the ministry with a portfolio of foreign affairs (Dec. 28, 1822–June 6, 1824). He pushed for French intervention in Spain (1823) and had a part in its success. But the animosity of the head of the ministry, Joseph de Villèle, and of Louis XVIII, threw him into opposition. His implacable war against the government was sustained in the Journal des Débats. After the fall of Villèle (1827) he became ambassador of France to Rome (June 2, 1828) and tried to play a role in the conclave that elected Pope Pius VIII (1829). During the same period, he undertook the edition of his Oeuvres complètes (28 v., 1826–31), in which appeared a few new works: Les Aventures du dernier Abencérage (1826), a Spanish novella on the 16th century; Les Natchez (1826), both an exotic novel and a prose epic; and the Voyage en Amérique (1827).
The politics of Charles X and the formation of the Polignac ministry caused Chateaubriand to resign his ambassadorship (Aug. 30, 1829). He reaffirmed, however, his loyalty to the King, who had fled from France in the revolution of July 1830, and his opposition to the new regime of Louis Philippe, against whom he entered the service of the monarchy exiled in Prague, and the Duchess of Berry, daughter-in-law of Charles X. Chateaubriand was on trial twice in 1832; the first time charges were dismissed and the second time he was acquitted.
His last works are Études historiques (1831), a large, though incomplete and uneven fresco, in which he describes the advent of the modern world and in which his philosophy of history, always faithful to a Christian perspective, and aware of the action of Providence, shows his faith in human progress; the Essai sur la littérature anglaise (1836), in which he sums up his opinion of a literature that profoundly influenced him; Le Congrès de Vérone (1838), an apology of his political activity from 1822 to 1823; and the Vie de Rancé (1844), a biography of the great Trappist reformer Armand rancÉ.
Mémoires d'Outre-tombe. Above all he devoted the rest of his life to altering a great work, the Mémoires d'Outre-tombe (begun 1803, published posthumously). These Mémoires passed through various stages in the course of 45 years. From 1833 an initiated public heard it read in Mme. Récamier's salon at the Abbaye-auxbois. Chateaubriand wanted it to be the poem of his life and his time; he made it above all the poem of his friendships, of his loves (Mme. de Beaumont, Mme. de Custine, Mme. de Noailles, Hortense Allart, and especially Mme. Récamier), and of his hates (Fouché, Talleyrand, Decazes, Thiers, and others). Published in series form in La Presse (Oct. 21, 1848–July 5, 1850), and collected in 12 volumes from January 1849 to October 1850, these Mémoires are his most lively work, the one that contributed most powerfully to perpetuate his influence on French poetic expression, imagination, and sensitivity from Flaubert and Renan to Maurice Barrès and Marcel Proust. This influence survived French Romanticism, of which, more than any other work, it had revived themes and style, enriched horizons, and shaped thought in several general areas—religious, poetic, and aesthetic.
Bibliography: Oeuvres complètes, 14 v. (Paris 1864–73); Les Martyrs de Dioclétien, ed. b. d'andlau (Paris 1951); Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, ed. e. malakis, 2 v. (Baltimore 1946); Journal de Jérusalem, ed. g. moulinier and a. outrey (Paris 1950); Les Aventures du dernier Abencérage, ed. p. hazard and m. j. durry (Paris 1926); Les Natchez, ed. g. chinard (Baltimore 1932); Mémoires d'outre-tombe, ed. m. levaillant, 4 v. (Paris 1948). Various editions of correspondence, notably the Lettres de Chateaubriand à Madame Récamier, ed. e. beau de lomÉnie (Paris 1929). c. a. sainte-beuve, Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire sous l'Empire, 2 v. (Paris 1861). a. cassagne, La Vie politique de François de Chateaubriand (Paris 1911). g. chinard, L'Exotisme américain dans l'oeuvre de Chateaubriand (Paris 1918). v. giraud, Le Christianisme de Chateaubriand, 2 v. (Paris 1928). m. j. durry, La Vieillesse de Chateaubriand, 1830–1848, 2 v. (Paris 1933). p. moreau, La Conversion de Chateaubriand (Paris 1933); Chateaubriand: L'Homme et l'oeuvre (Paris 1956). m. levaillant, Chateaubriand: Prince des songes (Paris 1960). p. christophorov, Sur les Pas de Chateaubriand en exil (Paris 1961).