Alphonse Daudet began his career—as did most aspiring writers in nineteenth century France—with a small volume of poems; then he turned to writing short essays and stories (called chroniques) for newspapers as a means of livelihood. He also tried his hand at writing for the theater in those early years, sometimes in collaboration, sometimes alone. He felt his true vocation, however, was in the novel, and he began his career as a novelist with a fictionalized account of his own youth, written when he was twenty-eight years old. Thereafter he published some fifteen novels, one every other year on the average until his death. Until he was forty, some of his time was occupied by journalism, consisting of chroniques, short stories, and drama criticism, most of it collected in volumes during his lifetime. He wrote half a dozen full-length plays during his mature years, without ever really achieving a great public success. After his death, the interesting diary of his fatal illness was published, as were some fragmentary personal reminiscences, but he never wrote a formal autobiography.
Although Alphonse Daudet was one of the most popular writers of his era, the bulk of his literary work has fallen into obscurity. Some of his works, such as Lettres de mon moulin, Adventures prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon (1872; The New Don Quixote, 1875), and, to a lesser degree, Le Petit Chose (1868; The Little Good-for-Nothing, 1878) and Contes du lundi have been reprinted, adapted to film, and anthologized; stories such as “La Chèvre de M. Seguin” (“M. Seguin’s Goat”) have joined the corpus of household tales, and his musical drama L’Arlésienne (1872; the lady from Arles), with its accompaniment by Georges Bizet, is still performed. His present-day reputation as a storyteller, however, overshadows his nineteenth century acclaim as a novelist, just as a focus on his Provençal writings has obscured the cosmopolitan nature of his works. The diversity of genre and subjects, indeed, makes Daudet unclassifiable as a writer. His works combine elements of Romanticism, realism, and naturalism, but they evade any attempts to link him definitively with any one major movement of his time. Widely translated and read in the English-speaking world of the later nineteenth century as well as in the French, he was saluted as the “French Dickens.” His work, apart from its intrinsic literary value, reveals an ongoing awareness of the controversies and concerns of his time and thus serves as an invaluable document of the life and concerns of the nineteenth century. Although Daudet’s novel Fromont jeune et Risler aîné (1874; Fromont the Younger and Risler the Elder, 1880) was crowned by the French Academy, Daudet never submitted his name for membership in this prestigious body, seeing it as a threat to his independence. As the initial executor of the will of his friend Edmond de Goncourt, he had a hand in the establishment of the famed Goncourt Academy. His true “award” came, however, from the Parisian crowds that turned out to salute his memory as his casket was borne to the cemetery.
Alphonse Daudet (doh-DEH) was one of the most prolific authors of his generation, publishing works in several genres. His first effort was a volume of poems, Les Amoureuses (1858, 1873). Throughout his career, Daudet wrote for the theater; his best-known play is L’Arlésienne (1872; The Woman from Arles, 1930), for which Georges Bizet composed the incidental music. Other plays include La Dernière Idole (pr., pb. 1862, with Ernest L’Épine), L’Oeillet blanc (pr. 1865, with Ernest Manuell; The Last Lily, 1870), Lise Tavernier (pr. 1872; English translation, 1890), and stage adaptations of his most successful novels. Before turning to the novel, Daudet composed many short stories, sketches, and vignettes, which eventually were collected in volume form, the two most famous being Lettres de mon moulin (1869; Letters from My Mill, 1880) and Contes du lundi (1873, 1876; Monday Tales, 1927). In addition, he contributed many critical pieces, translations, and topical commentary to newspapers and journals.
The variety and breadth of Alphonse Daudet’s literary production have traditionally made it difficult to provide any single, lasting critical evaluation of his works. During his lifetime, Daudet’s reputation rested especially on his novels and on his association with the French realists. His personality, particularly his talent as a conversationalist, seems also to have played a role in establishing his popularity among contemporaries. At the height of his career, Daudet overshadowed his friends Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola, whose works posterity has judged more favorably.
Daudet’s fame became international as his works were translated, attracting the attention and praise of such figures as Joseph Conrad and Henry James. Conrad, writing upon Daudet’s death, expressed an ambivalence found in many critics. He suggested that the French author’s weaknesses stemmed from his strengths: Daudet’s tendency toward melodramatic pathos and need to “dot his i’s” resulted from a sincere empathy with his characters, and his limited vision, which took in only surface things, was nevertheless accurate in its observations. Conrad admired Daudet not as a great artist but for having accurately reflected humankind’s destiny. The fate of Daudet’s characters, Conrad suggested, is poignant, intensely interesting, and without consequence.
Like Conrad’s, the praise of James, an admired and admiring personal friend of Daudet, is not...
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Daudet, Alphonse. In the Land of Pain. Edited and translated by Julian Barnes. New York: Knopf, 2003. Daudet's mind kept thinking and reflecting when his body was breaking down because of tertiary syphilis, and his noted thoughts about the banal as well as the transformative aspects of pain, suffering, and attempts at treatment, were eventually published by his son as La Doulou (pain). In the Land of Pain includes a biographical introduction and extensive notes by Barnes.
Daudet, Léon. Alphonse Daudet. Translated by Charles De Kay. Boston: Little, Brown, 1901. A biography by Daudet’s son, a journalist. Also includes an essay “Mon Frère et moi,” by Ernest Daudet.
Dobie, Grace Vera. Alphonse Daudet. London: Nelson, 1949. This literary biography is a reliable source of facts on the writer’s life from a traditional viewpoint. Provides, however, little assessment of his works.
Hamilton, James F. “The Recovery of Psychic Center in Daudet’s lettres de mon moulin.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 5 (Fall/Winter, 1995/1996): 133-143. Argues that the book’s bipolar structure reflects a struggle in the male ego for and against the integration of the feminine; suggests that the windmill and the lighthouse reflect the feminine versus the masculine side of the self.
Hare, Geoffrey E. Alphonse Daudet: A Critical Bibliography. 2 vols. London: Grant and Cutler, 1978. A painstakingly compiled bibliography of the author’s works by genre, along with listings of French and international studies; astute critical commentary on critical works.
MacConmara, Maitiú. “Provincial Culture in the Work of Two French Writers.” Studies 53 (Summer, 1974): 167-176. An analysis of Guy de Maupassant and Daudet’s treatments of minority cultures. Claims that Daudet’s Provençal works reveal the crisis of an old civilization invaded by dominant French social and cultural forces.
Roche, Alphonse Victor. Alphonse Daudet. Boston: Twayne, 1976. A biographical approach that summarizes Daudet’s major works: Contains, however, a number of proofreading blunders.
Sachs, Murray. The Career of Alphonse Daudet: A Critical Study. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. An excellent, reliable study of the author and his works.