(19th-Century Biographies)

In 1831, when the Gothic church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois faced demolition, Chateaubriand played an important role in its preservation, though he remarked that too many such buildings were appearing in the literature of the day. That writers were filling their pages with descriptions of Gothic cathedrals was, however, in large part attributable to Chateaubriand himself. Théophile Gautier claimed that The Genius of Christianity restored the popularity of Gothic architecture, just as Les Natchez (1826; The Natchez, 1827) unlocked the natural sublime and René invented the modern melancholy hero. Chateaubriand was an idol to a generation of French Romantics—the young Alphonse de Lamartine waited outside Chateaubriand’s house for two days to catch a glimpse of the man—and later authors such as Gustave Flaubert and Charles Baudelaire were equally influenced by his works.

The first writer to appreciate the literary potential of the American frontier, Chateaubriand placed within that setting the brooding hero that Byron would popularize a decade later. The poet of sadness, night, suffering, and ennui, he gave the world the character who searches for a self he will never find. He also taught the French how to read their own classics. He was among the first to recognize the tragic sense that underlies much of Molière’s comedy and the sadness and dreamlike qualities of Jean de La Fontaine, Blaise Pascal, and Jean Racine.

Honoré de Balzac wanted to be a literary Napoleon; Chateaubriand hoped to be a political Napoleon as well. He lacked the talent and temperament necessary to rival his fellow sublieutenant in the field or in the cabinet, but in the study he reigned supreme. As Bonaparte remarked, “Chateaubriand has received the sacred fire from Nature; his works bear witness to it. His style is not that of Racine but that of the prophet.”