Early Life

(19th-Century Biographies)

0111205076-Chateaubriand.jpg François René de Chateaubriand (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The youngest of ten children, François-August-René de Chateaubriand was born at Saint-Malo, France, on September 4, 1768. His father, René-Auguste de Chateaubriand, had become rich as a shipowner and merchant sailor; with his wealth, he had purchased the château of Combourg. There the young Chateaubriand spent a lonely childhood, wandering the woods with his sister Lucile, four years his senior, who early recognized and fostered her brother’s genius. Already as an adolescent he revealed himself as a dreamer. He later recalled that when he spoke with Lucile about the world, “it was the world that we carried within us,” that of the imagination.

His father initially intended for Chateaubriand to pursue a naval career. To this end the youth attended the College of Dol, near Combourg, and then the Jesuit college of Rennes. Having rejected the sea, Chateaubriand next went to the College of Dinan to study for the priesthood but soon abandoned this field as well. An older brother, Jean-Baptiste, who was living in Paris and moving in court circles, then secured for him a military commission; Chateaubriand was to remark that both he and Napoleon I began their careers as sublieutenants. He was also to observe that he spent fifteen years as a soldier before devoting fifteen to writing and another fifteen to politics.

Actually, his military career was considerably briefer. When his father died in September, 1786, Chateaubriand left the army, returned to Combourg, and, in 1789, joined his brother at the French capital. An unintentional witness to the fall of the Bastille and the increasingly violent French Revolution that ensued, in July, 1791, Chateaubriand sailed to America to find true liberty, fraternity, and equality.

On the banks of the Ohio, he chanced upon a newspaper report of the flight of Louis XVI. He hastened back to France to fight for the monarchy. Lacking funds sufficient to join the émigré army, he married the rich and acerbic Céleste Buisson de la Vigne. Wounded and left for dead at the siege of Thionville, he managed to escape to England, where he made a living as a tutor and translator.

Life’s Work

(19th-Century Biographies)

In the evenings, he also began to produce original works. Among the earliest of these is his “Lettre sur l’art du dessin dans les paysages” (1795; letter on the art of landscape painting), a significant contribution to the Romantic movement. From the Renaissance through the eighteenth century, artistic theory emphasized the importance of learning technique through imitation of past masterpieces. Chateaubriand recognized the importance of technical skill, but he argued that the painter must first immerse himself in nature and respond to it emotionally, then attempt to recapture these feelings in his work. The artist should faithfully record what he has observed—Chateaubriand had studied botany before going to America so that he would recognize and understand what he was seeing—but landscape painting should seek not photographic realism but rather the ideal. One sees here a number of concepts that recur in writings on Romantic literary theory.

Just as Chateaubriand’s observations on landscape painting challenged the neoclassical aesthetic, so this Essai sur les révolutions (1797; An Historical, Political, Moral Essay on Revolutions, 1815) rejected the political attitude of the Enlightenment. Intended as the first volume of a detailed study of revolutions, it devotes relatively little attention to the one then engulfing Europe. Yet it does comment on events in France, denying the idea of progress and perfectibility, seeing the French Revolution as only one of an ongoing series of upheavals that left people no freer or happier than they were before.

The next year he apparently began to change his mind about religion, though he would never allow his devotion to Catholicism to interfere with his pleasures. He began work on Le Génie du Christianisme (1799, 1800, 1802; The Genius of Christianity, 1802), a spirited defense of traditional belief. Again he was rejecting the views of the eighteenth century philosophers, and, by couching his arguments in aesthetic and emotional terms, he was allying himself once more with the Romantics.

Some portions of this work were published in England, but Chateaubriand was still revising the manuscript when he returned to France in May, 1800. Seeking literary fame and needing money, he detached from The Genius of Christianity a novella intended to illustrate how religion improves literature; this piece he published separately in 1801. Atala (English translation, 1802), the first work by a European to use the American wilderness and the Indian as central features, told of the love of Atala for the Indian Chactas. Unwilling to betray the vow of chastity made to her dying mother, and unable to overcome her passion for her lover, Atala poisons herself. Here, as in René (1802; English translation, 1813), Chateaubriand portrayed the melancholy Byronic hero well before George Gordon, Lord Byron, himself, did so. The dreamlike landscapes that mirror the inhabitants’ moods and at the same time seem to control their actions, the emphasis on emotion, the descriptions that use the senses (as when each blade of grass emits a different note) are devices that would influence succeeding generations of writers.

The popularity of Atala was matched, if not surpassed, by that of its parent work when it appeared in France the next year. The timing of its publication could not have been more fortunate for the author: On April 8, 1802,...

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Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The importance of the essays, travelogues, and memoirs of François-René de Chateaubriand (shah-TOH-bree-ahn) is as great as that of his two relatively short novels, Atala and René, both of which were extracted from an early version of The Natchez and inserted as illustrations in Le Génie du Christianisme (1799, 1800, 1802; The Genius of Christianity, 1802). It seems advisable, therefore, to speak at some length of the latter, as well as of the Mémoires d’outre-tombe (1849-1850; Memoirs, 1902).

Part 1 of The Genius of Christianity asserts that Christianity imposes itself on the convert because of the beauty of its dogmas, its Sacraments, its theological virtues, and its holy Scriptures. The harmony of the world and the marvels of nature attest the existence of God. In part 2, Christianity, more than paganism, exalts poetic inspiration. No religion has so profoundly penetrated the mysteries of the human soul or is so keenly attuned to the beauties of the universe. The merveilleux chrétien has more grandeur than the supernatural of paganism. The Bible, in its simplicity, is more beautiful than Homer’s Iliad.

In part 3, Chateaubriand shows how Christianity has favored the development of the fine arts and given rise to the Gothic cathedral. It has supported the work of scholars, philosophers, and historians. It has caused the genius of Blaise Pascal to flower and has made the sublime eloquence of Jacques Bossuet possible. In part 4, the ringing of bells, the decoration of churches, the solemnity of rites, and the majesty of ceremonies combine to move the soul. The missionaries have spread the benefits of their social work. Born amid the ruins of the Roman Empire, Christianity has saved civilization. It will emerge triumphant from the trial that has purified it.

The Genius of Christianity underwent many changes from its first edition in London in 1799. Furious with the philosophes, its author used a language so violent that his friends were frightened and persuaded him to modify his tone. A second version was printed in Paris in 1800; Chateaubriand’s own scruples caused him to recall the copies. Suppressing a chapter in praise of doctors and portions containing observations on England, he reworked his project. He reduced it from seven parts to three dealing with the dogmas, poetics, and rites of Christianity. By 1801, the work had become a poetics of Christianity, including discussions of poetry and other literature, the fine arts, and the harmonies of religion. The proofs of this version received the attention of the censors, and more changes were made to serve the politics of Napoleon Bonaparte. The...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

François-René de Chateaubriand was the most significant figure in French literature in the transitional period between the end of the Enlightenment, when classicism still ruled, and the heyday of Romanticism.

Many of the characteristic elements of Romantic fiction can be found in early form in the novels of Chateaubriand: the exoticism, the idealization of the primitive, the extensive descriptions of nature. In much Romantic fiction, genre lines are blurred, and here again, Chateaubriand’s example was influential. Stylistically, Chateaubriand’s rhythmic sentences and splendid vocabulary revealed hitherto unsuspected resources of French prose. Finally, his unabashed egotism is quintessentially Romantic; Byronic before Byron, Chateaubriand left his flamboyant mark on a generation of younger writers.


(19th-Century Biographies)

Conner, Tom. Chateaubriand’s “Mémoires d’outre-tombe”: A Portrait of the Artist as Exile. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. Essentially a book about Chateaubriand and his autobiography, the first chapter and introduction hold helpful discussions of the author’s life and work. Includes a bibliography.

Evans, Joan. Chateaubriand: A Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1939. Relies primarily on Chateaubriand’s autobiography but corrects and supplements this work with other accounts. Readable, with many fine vignettes but little analysis.

Hart, Charles Randall. Chateaubriand and Homer: With a Study of the French Sources of His Classical Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1928. Recommended mainly for specialists, but the introduction has a helpful explanation of Chateaubriand’s literary sources and influences. Includes a bibliography.

Hilt, Douglas. “Chateaubriand and Napolean.” History Today 23 (December, 1973): 831-837. Traces Chateaubriand’s political career under Napoleon and the author’s subsequent portrayal of Napoleon in his memoirs.

Maurois, André. Chateaubriand. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958. A lively biography geared to the general reader and beginning student of Chateaubriand. One of the best introductory texts.

Miller, Meta Helena. Chateaubriand and English Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1925. Only chapter 1 is of interest to beginning students of Chateaubriand, for there Miller outlines Chateaubriand’s relationship to significant English authors.

Painter, George D. Chateaubriand: A Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 1977. Initially, projected to be a three-volume work, this is the only volume completed before Painter’s death. Painter offers an extensively detailed account of Chauteaubriand’s life from 1768 to 1793.

Porter, Charles A. Chateaubriand: Composition, Imagination, and Poetry. Saratoga, Calif.: Anma Libri, 1978. A clearly written, scholarly survey of Chateaubriand’s entire literary career. Includes a bibliography.

Sieburg, Friedrich. Chateaubriand. Translated by Violet M. MacDonald. Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin, 1961. Concentrates on biography rather than literary analysis. Argues that “Chateaubriand’s ambition and his desire for action were …forever undermining the foundations of his existence” and that his life is a tissue of contradictions.

Switzer, Richard, ed. Chateaubriand Today. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970. Essays on Chateaubriand (some in French and some in English) and the eighteenth century, his imagination, his use of the fictional confession, and his revolutionary politics. Includes an annotated bibliography.