Zola was a pioneer in the naturalist school of writing that emerged in the late nineteenth century. In twenty interrelated novels that he wrote between 1871 and 1893, he employed scientific precision and careful attention to descriptive detail to portray the fortunes of individual members of the fictional Rougon-Macquart family. His novels such as Germinal, Nana, La Terre, and L’Assommoir focused on characters from the lower strata of society, describing every aspect of their often sordid lives with vivid and colorful detail. His honest approach to fiction frequently embroiled him in battles with various forms of censorship.
Serialization of Zola’s novel L’Assommoir in the newspaper La Bien Public was suspended in 1876 in response to public outrage at his uncompromising examination of the ravages of alcoholism among the Parisian lower classes. Publication of an English translation of La Terre, a work describing greed, brutality, and jealousy in rural France during the Second Empire, provoked an excited public response and resulted in Zola’s unsuccessful prosecution on obscenity charges in Great Britain in 1888.
Two later series of novels, Les Trois villes (1894-1898) and Quatre evangiles (1899-1903), provoked the animosity of the Roman Catholic church and resulted in all his works being placed on its Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Censorship even plagued Zola’s work after his death: Yugoslavia banned his novels in 1929, Ireland banned them in 1953, and the American National Organization of Decent Literature condemned Nana in 1954.
The most notable episode of censorship in Zola’s career occurred for political reasons, however. Convinced that the French army’s Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus had been framed during his trial for espionage in 1894, Zola wrote “J’Accuse” for the newspaper L’Aurore in 1898. Zola demanded that Dreyfus be given a new trial and accused many of the army’s witnesses at Dreyfus’ original trial of having deliberately lied. Right- wing supporters of the army raised such an uproar over this article that Zola was ultimately tried and convicted for libel. The original guilty verdict was overturned on a legal technicality but, when the government announced it intended to retry him, Zola followed his lawyer’s advice and fled France for England. He was finally vindicated when some of the original anti-Dreyfus witnesses broke down and admitted they had lied. After Zola’s own libel conviction was annulled in 1899, he returned to France that same year.