François-René de Chateaubriand (shah-toh-bree-ahn) was born in 1768 in the Breton section of France. After studying for the priesthood, Chateaubriand gave up the Church as a career and in 1786 received a commission in the army. In 1787 in Paris he was presented at court. In April, 1791, he joined an expedition to the United States in search of the Northwest Passage. Although the mission was unsuccessful, Chateaubriand developed an interest in primitivism in people and in nature; at this time he also developed a faculty for literary expression.
Back in France only a short time, he became an emigrant after the arrest of Louis XVI. After being wounded on a street in Brussels and abandoned on a beach on Guernsey Island, he made his way to London. Here he lived in poverty, writing. In his An Historical, Political, Moral Essay on Revolutions, published in England in 1797, he took a stand as a mediator between the extremes of royalist and revolutionary ideas and as a Rousseauistic freethinker in religion. He turned against the revolutionists, however, when he learned how his family had been ill-treated. Shortly after returning to Paris in 1800, he published Atala. The book contains many brilliant passages, especially descriptions of nature, but some critics have complained of its odd combination of prudery and sensuousness. His next work was The Genius of Christianity. This book, although it does not contain strong theological arguments, has been praised for its sensitive descriptions of Catholic liturgy and symbolism. The narrative “René” appeared as part of this work. Because of its portrayal of a dissatisfied soul, this book is believed to be largely autobiographical.
For the next thirty years Chateaubriand was in and out of favor with the French monarchs—Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Louis-Philippe. During this time he held numerous governmental positions. His complete works were published between 1826 and 1831. His death came after his retirement from public life. His autobiographical Memoirs was published posthumously. Literary historians regard Chateaubriand as a bridge between the Classicism of the eighteenth century and the Romanticism of the early nineteenth.