History of Literature

French literature


Jules Michelet


born Aug. 21, 1798, Paris, France
died Feb. 9, 1874, Hyères

French nationalist historian best known for his monumental Histoire de France (1833–67). Michelet’s method, an attempt to resurrect the past by immersing his own personality in his narrative, resulted in a historical synthesis of great dramatic power.

Michelet was the son of a modest printer who managed to give Jules an education. A brilliant student, Michelet at 29 was teaching history and philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure. He had already published textbooks and a translation (1827) of Giambattista Vico’s Scienza nuova (“New Science”). The July Revolution (1830) confirmed Vico’s influence on Michelet in stressing man’s own part in the making of history, conceived as a continuous struggle of human freedom against fatality. This, the main theme of the Introduction à l’histoire universelle (1831), was to underlie Michelet’s later writings.

After the Histoire romaine, 2 vol. (1831), Michelet devoted himself to medieval and modern history; his appointment as head of the historical section of the Record Office in the same year provided him with unique resources for carrying out his monumental life’s work, the Histoire de France. The first six volumes (1833–43) stop at the end of the Middle Ages; they include the “Tableau de la France,” in which the emergence of France as a nation is seen as a victory over racial and geographic determinism; they also include his treatment of Joan of Arc as the very soul of France and the living symbol of his own patriotic and democratic ideals.

Michelet deliberately threw his intimate self into his narrative, convinced that this was the way to achieve the historian’s ultimate aim: the resurrection (or re-creation) of the past. Such a resurrection must be integral: all the elements of the past—artistic, religious, economic, as well as political—must be brought back, intertwined, as they once were, in a living synthesis. Arbitrary and overambitious as the undertaking seems, Michelet’s compassionate genius and romantic imagination enabled him to conjure up an effective evocation, unsurpassed for poetic and dramatic power.

Toward the end of this period, which was marked by private crises reflected in his work (the death of his first wife, in 1839, and of his friend Mme Dumesnil, in 1842, cast shadows over whole periods of his Histoire de France), Michelet turned away from Christianity and began to profess a messianic belief in democratic progress. His increasing hostility to the church, expressed in his lectures at the Collège de France, eventually brought him into conflict with the Jesuits and caused his lectures to be suspended in January 1848.

A month later, the revolution that he had heralded in Le Peuple (1846) seemed to bring about the realization of his dreams. But they were soon shattered: in 1852 Michelet, having refused allegiance to the Second Empire, lost his posts. In 1847 he had interrupted the sequence of the Histoire de France to write the Histoire de la révolution française, 7 vol. (1847–53). He visualized the French Revolution as a climax, as the triumph of la Justice over la Grâce (by which he meant both Christian dogma and the arbitrary power of the monarchy). These volumes, written at a feverish pace, are a vivid, impassioned chronicle.

Michelet then resumed the Histoire de France from the Renaissance to the eve of the revolution (11 vol., 1855–67). Unfortunately, his hatred of priests and kings, his hasty or abusive treatment of documents, and his mania for symbolic interpretation continually distort these volumes into hallucinations or nightmares. Also thus distorted is La Sorcière (1862), an apology for witches considered as godforsaken souls, victims of the antinatural interdictions of the church.

A new and happier inspiration produced a series of books on nature: L’Oiseau (1856); L’Insecte (1858); La Mer (1861); La Montagne (1868). They reflect the influence of his second marriage to Athénaïs Mialaret, 30 years his junior, in 1849; written in a lyrical vein, they contain some of the most beautiful pages of a supreme prose writer. L’Amour (1858) and La Femme (1860), written under the same influence, are erotic and didactic.

The Franco-German War of 1870 shattered Michelet’s idealism and his illusions about Germany. After his death, in 1874, his widow tampered with his diaries, and their publication as a whole was begun only in 1959 (Journal, vol. 1, 1959, vol. 2, 1962; Écrits de jeunesse, 1959). They record his travels through Europe, and, above all, they give a key to his personality and illuminate the relationship between his intimate experiences and his work.

Jean J. Seznec


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