French Literature Of The 19th Century:
The Romantic Novelists
Philosophers And Historians
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
In Jules Michelet (1798-1874) literature recognizes a brilliant compound of historian, poet, philosopher, naturalist and reformer. The poetic faculty lent his work in the other capacities a characteristic glamour. He was the son of a Parisian printer and .having received a good education was made professor of history in the Collège Rollin. His early works were school books, good of their kind, the "Précis de l'Histoire Moderne" (Summary of Mod-ern History) (1827) being the best. The "Introduction to Universal History" (1831) first showed his peculiar power of poetizing facts. His great "History of France" occupied him for thirty-seven years, and was completed in nineteen volumes, yet it comes down only to the Revolution, which was treated in a separate work (1852). The history was based on a thorough examination of all the authorities accessible, but the writer's strong religious and political prejudices, as well as his picturesque style, render it often untrustworthy on account of its suggestions, though it never falsifies facts. The part relating to the Middle Ages is the most interesting account of that period. Michelet was a believer in progress, and found in the records of the past support for his visions of the future. While his main work was under way, he sent out a swarm of other books, more or less related to it. His "History of the Revolution" is not equal to Carlyle's though full of enthusiasm for the cause of liberty. When Louis Napoleon became Emperor, Michelet would not take the oath of allegiance, and therefore lost his place in the Record office. He began a new series of books on natural history, probably suggested by his second wife. These books, "The Bird," "The Insect," "The Sea," "The Mountain," "Woman," "Love," were filled with a fervent pantheism ; they showed all nature as divine. In them the author's peculiar poetic prose was carried to its furthest limits, and became declamatory. His "Bible de l'Humanité" (1864) is a similar poetizing of the history of all religions. After the downfall of the Empire, Michelet, then seventy-two, began a "History of the Nineteenth Century," but carried it only to Waterloo. He died in 1874.