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Ferdinand Brunetiere

French critic and professor, b. at Toulon, July 19, 1849; d. at Paris, December 9, 1906

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Brunetiere, FERDINAND, a French critic and professor, b. at Toulon, July 19, 1849; d. at Paris, December 9, 1906. After finishing his studies at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, he took the entrance examination of the Ecole Normale, a higher training-school for teachers, but failed on account of deficiency in Greek. When the Franco-German war broke out, he enlisted in the heavy-armed infantry. After the war he returned to Paris and led a very precarious life as a teacher in private schools. In 1874, he began to write for the “Revue des Deux Mondes”, then edited by Charles Buloz, whose principal associate he soon became. From the first he was an opponent of the Naturalist School, which in retaliation feigned to ignore him and declared that the name of Brunetiere was the pseudonym of some writer of no account. His mastery of criticism and his immense and minute learning, which were combined with a keen and cutting style, soon proved his intellectual power. The editorship in chief of the “Revue des Deux Mondes” was tendered to him in 1893. Although he had not attained the higher academic degrees, he was appointed professor of the French language and literature in the Ecole Normale in 1886, a position he held up to 1905, when the school was reorganized. On account of his conversion to Catholicism, he was dropped from the list of professors. He was elected to the French Academy in 1893.

In 1897, M. Brunetiere lectured in the United States, under the auspices of the Alliance Francaise. After delivering nine lectures on French poetry in the annual course of the Percy Turnbull lectures on poetry, at the Johns Hopkins University, he travelled through the country speaking to enthusiastic audiences on classical and contemporary literature. He met with a success that no French lecturer before him had ever attained. In New York more than three thousand persons gathered to hear him. His most famous lecture was on Zola, whose so-called lifelike pictures of the French bourgeois, of the workman, soldier, and peasant, he described as gloomy, pessimistic, and calumnious caricatures.

Brunetiere was the greatest French critic of the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. His articles in the “Revue des Deux Mondes” resemble a strongly framed building, without frivolous ornament, majestic in proportion, impressive through solidity. They have been published in about fifteen volumes bearing various titles, as: “Etudes critiques sur l’histoire de la litterature francaise”; “Questions de critique”; “Essais sur la litterature contemporaine”, etc. Brunetiere was a dogmatist, judging literary works not by the impression they made upon him, but according to certain principles he had laid down as criteria. According to his dogmatic system, a literary work derives its value from the general ideas it contains, and the originality of a writer consists only in setting his own stamp upon a universal design. A good survey of his ideas may be had from the “Manuel de litterature francaise” (tr. New York). This form of criticism was more or less borrowed from Desire Nisard. About the year 1889, M. Brunetiere changed his method and applied to literature the theories of evolution, explaining the formation, growth, and decay of the various literary genres in their development from a common origin, by the same principles as those by which Darwin explained the development of the animal species. (L’evolulution des genres; L’evolution de la poesie lyrique au XIXe siecle.) However weak the basis of such a system may be, all the details are interesting. In 1892 M. Brunetiere showed himself an orator of the highest rank. His lectures at the Odeon theatre on “Les epoques du Theatre Francais” proved very successful. In 1893 he delivered a course of public lectures at the Sorbonne on “L’evolution des genres”, and in 1894 on “Les sermons de Bossuet”. When he was deprived of his professorship at the Ecole Normale, in 1905, he became ordinary lecturer to the Societe des Conferences. M. Brunetiere was master of the difficult art of convincing a large audience. He had all the qualities of a true orator: clearness of exposition, strength and logic of reasoning, an unusual command of general ideas, a fine and penetrating voice, and above all, a certain strange power of conviction which won the immediate sympathy of the most prejudiced hearers.

M. Brunetiere became a convert to Catholicism, in consequence of long and thorough study of Bossuet’s sermons, and, strange to say, by a logical process of deductions which had been suggested to him by Auguste Comte’s philosophy. (See Discours de combat, 2d series, p. 3.) In giving up his materialistic opinions to adopt the Catholic Faith he was prompted by a deep conviction, and there was no emotional element in this radical change. The article he wrote in 1895, “Apres une visite au Vatican“, augured his conversion to Catholicism. In this article, M. Brunetiere showed that science, in spite of its solemn promises, had failed to give happiness to mankind, and that faith alone was able to achieve that result. Soon after, M. Brunetiere publicly adhered to Catholicism and for ten years he made numerous speeches in all parts of France, to defend his new faith against the attacks of free-thinkers. Among these addresses may be mentioned: “Le besoin de croire”, Besancon, 1898; “Les raisons actuelles de croire”, Lille, 1899; “L’idee de solidarite”, Toulouse, 1900; “L’action catholique”, Tours, 1901; “Les motifs d’esperer”, Lyons, 1901, etc. He devoted himself to this task with the greatest energy, for he was naturally a man of will and a fighter. The most interesting feature of his apology is his attempt to show how much the positivism of Auguste Comte was akin to Catholicism. He endeavored to prove that modern thought contained in itself, without suspecting it, the seed of Catholicism. (See “Sur les Chemins de la croyance. Premiere etape, L’utilisation du positivisme.”) On one occasion, in the course of a discussion with a Socialist, he went so far as to infer the identity of the social aspirations of Catholicism and the aspirations of the Socialists for a general reform of the world.


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