Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889


By Mayo Williamson Hazeltine (1841–1909)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1841. Died in New York, N. Y., 1909. Chats about Books, Poets, and Novelists. 1883.]

WHETHER our tastes or our convictions prompt us to side with those who praise, or with those who scout him, the fact is beyond dispute that Emile Zola has attained a measure of success seldom paralleled in our generation, and that his themes and his style, his aims, methods, and performances have provoked the widest attention and the liveliest discussion throughout Europe. The truth is that the author of the series of novels, grouped together under the generic title of “Les Rougon-Macquart” is a phenomenon that invites at once the study of the artist, the scientist, and the politician. As regards subject and treatment, Emile Zola incarnates an æsthetic revolution, while in his social and political leanings he represents the literary side of the great upheaval which followed the collapse of the second empire. Still more curious and suggestive is his deliberate application of Darwinism to literature, his portrayal of life and character under the strict conditions of the evolutionary theory, namely, heredity and atavism on the one hand, with environment and natural or sexual selection on the other. These are Zola’s credentials, and such a man deserves to be scanned, if not with sympathy and approval, at all events with respect, as the type of an epoch.

M. Zola would probably contend that his distinctive attitude as a student of human life is mainly due to physical causes, including, of course, hereditary aptitudes. He would not repudiate, however, the influence exercised by intellectual ancestors, whose works by virtue of a subtle affinity, or of long contact at an impressionable age, may have tinctured, developed, or directed his mind. He is not unwilling to be counted the successor of writers who have recognized more or less distinctly the same aims—as the latest exponent of a school whose origin may be traced back for a century. He himself calls Rousseau the founder of realistic narrative in France, having in view, of course, the “Confessions,” and not the “Nouvelle Héloise,” as some of his critics have imagined. But Rousseau only suggested the tremendous force that lies in naked veracity, and it was Balzac who first carried out the process of ruthless vivisection on a great scale. The wonderful minuteness with which the individual characters of his persons were projected by the author of the “Comédie Humaine,” and the painstaking accuracy of the surroundings in which he placed them, sharply distinguished his treatment from Victor Hugo’s exaggerated coloring on the one hand, and from George Sand’s pursuit of abstract types upon the other. But although Balzac diverged at once from romantic and from classical models, he did not always evince the scrupulous, and, so to speak, mechanical fidelity of the modern naturalists. He was no mere photographer, a strangely fecund fancy and an irresistible instinct of generalization not seldom forcing him to transform individuals into veritable types, as in the case of “Rastignac,” or “Lucien de Rubempré,” or “La Femme de trente Ans.” After Balzac’s death realism in literature lost its hold on the French world for almost a generation. Something, it is true, was done by the co-workers Erckmann-Chatrian within a restricted provincial horizon, something by Emile Gaboriau in the almost unworked field of the judicial and detective novel, and something on a wider canvas by the brothers Goncourt. But if we except some of Gaboriau’s stories, which ran through numerous editions, the works of the realists failed to please the artificial, jaded society of the second empire, and were eclipsed not only by clever adepts in the classic conventions like Octave Feuillet, but even by the wretched imitators of the elder Dumas, who spun out serial sensations for the daily newspapers. And even Zola’s veritable master, Gustave Flaubert, whose “Madame Bovary” and “L’Education Sentimentale” are consummate examples of novel-writing conceived as a form of natural history where the methods of scientific scrutiny are applied with perfect cynicism, never won anything beyond the esteem of a narrow circle. Certainly a man of his temper was scarcely fitted to be the pet of the Tuileries, or to become, like Feuillet, the arbiter of festivals and charades at Compiègne, or, like Prosper Merimée, the literary mentor of the frivolous personage whom caprice and accident had made Empress of France.

With the empire fell a vast scaffolding of spurious or fragile reputations in art and literature, which had helped to prop the political structure. What has become of Houssaye and Bélôt, who made a sumptuous living by the portrayal of vice and scandal? What has paralyzed the pen of Gustave Droz, whose quaint admixture of sentiment and sensuality had the piquancy of a new sauce? What has come over the public which used to flock by tens of thousands to buy “Camors,” but which now turns with indifference, almost with contempt, from the listless elegance and refined vapidity of Feuillet’s latest works? So, too, the cunning affectations and pungent epigrams of the accomplished Genevese, Cherbuliez, seem to have lost much of their savor, if we may judge from the waning vogue of his performances at home. And if Theuriet has so far escaped the general submergence of former favorites, it is solely due to his descriptions of natural scenery, where, of course, a novelist’s special qualifications do not come at all in question. The real sovereigns of the French reading public at this time, as attested by the conclusive voucher of unapproached success, are Zola and Alphonse Daudet. The latter began as an idealist, and his “Lettres de mon Moulin” and “Tartarin de Tarascon” are charming examples of the sentimental school; but it was only when he joined Zola in accepting Flaubert for a master, and under his impulse produced “Fromont Jeune,” “Jack,” and “Le Nabab” that he attained a great reputation. Yet it is a curious fact that the orthodox realists are not quite willing to class Daudet in their ranks. They admit that the persons of his recent books are human beings of very complex character about which it is not easy to pronounce an absolute opinion, but in their judgment he makes the mistake of sympathizing with his heroes, and giving too much scope to poetry and feeling. Moreover, his style wants, they say, the simplicity and translucency with which the more austere realist seeks to efface his personality and mirror with crystalline distinctness the object of his portraiture. He has borrowed, seemingly from the brothers Goncourt, a somewhat affected diction, loaded with florid ornament and far-fetched metaphor, and at the same time rugged and precipitous in movement, as if the novelist meant to suggest to the ear the headlong current of Paris life. The French naturalism of our day finds, as we have seen, its perfect model in Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” but that wonderful anatomist of vicious instincts wanted industry or fecundity, and only once returned to the task of impassive, implacable reproduction. Accordingly his mantle has fallen on Zola’s shoulders, who not only undertakes the function of dissection without the faintest sign of conventional shudder or rebuke, but avows his purpose of disclosing in all his personages the physiological causes of their actions.

What is the object contemplated by the author of the “Rougon-Macquart” novels? It is, as we have said, to trace the natural and social history of a family which by one or another of its offshoots shall represent every class of French society. The better to define his purpose and enforce the essential unity of his design, the author has prefixed to one of his volumes, “Un Page d’Amour,” a genealogical tree, which, exhibiting the origin of the lineage, marks its early bifurcation into two main trunks sharply distinguished in physical traits, which, however, are sometimes softened, sometimes accented in their various ramifications. The remarkable virility of a peasant progenitor is transmitted through two channels, legitimate and illegitimate, and, according to the greater or less influence of the female lines, is transformed in his descendants into diverse forms of moral and intellectual energy or weakness. Under felicitous conditions of admixture and environment, this ancestral vigor rises to the heights of heroism, of creative genius, or of consummate executive ability, while in untoward circumstances it engenders dexterous knavery or desperate crime. In one of the main branches there is an hereditary taint amounting to a disease of the nervous system, which in some of the offspring is sublimated to the sensitive organization of the poet, or the mystical fervor of the priest, while in others it breeds a frantic excitation of the appetites, conducting in the end, perhaps, to imbecility. In the case of every individual whose career is made the object of special study, we are put in possession of all the physiological facts which a materialist might deem indispensable to a just sentence upon his conduct. We are told about his parents and his grandparents; we know what passions, proclivities, sensibilities he brought with him into the world; how far these congenital tendencies have been encouraged, lulled, or supplanted by his surroundings, until, when he is launched into a given medium, we can almost forecast his behavior. As with each new volume a new problem in human life is laid before us, we approach its solution with a conviction that at least the statement of its terms has been exhaustive, that none of the springs of motive, so far as these are physical or social, have escaped the author’s scrutiny. You are impressed also by the glacial impartiality of the narrative, as if the worst extremes of sin and suffering and the divinest soarings of self-sacrifice and virtue were alike referred to the inexorable workings of natural law. In Zola’s indifference, however, there is nothing galling: there is no trace of malicious satisfaction, as in Flaubert’s cynicism; it recalls rather the profound, far-gazing serenity of an Assyrian statue, the inflexible, inscrutable tranquillity of a sphinx. It is not to be supposed, meanwhile, that because Zola never blames or applauds his characters the reader’s sympathies are equally unstirred. Such is often the power of his trenchant strokes, such the vitality of certain figures, that you quite lose sight of the artist’s unconcerned, impassive temper, and fix your eyes with an eager, poignant intentness on the canvas. Curiously, too, this man, who handles like a surgeon the most delicate fibres of the human heart, discovers the effusive tenderness of a poet when he turns to outward nature. It is as if the materialist were blended with the pantheist in his philosophy; as if the God whom he had lost in the labyrinth of physiology were found again in the play of light and motion, the infinite beauty and suggestion of the inanimate world.

It is true that M. Zola eschews psychological analysis, that he is satisfied with an outward portrayal of people, and that for this reason their soul escapes him. We say of his creations, Yes, they are most lifelike, we might have passed them but now in the street; on the other hand, we know no more of them than if we had passed them in the street. We may con, if we choose, a catalogue of the physiological causes for their feelings and actions. But in real life we never use such data; we only see them transformed in sentiment and motive, and it is the transformations which kindle interest and constitute originality. To which M. Zola might reply that if the soul has escaped him, perhaps it was not there. That he knows very well what judges, and juries, and law-makers, and, for that matter, novelists, have been wont to look at; that it is a question, however, not of what we are accustomed to study, but of what we ought to study. If we seem to know less intimately the men and women to whom Zola has introduced us than we know the impressive or exquisite types created by other masters of fiction, the author of “L’Assommoir” would probably remind us that types do not exist in nature, that what we call our knowledge of such figments is a delusion, that nothing is known but physiology, and that the transmutation of food into thought is still a mystery. Moreover, it is not quite fair to compare Zola’s characters to the stranger that brushes us in the street; we understand them quite as thoroughly, after all, as we understand our acquaintances, or indeed our personal friends, for we can foretell their conduct with rather more precision. We shall never probably in this world know so much of any human being as we know of certain personages in the works of Fielding, Thackeray, or George Eliot. Now, is it the business of a novelist to draw figures of which we shall say, these are men and women, ordinary, every-day folk, neither better nor worse; or figures in which you shall recognize winning and noble types sufficiently individualized for you to caress the dream of their possible incarnation? That is the question at issue between the realist and the idealist, and Zola, for his part, does not hesitate to accept the former conception of the function undertaken by the writer of prose fiction.

A word as to the crudities and vulgarities which disfigure many of Zola’s pages. Those who have read only “L’Assommoir” or “Le Ventre de Paris,” and who are accustomed to the carefully pruned diction of Octave Feuillet, are naturally shocked to stumble upon words belonging to the imprinted vocabulary which exists in every language. The truth is that when this thorough-going realist essays to describe a particular stratum of society, he does not purpose to put you off with his impression, but means to paint it precisely as it is, and let you form impressions for yourself. He insists that if this principle is anything but a pretence, if the truth is really to be shown in its native rawness and squalor, then the author must reproduce without squeamishness or euphuism the idiom of the class and calling he has elected to depict; otherwise we miss the master-key to its intellectual and moral attitude. Of course, those who do not care to study at first hand the factory and the grog-shop need not read “L’Assommoir,” but they should not go the length of supposing that the same language is employed to photograph very different phases of society. When, for example, the author sketches the home circle of the Tuileries or the Ministerial vicissitudes of the second empire, we can assure the reader that M. Zola’s style is not unequal to the occasion, although his pen is not by any means that of a courtier. In a word, Zola’s novels are like the world. If your ears cannot bear the coarse and brutal phrase by which vulgar folk are wont to drive an idea home, you must pick your company. There will be scope enough for dainty discrimination in these twenty volumes.

There is something almost colossal in the proportions of Zola’s undertaking, yet it is already wellnigh completed. He purposes, as we have said, to leave behind him a complete panorama of French civilization under the social and political conditions of the second empire. In “La Fortune de Rougon” he has unfolded the circumstances of provincial life and the characteristic features of the mercantile calling in the petty commerce of a rural town. “La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret” is a study of the Church, and especially of the privations, compensations, experiences, and temptations incident to the clerical vocation. In “Le Ventre de Paris” the author studies the method of provisioning Paris, while in “L’Assommoir” he depicts the burdens, blunders, vices, and the redeeming virtues, the shabby, the revolting, and the honorable sides of a workman’s life in the Faubourg St. Antoine. In “Son Excellence Eugène Rougon,” we have a portrait of Eugène Rouher, the famous ex-Minister of the empire, so curiously minute in its biographical details that almost every incident and personage in its pages can be identified. In another number of the series, “Un Page d’Amour”—which by the way is accessible in an English version under the name of “A Love Episode”—Zola opens to us those minor professional circles of the Parisian community which embrace the households of notaries, of physicians in moderate practice, of Government employees below the grade of heads of bureaus, in fact all that stratum of society which in England would be ranked just below the top of the lower middle class. In succeeding novels the army, journalism, the magistracy will by turns occupy the field of his camera. Zola contemplates also a volume on the Commune, that is to say, on the artisan in his political aspect.

Whatever may be thought of the fundamental principles of realism in art and literature—a discussion into which we will not just now enter—it is manifest that Zola’s immense accumulations will prove of singular value to the future student of France under the social conditions of our day. It is probable that hereafter the young bachelor of arts, returning from his sojourn in the Quartier Latin, and pressed to account for his wide knowledge of Paris—instead of replying like his fathers, “I have read Balzac, and that suffices”—will point to “Les Rougon-Macquart” as the exhaustless treasure-house of vicarious observation.

It may be thought that the theories of realism received a sufficiently crude embodiment in “L’Assommoir” and “Le Ventre de Paris,” but the scope of those works at least embraced something besides sheer animalism. They purported to be exhaustive transcripts of the life of workshop and market, and, accordingly, types of industry, sobriety, and kindliness were interspersed, as we see them every day, amid illustrations of sloth, viciousness, and shame. They attested, too, such a profound comprehension of the mechanism of society in the particular strata portrayed, of the rude necessities and coarse devices, of the promptings, pressures, contagions amid which the tinge and fibre of individual character is acquired, that our respect for the observer modified our judgment of the artist. The student of social science seemed so signally to obscure the novelist that we were scarcely more disposed to quarrel with a raw phrase, or an offensive fact, than we should be to insist on a surgeon’s performing vivisection in immaculate kid gloves. Yet, even in those cases, the suspicion must not seldom have crossed us that this unshrinking, all-embracing scrutiny of human life belonged to the methods of science, rather than the processes of art; that the uncompromising purpose of telling the whole truth, in the most literal and unvarnished words, would preclude the exercise of the artistic faculty in the selection, disposition, and accentuation of materials. In proportion as the inquirer’s purpose should be fully carried out, as his eye should be keen, his hand firm, and his tongue fearless, his work, it was suggested, must inevitably pass out of the category of artistic composition, and be classified with the raw material of history. Unassorted, unwinnowed, and unchastened with any reference to æsthetic emphasis and significance, the record of his observations would be, at best, a photograph and not a picture, a diary and not a novel, a chapter of biography, a cross-section of real life. Heretofore, however, none of the champions of realism, neither Flaubert, nor the brothers Goncourt, nor Zola himself, had been perfectly unswerving and unscrupulous in the application of their theory. Zola, for instance, in “La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret,” actually reverted, for a moment, to the idyl and the parable. His latest work, “Nana,” on the other hand, is the most extravagant result of the doctrine that anything which is true may be printed, and that nothing human, though it reek with the foulness of a worse than bestial humanity, is foreign to the purpose of the student of manners and the painter of society….

To purge the passions, we are told on high authority, is the aim of tragedy; but Aristotle is far from affirming that the methods of the dramatist and those of the physician should be identical. It is one thing to watch, rapt and awestruck, on the stage of an Athenian theatre those who have sinned in the high places, a Thyestes, a Clytemnestra, caught in the meshes of an irrevocable doom. It is another thing to track the fetid course of a lewd woman from pinchbeck magnificence to hopeless squalor, from the lazaretto to the morgue. For his part, however, Zola cares but little about the abstract conceptions of beauty and sublimity, and he snaps his fingers at æsthetic canons, no matter how potent the names which may have sanctioned them. He is a Jacobin in politics, an iconoclast in literature; he prefers the dissecting-room to the studio, and is perfectly willing to be refused the title of artist, provided you will concede to him the useful name of physiologist. Certainly the works of Zola will be accounted valuable material by the future student of nineteenth-century society. What the writings of Apuleius and Petronius Arbiter are for the resolute inquirer into Roman civilization, that Zola’s “Nana” may be found when another generation shall seek to comprehend the social decomposition and political catastrophe of France under the second empire.