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What Chateaubriand Saw

Chateaubriand: A Biography Volume I (1768-1793) The Longed-for Tempests

by George D. Painter
Knopf, 327 pp., $15.00

Chateaubriand was the first major European writer to describe American scenery and life from personal observation. The abbé Prévost had conjured up the background for the last pages of Manon Lescaut—that arid, treeless desert near New Orleans—from his imagination. It was from highly spiced but hardly accurate reports of travelers that Oliver Goldsmith derived his dismal picture of Georgia, “where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey, / And savage men more murderous than they.” Such touches of local color as there are in Klinger’s play about the American Revolution, Sturm und Drang, are second hand. But the author of Atala, René, and Les Natchez had spent some six mouvementé months in North America from July to December 1791. He had been to Philadelphia and Boston, stood enraptured before Niagara, conversed with Indians, joined them in chewing bear steaks, and penetrated the wilderness. In Voyage en Amérique and Mémoires d’outre-tombe Chateaubriand provided in resonant prose accounts of his experience which, from a literary point of view, put all previous, and for that matter all later, books of American travel in the shade. But how much did he in fact draw from personal observation, and how much from the writings of others and his fertile Romantic imagination? This is a problem which has grown ever greater as his writings have been more closely studied.

One passage in the Mémoires d’outre-tombe is particularly disturbing. When Chateaubriand set out for America he took with him a letter of introduction to George Washington from the Marquis Armand Tuffin de La Rouërie who had fought in the American Revolution. The letter, which survives, describes him as Monsieur de Combourg, traveling “to enrich his mind by the active contemplation of such a moving and happy country….” Although it is fairly well known, Chateaubriand’s account of the meeting must be quoted in full. “When I arrived in Philadelphia, General Washington was absent and I was obliged to wait for about a week,” he wrote.

I saw him pass in a carriage drawn by four prancing horses driven four-in-hand. Washington, according to the ideas I held at that time, was necessarily Cincinnatus; Cincinnatus in a chariot conflicted somewhat with my Republic of the Roman year 296. Could Washington the Dictator be anything but a peasant drawing his oxen along with a goad and holding the handle of his plough? But when I went to see him with my letter of recommendation, I found once again the simplicity of the ancient Roman.

A little house, which looked like the other houses nearby, was the palace of the President of the United States; there were no sentries, not even any footmen. I knocked, and a young maidservant opened the door. I asked her if the General was at home; she replied that he was. I said that I had a letter for him. The maid asked my name, which is difficult to pronounce in English and which she could not remember. She then said quietly: “Walk in, sir,” and led the way along one of those narrow corridors which serve as entrance halls in English houses: she showed me into a parlour where she asked me to wait for the General.

I felt no emotion: neither greatness of soul nor greatness of fortune impresses me; I admire the former without being overawed by it; the second fills me with pity rather than respect: no man’s face will ever disturb me.

A few minutes later the General came in: tall in stature, and calm and cold rather than noble in bearing, he resembled his portraits. I handed him my letter in silence; he opened it, and his eyes went straight to the signature, which he read aloud, exclaiming, “Colonel Armand!” This was the name by which he knew the marquis de La Rouërie and by which the latter had signed himself.

We sat down. I explained to him as best I could the purpose of my journey. He answered in monosyllables in English and French, and listened to me with a sort of astonishment; I noticed this and said to him with some spirit: “But it is not as difficult to discover the North-West Passage as it is to create a nation, as you have done.” “Well, well, young man!” he exclaimed giving me his hand. He invited me to dinner next day, and we parted.

I took good care to keep the appointment. There were only five or six guests. The conversation turned upon the French Revolution. The General showed us a key from the Bastille. These keys, as I have already remarked, were silly toys which were distributed to all and sundry. Three years later, the exporters of locksmiths’ wares could have sent the President of the United States the bolt of the prison of the monarch who gave freedom to both France and America. If Washington had seen the victors of the Bastille in the gutters of Paris, he would have had less respect for his relic.

After a few further comments on revolutions and mobs, Chateaubriand concluded:

I left my host at ten o’clock in the evening and never saw him again; he went away the next day and I continued my journey.

Such was my meeting with the soldier citizen, the liberator of a world. Washington went to his grave before a little fame attached itself to my footsteps; I passed before him as the most insignificant of human beings; he was in all his glory, I in all my obscurity; my name may not have lingered so much as one whole day in his memory; yet I am fortunate indeed that his gaze should have fallen upon me! I have felt warmed by it for the rest of my life: there is virtue in the gaze of a great man.*

The whole passage is memorably vivid in its matter-of-factness. It seems to bear the stamp of truth. Meetings between the obscure young and elderly great are usually like that: nothing of importance is said on either side but trivial phrases stick in the mind of the younger man. And yet it has been doubted whether the gaze of Washington ever fell on Chateaubriand at all! In 1947 Morris Bishop caused something of a commotion by pointing out that the Bicentennial Edition of the Writings of George Washington included the president’s memorandum for a letter to the Marquis de La Rouërie, dated September 5, 1791: “I have had the pleasure to receive your letter of the 22nd of March. Being indisposed on the day when Monsieur de Combourg called to deliver your letter I did not see him, and I understand that he set off to Niagara the next day.”

Chateaubriand’s detractors were, of course, delighted by this discovery; and his admirers were hard put to explain the awkward discrepancy. Morris Bishop suggested that by the time Washington wrote to La Rouërie he had forgotten that he had been visited by Chateaubriand, or failed to realize that he was the “Monsieur de Combourg” mentioned in the letter. Others were inclined to feel that the incident was no more real than his adolescent encounters with his ideal Sylphide at Combourg: and Pierre Martino remarked how, like other tall stories, it had grown in the telling. For in the Essai sur les révolutions of 1797, his first book to be published, Chateaubriand had merely mentioned an unnamed “grand homme” in America whose house he had visited “with the respect one has on entering a church.” In his Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem of 1811 he remarked apropos of meeting the American consul in Tunis who had been Washington’s secretary, “J’avais été en Amérique recommandé au général Washington.” Not until 1822 did he write, and not until 1827 did he publish, an account of his meeting with the president.

Chateaubriand’s latest biographer, George D. Painter, presents a new and plausible solution to the problem—that the meeting took place as, but not when, Chateaubriand described it. Washington was indeed confined to bed—with a carbuncle on his left buttock—for most of July 1791 and unable to see visitors when the letter of introduction was delivered. But he was well again by the fall and Chateaubriand could easily have visited him while waiting at Philadelphia for the boat that was to take him back to France in early December. Mr. Painter is persuaded that this is what must have happened. “The laws of etiquette concerning letters of introduction were strict and binding on all parties,” he writes.

Not to have called again at the first opportunity would have been an unthinkable discourtesy to both Washington and La Rouërie, and a pointless flouting of his own desires. For next to the wilderness and the Indians, both of which by then he had already seen to his heart’s content, there was nothing in America that François-René longed more keenly to encounter than President Washington. Since, then, he was able, morally obliged, and desirous to do so, affirms that he did and describes it most convincingly, and there is not the least evidence to the contrary….

Mr. Painter then goes on to embroider Chateaubriand’s account of the interview:

They sat down. François-René, in halting English remembered from his naval education at Rennes and Brest, described his journey and explained its thwarted purpose, the crossing of the continent, the exploration of the Pacific coast, the discovery of the Northwest Passage. He had failed, he confessed, but was determined to return and try again, as soon as the King was saved! Washington listened, commenting only in monosyllables of French or English, with visible and growing amazement….

Mr. Painter is inclined to give Chateaubriand the benefit of every doubt. This staunch advocate for the authenticity of the Vinland map has no fear of mare’s-nests in geographical studies. He accepts Chateaubriand’s statement that he went to America to discover the Northwest Passage on foot and gives no countenance to the notion that he may have been seeking a refuge from the troubles in France. As for the journey from Niagara, along the shores of Lake Erie to Pittsburgh and then down the Ohio River to the point where it flows into the Mississippi: he is sure that the description of it in Voyage en Amérique and the Mémoires—vivid in atmospheric coloring but vague in geographical particulars—is substantially accurate. He is even prepared to give literal credence to the dreamlike passage describing a day of dalliance with two beautiful women from Florida, among the magnolias and liquidambars on an island in the broad expanse of the Ohio River. And when he finds Chateaubri-and quoting without acknowledgment descriptions of plants (some of which he certainly could not have seen) culled from the Travels of the Philadelphia botanist William Bartram, he observes indulgently:

Thus boldly, not to say high-handedly, but without intent to deceive, Chateaubriand refashioned from his own composite translation of Bartram, confining himself mostly to details which were common to Bartram’s experience and his own, the partly imaginary setting for his true encounter with the Two Floridians.

The arguments advanced by Mr. Painter would hardly be accepted by a court of law. Yet he is right, surely, to have approached Chateaubriand in a spirit of imaginative empathy. Works of literature are not legal documents testified on oath and to be judged accordingly. Chateaubriand wrote the narrative of his American travels after a lapse of some thirty years. To fortify his memory, he had recourse to maps and travel books which evidently misled him. Among other works he used, for instance, Jonathan Carver’s Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America (1778), which was itself a mélange of direct reports by the author and passages inserted by a skillful London editor to make it conform with the expectations of armchair travelers. Most writers of travel books have consciously or unconsciously borrowed from their predecessors. When Dickens visited the mouth of the Ohio he too was to fall back on phrases from earlier writers—even in the notes he made on the spot. So the unacknowledged quotations in Chateaubriand’s narrative are not at all exceptional, they give no reason to doubt his veracity in saying where he went or—and this is much more important—what he had felt at the time. And the great merit of this first volume of Mr. Painter’s biography is not that it provides a chart, whether entirely credible or not, of Chateaubriand’s travels but that it traces the course of his spiritual development.

The six-month American tour was the turning point in Chateaubriand’s life and rightly forms the centerpiece of this volume which covers his first twenty-five years. America was to make him famous, with the publication of Atala in 1801. But his fortunes had been tied to the New World from his very birth. His father, a younger son of the Breton nobility with more quarterings than louis d’or, had from cod-fishing on the Newfoundland coast, privateering in the Atlantic, and slave trading between Africa and the West Indies, made enough money to marry well, buy the Château de Combourg, and bring up his children in a gentlemanly way—though insufficient to make his sons financially independent. Mr. Painter deals with the family background succinctly and well; he describes the social life of ancien régime Brittany and Chateaubriand’s childhood in that wind-grieved landscape, neatly filling in the gaps in Mémoires d’outre-tombe. In the final chapters he tells with great narrative skill the story of Chateaubriand’s adventures in the Army of the Princes, his escape to Belgium, nearly fatal illness, and recovery on Jersey. The volume ends as he boards the packet boat for exile in England.

To write the life of one of the greatest of all autobiographers is a perilous undertaking. It is owing to no lack of skill as a translator and paraphraser if Mr. Painter sometimes falls below the high standard set by his subject. Chateaubriand’s stories and reflections are bound to lose something when they are retold and transposed from the first person to the third. Much of the fascination of his memoirs derives from their shifting viewpoints, the author’s ability to stand aside every now and then to look at his former self—sometimes caught in a slightly absurd posture. With that acutely sharpened sense of time which he shared with the other great Romantics he constantly superimposed reminiscences on one another. The dates of composition which he placed at the head of every chapter suggest that he attached as much importance to the moment when he described an event as to that at which it had occurred. And he also looked to the effect it would make in the future: no one has ever written more self-consciously for posterity. In the hands of a lesser writer the result might have been a merely diffuse and discursive book. But the Mémoires d’outre-tombe is an intricately wrought work of art.

So it is no coincidence that Mr. Painter has followed his distinguished biography of Proust with this life of Chateaubriand. As he pointed out in the former work, Proust recognized

…that Chateaubriand’s moments of poetic vision, in which he seems to conquer death and time, are precursors of the theory of unconscious memory—“of the same species as the tasting of the madeleine,” says the Narrator—and that such moments are in a sense more important than the great historical events which form the other subject of Mémoires d’outre-tombe, since the events are temporal, while the moments are eternal.

To these moments Mémoires d’outre-tombe owes its place as a major work of European literature. But no reader of Chateaubriand can be entirely indifferent to his reliability as a recorder of historical events. The belief that factual accuracy is an index of emotional integrity dies hard. We want to know how much fiction has been imposed on fact just as, in reading Proust, we are bound to wonder how much fact underlies the fiction. In this way Mr. Painter’s Chateaubriand will prove as indispensable a companion to Mémoires d’outre-tombe as his Marcel Proust is to À la recherche du temps perdu.

  1. *

    The Memoirs of Chateaubriand, selected and translated by Robert Baldick (Penguin, 1965).

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