What Chateaubriand Saw

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

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

Chateaubriand; drawing by David Levine

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…

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