The Rise of the Writer

Writer and Public in France: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day

by John Lough
Oxford University Press, 435 pp., $36.00

Le Siècle des lumières en province: Académies et académiciens provinciaux, 1680-1789

by Daniel Roche
Mouton (Paris and The Hague), 2 volumes, 914 pp., $74.50

If the man of letters was not born in Paris, he seems to speak French throughout most modern history; and his battle cries, from écrasez l’infâme to épatez le bourgeois, have echoed from the left bank to the right bank before circling the world. Thanks to the work of John Lough and Daniel Roche, it now is possible to trace the rise of the writer in France and to situate him within an institution that also seems peculiarly French, although it exists everywhere and nowhere—the Republic of Letters.

In Writer and Public in France, Lough concentrates on the writer’s attempt to win financial independence and social standing, a long, hard struggle against supercilious patrons, tight-fisted publishers, and an illiterate public. The most surprising aspect of this story is the staying power of patronage. It is well known that the medieval minstrels lived off scraps from their lords’ tables and that Racine gave up playwriting as soon as he won a pension and a place in court. But Lough shows that writers continued to depend on the rich and powerful until well into the nineteenth century.

Hugo received 2,000 francs a year from Louis XVIII and Charles X. Gautier got 3,000 from Louis Napoleon in addition to an honorific post as a librarian worth 6,000. Flaubert kept body and soul together in his old age from a 3,000-franc librarianship. And even Baudelaire, who declared grandly in 1855 that he would never solicit subsidies—“never will my name appear in the vile papers of a government”—begged the minister of education two years later for a pension and received a miserable 200 francs.

Writers did not liberate themselves completely from patrons until about 1880, when Zola celebrated the advent of the modern cash nexus in literature: “It is money, it is the legitimate gain realized from his works that has freed [the writer] from all humiliating patronage…. Money has emancipated the writer, money has created modern letters.”

Why did it take the writer so long to live by his pen in France? Essentially, Lough argues, because of the underdeveloped character of the literary market.

In 1973, half the Frenchmen over fourteen years of age had not read a book during the past year. Almost a third of the population could not read at all in the 1870s, and nearly two-thirds were illiterate in the 1780s. Literacy rates were far higher in Britain and America during those periods, and so was expenditure on libraries. In 1908-1909, the public libraries of Leeds spent six times as much money on books as those in Lyon, a city of comparable size.

Frenchmen have felt dubious about public education ever since Voltaire warned them that a peasant who took up books would abandon his plough. The Revolution established a system of primary schools on paper in 1793, but it probably disrupted the institutions of the Old Regime so badly that mass education was set back half a century. It took two more republics before the free, compulsory, and…

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