Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Chateaubriand, François Auguste

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CHATEAUBRIAND, François Auguste, Viscount de, French statesman, b. in St. Malo in September, 1768; d. in Paris, 4 July, 1848. He sprang from a noble family of Brittany, and received his education at the colleges of Dôle and Rennes. He was destined for the church, but preferred the army, and received a commission as second lieutenant in 1785. His first production, an idyllic poem, “L'amour de la campagne,” revealed nothing of the genius he afterward manifested. He had no sympathy with the revolutionary movements in Paris, and in the spring of 1791 embarked for the United States, ostensibly in search of the northwest passage. In Philadelphia he dined with Washington, and when the president alluded to the obstacles in the way of a polar expedition, the young traveller said: “Sir, it is less difficult than to create a nation, as you have done.” Chateaubriand then visited New York, Boston, and Albany, and went among the Indian tribes, living with them, and exploring the country bordering on the great lakes. He afterward travelled through Florida, and spent some time among the Natchez. These wanderings among the savages, the strange beauties of the American continent, the size of its rivers, the solitude of its forests, made a powerful impression upon his imagination. Hearing of the flight and arrest of Louis XVI., he returned to France, but, finding that he could not benefit the royal cause, joined the emigrants at Coblentz, and afterward enlisted in a company that followed the Prussian army in their invasion of France. He was wounded and left for dead near Thionville, taken to Jersey by a charitable person, and from 1793 till 1800 was an exile in England, where he was reduced to extreme poverty. He was converted from materialism by the dying appeal of his mother, and in 1798 began to compose his “Génie du Christianisme.” He returned to France under an assumed name, and completed this work, publishing it in 1802. The romance of “Atala,” a picture of life among the American aborigines, which was incorporated in this work, had previously appeared in the “Mercure de France” in 1801, and attracted much attention. His work gained him a diplomatic appointment from Bonaparte; but after the execution of the Duc d'Enghien he resigned it, and afterward bitterly assailed the emperor. Chateaubriand's political career was somewhat wayward. He called himself “a Bourbonist from the point of honor, a royalist by reason, a republican by taste and disposition.” He had published a political pamphlet entitled “De Buonaparte et des Bourbons” (1814), which did good service in the king's cause, and after the restoration he became minister of state and a peer of France. Forfeiting the royal favor, he lost his office, but, becoming reconciled, he was minister to Berlin in 1821, to London in 1822, and, as a member of the congress of Verona, was instrumental in bringing about the French expedition to Spain. On his return he was made minister of foreign affairs. Throughout this time he remained a royalist, till, on being dismissed from office by the prime minister, de Villete, in 1824, he joined the liberals. He made himself popular by advocating Greek independence, but after 1830 ceased to be active in politics, and gave himself up to literary pursuits. Among his numerous works, besides those already noticed, are “Les martyrs” (1809); “Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem” (1811); “Études, ou discours historiques,” an introduction to a history of France on a gigantic plan (1831); “Voyage en Amérique, en France et en Italie” (1834); “Essai sur la littérature anglaise” (1836); and “Mémoires d'outretombe,” an autobiography (12 vols., 1849-'50; new ed., illustrated, 8 vols., 1856; 6 vols., 1861; German translation, 2d ed., Jena, 1852). This work he sold in advance in 1836, and lived on an annuity secured by the proceeds. His life was spent in retirement, the drawing-room of his friend, Mme. Récamier, being almost the only place he visited. There he could be seen every evening among the élite of the literary world. But a profound melancholy clouded his latter years. Most of his works have been translated into the English, German, and other languages. The complete and separate editions are numerous. The best of the former is by Sainte-Beuve (12 vols., 1859-'61), with a review of his literary labors. A new and complete illustrated edition, to consist of fourteen volumes, was begun in 1804. Marin's “Histoire de la vie et des ouvrages de M. de Chateaubriand” appeared in 1833, and M. Villemain's “Chateaubriand, sa vie, ses écrits, son influence sur son temps” in 1858.