Marmontel, Jean-François

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Marmontel, Jean-François (1723-99): French Literary Theorist and Writer.

Jean-François Marmontel quickly rose from a poor peasant upbringing to become one of France’s leading literary theorists and writers of the 18th century. His work on French poetics, and his defense of the lyrical quality of the French language against attacks by Rousseau, Jean-Jacques won him a place in the French Academy. He also maintained popular appeal as the librettist of light operas, and as the author of the Contes Moraux, which depicted in an honorable, if sugarcoated, manners the noble character of rustic life.

Born in Bart-les-Orgues, in the Limousin region, Marmontel gained the attention of Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, upon winning an award for his poetry at a competition in Toulouse in 1745. He soon moved to Paris, where he became involved with France’s literary elite, especially the philosophes. Soon after his arrival, he received praise for his preface to the 1746 edition of Voltaire’s La Herniade. Soon afterwards, he began to write articles for Diderot, Denis’s Encyclopedia at the behest of his friend D’Alembert.

Because of Marmontel’s continuing need to support his family in Bart-les-Orgues, he found it necessary to leave the Encyclopedia project in 1757 during a backlash against the philosophes. The following year, Pompadour, Marquise de appointed him to the post of editor of the Mercury de France, the country’s leading literary magazine.

Marmontel’s publication of Poétique française put him at the forefront of literary theory in France. In addition to attracting positive attention from Frederick II, the Great of Prussia, the work earned him a seat on the French Academy in 1764. Marmontel succeeded Bossy as royal historiographer of France in 1772, and in 1783 he replaced his friend D’Alembert as Permanent Secretary of the French Academy, the nation’s highest literary post.

As Marmontel’s career advanced, he became more interested in literature beyond the bounds of France’s salons and theaters. In particular, he began to regard favorably the literature of the medieval and Renaissance periods, both domestic and foreign. His translation of Pope, Alexander’s “The Rape of the Lock” was considered one of the finest of the century.

While the financial situation of Marmontel’s family directly affected his decision to leave the Encyclopédie in 1757, his peasant upbringing influenced his overall outlook on life and literature. Unlike many members of the literary elite who came from relatively privileged families, Marmontel found it difficult to embrace a revolutionary approach to literature or to politics, preferring instead more incremental changes.

The most obvious results of this provincial background were his attacks on the novel, and his Contes moraux. He found novels like La Princesse de Clèves and Manon Lescault, in particular, to be featuring a degenerate lifestyle, incompatible with his own sense of decorum. In response, he sought to create with his own stories an uplifting and noble image of the bon seigneur, or gentleman farmer, as a counterbalance to the moral deterioration of the French aristocracy. He also used the stories to refine the conte into a more compact and straightforward narrative form.

Further Reading:

Michael Cardy, The Literary Doctrines of Jean-François Marmontel, 1982.

Steven Daniell

Auburn University

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