Chateaubriand, François-René, vicomte (viscount) de

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Chateaubriand, François-René, vicomte (viscount) de (1768-1848): French Writer and Statesman.

A career diplomat and renowned author, François-René de Chateaubriand is credited with launching the Romantic movement in French literature and inspiring a Christian revival.

Born on 4 September 1768 in Saint-Malo, France, he was the youngest of 10 children. François-René grew up in his family’s medieval castle, sleeping in a turret bedroom that he suspected of being haunted. He later credited this atmosphere with inspiring an overactive imagination. In 1786, he entered the army. A royalist, Chateaubriand fled the country during the French Revolution and made a remarkable eight-month tour of America in 1791, the account of which appears in his book, Genius of Christianity, in 1802. In it, he claims to have visited New York, Philadelphia, Boston, a huge expanse of the American wilderness, and President George Washington. Although the many errors of fact regarding geography, tribes, and time considerations make it apparent that Chateaubriand’s accounts, including the alleged Washington interview, are largely fictional, the book had a tremendous impact upon European thought. The paean to nature, particularly the romantic description of Niagara Falls by moonlight, led a whole generation to seek spiritual inspiration from natural splendors. The remainder of the book is a defense of Christianity, which had been attacked for years by the French philosophes and revolutionaries. His line of reasoning is more artistic than theological, arguing that Catholicism must be the one true religion because it has inspired so much great art, music and literature. His praise of Gothic cathedral architecture revolutionized post-Enlightenment tastes and directly influenced Victor Hugo.

Impoverished, Chateaubriand married 17-year-old Céleste Buisson de Lavigne in 1792, falsely believing her to be wealthy. Although he remained married to her until her death in 1847, he had numerous highly publicized affairs with socially and intellectually prominent women. After being wounded in battle during a second army stint, Chateaubriand spent seven years in exile in England teaching French. In 1800, he returned to France and briefly gained an embassy position under Bonaparte, Napoleon.

Chateaubriand conquered the literary world with two highly original novels set among the Native Americans of Louisiana. Atala (1801) recounts a tragic love affair between an Indian warrior and a Christian girl amidst the lavish natural scenery along the Mississippi. The even more popular René (1802) remains a landmark in French literature. It is a thinly disguised autobiographical analysis of Chateaubriand’s emotional journey in life, as told by a troubled young man named René, and Chateaubriand would later change his middle name to Auguste in an effort to escape the obvious comparison. René tearfully tells his two mentors, a wise old Indian and an equally wise French priest, the story of his unhappiness, involving his sister’s torment over incestuous feelings for him. René sets the stereotype for the sensitive, poetical, superior young man who is misunderstood by all and doomed to a life of emotional torture. The book’s ending has a stunning reversal of tone, as the two mentors denounce René’s wallow in self pity and suggest that he cure himself by devoting himself to service to others. But this moral to the story was largely ignored by millions of young would-be Renés all over Europe eagerly seeking to emulate his self-victimizing sentimentalism, much to Chateaubriand’s dismay. The psychological condition exemplified by René’s mood swings between exultation and depression – today labeled bipolar manic-depression – quickly became a social and literary phenomenon known as mal du siècle (the “century’s ill”).

Following the restoration of the monarchy, Chateaubriand devoted himself to government service as a minister and ambassador under Louis XVIII and Charles X. Surviving two major scandals and a falling-out with Louis-Philippe, Chateaubriand finished his career in low profile positions, and in retirement wrote a posthumously published autobiography, Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb in 1849. Most of what is known about Chateaubriand’s private life and a good deal of what we know about the origins of the Romantic movement in France come from this book, which is among his most highly regarded pieces of writing.

Chateaubriand died on 4 July 1848, in Paris. His name, forever associated with emotional accounts of exotic travel, has also become immortalized in the culinary world for an achievement in his kitchen, as his personal chef, Montmireil devised the famous recipe for top sirloin in Béarnaise sauce known as Chateaubriand.

Further Reading:

André Maurois, Chateaubriand: Poet, Statesman, Lover, 1938.

Richard Switzer, Chateaubriand, 1971.

Kenneth T. Rivers

Lamar University