840: French Literature Before 1800 by Bradley and Michell

by Gerard

840.8: Michell, Robert Bell and Robert Foster Bradley, eds. French Literature Before 1800. New York: F. S. Crofts & Co., 1936. 493 pp.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 800: Literature
  • 840: French literature
  • 840.8: Collection of literary texts of French literature in more than one form

The history of French literature can trace its roots back to the Chansons de Roland about the brave and chivalrous life of Roland, knight of the court of Charlemagne. From there, poetry, drama, and novels evolved to showcase the philosophy of their respective eras. Classical forms gave way to more modern and progressive ways for expressing the human condition. Robert Michell and Robert Bradley’s French Literature Before 1800 is a volume intended to give the reader a major overview of the lives, techniques, themes, and philosophies of those who shaped the landscape of French up to the 19th century.

The authors’s present selection of every major (and even some minor) writer in the original French. That made it almost impossible for me to read this in its entirety. But, their descriptions of each author and epoch proved incredibly rich in giving writers I have heard a lot about a more solid context than before. Voltaire is a man who, while writing ingenious satires lampooning society, did not favor rampant revolutionism. The earlier thinker Pascal never published his Pensees during his lifetime. The 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in France were ones of upheaval, action, and reaction.

Each group of society, be they the Jansenites, the court aristocrats, the mathematical philosophers, or those in between, was trying to carve out their space in the culture. What remained was an marvelously diverse pool of writers who challenged each other to produce interesting and innovative art. Sometimes it amazed the populace and other times, it fell flat, but contributed in their own way. Michell and Bradley take the reader from the Roland writer all the way to Andre Chenier, picking up Rabelais, Le Rochefoucauld, Balzac, Madame de Sevigne, Moliere, and Diderot (among many others) along the way. If you’re looking for a decent overview of early French literature, then this is the place. I’m now better prepared for any French writing I’ll come across in the future.