Chateaubriand in America

HOWEVER valuable to the student of social and economic history, the literature of American travel has an uncommon tartness. The early English travelers, like Dickens in the fifties and Kipling more recently still, were sometimes lacking in a sense of delicacy as guests, a sense of proportion as critics, a sense of humor as men and women.

A more courteous traveler and a writer of greater picturesqueness than, let us say, Mrs. Trollope, was François Auguste René de Chateaubriand. Travels always seem to find their publisher, whether as dull as the Voyage of the Sunbeam or as vacuous as the latest volume illustrated by the thrt color process; but the wanderings of this famous Frenchman through the Eastern States, down the Mississippi and through Louisiana and the Floridas, have been neglected by American readers and writers. With Chateaubriand, indeed, travels assumed a place in general literature; and the first, as well as the most significant, of the great traveler’s journeys was that to the United States. The American forest may be said to dominate this writer’s works, and to have determined his temperament. And it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of Chateaubriand in travelliterature, however good one’s intentions.

The Chateaubriand who sailed from Saint-Malo in the spring of 1791 was a youth of twenty-three, and had not yet written Le Génie de Christianisme, or served as the French ambassador to England. lie was an obscure younger son, his family having but lately reëstablished itself in the ancestral château and dignities. Chateaubriand’s literary ambitions remained vague, and had as yet been encouraged by no one unless by Lucile, his favorite and his least fortunate sister. His service in the army had been brought to an early close, and the Revolution had clouded France for the young aristocrat as it must have clouded it for the idealogue that he was. Here were reasons enough for sailing out into a new world; and if a useful end was needed — for already Chateaubriand had disappointed his brother and his parents by his lack of energy and of practicalness — it was found in his project for discovering a northwest passage, — a small undertaking for an irregularly trained young man, who had hardly emerged from the mediæval twilight of the Château de Combourg! But M. de Malesherbes, his brother-in-law, had joined him in reading the journals of the great geographers and explorers, and the Marquis de la Rouërie provided him with a letter introducing him to George Washington. Thus was a pretext furnished; for, as Chateaubriand confesses, “this project was not independent of my poetic nature.” To paraphrase Sainte-Beuve, the voyage of discovery was an imaginary end, a chimera easily forgotten. What led Chateaubriand to take ship for Baltimore was his instinct for migration—partly an inheritance from Malouin ancestors, the corsairs of the city-republic that gave birth to Duguay-Trouin and Jacques Cartier; partly a phase of the romantic temperament. Above all he longed to enjoy to the full the sensations, images, and dreams that had ravished his imagination as he patrolled the rough shores of Brittany, or wandered aimlessly through its forests. Brittany has ever been the land of mystery, and Chateaubriand underwent all of its enchantments. He looked to America as to a promised land, a country rich in sylphine images, in solitudes, in the unknown.

Much of what makes Chateaubriand a typically romantic figure declared itself in his interview with the American President. In the first place, self-contradictoriness — for in his Voyages he tells us that he had to wait in Philadelphia a fortnight before seeing Washington, while in the Mémoires the delay is only seven days. However that may be, — and hostile critics have expressed their suspicion that the whole incident is a fiction,—he describes the executive mansion as a little house, resembling its neighbors; and this last trait is characteristic of the older Philadelphian residences. Fresh from Versailles and from a hunting-party with Louis XVI, the young traveler comments on the absence of guards — even of menservants. A serving-maid answered his knock and he awaited the President without emotion.1 “Greatness of soul or of fortune does not impress me; I admire the one without embarrassment; the other inspires me with more pity than respect. . . . The General entered; of a great height, of an air calm and cold rather than noble, he is like all the engravings . I gave him my letter . . . that he read aloud with the exclamation ' Colonel Armand! ’ It was thus that he called him, and that the Marquis de la Rouërie had signed himself.

“We seated ourselves. I explained to him well enough the motive of my travels. He . . . listened with a sort of astonishment : I perceived it and said with some vivacity, ‘But it is less difficult to discover the northwest passage than to create a people, as you have done.' — ' Well, well, young man!’ cried he, holding out his hand to me. He invited me to dinner for the day following, and we parted.”

The interview was short, and it accomplished nothing for Chateaubriand, but it showed his effrontery at least, and his distinguishing egoism in measuring the intended discoveries of a young man of no reputation against the successes of the founder of a republic; this, too, to the founder’s face. The words of this conversation may be imaginary; one prefers, none the less, to accept Chateaubriand’s narrative as essentially correct, if only for its suggestiveness in showing forth the character of René.2

It goes without saying that Chateaubriand failed to discover the northwest passage; he soon gave up his great project and confined himself to traveling from Philadelphia to New York; thence, according to his own story, to Boston and the battlefield of Lexington; to Albany; to Niagara; through the lakes of Canada; down Lake Erie, and on to Fort Pitt, now Pittsburg; down the Ohio and the Mississippi, past Natchez, to the settlements of the Creek Indians; through Louisiana and the Floridas.3 Returning, he probably retraced much the same course, except that from Pittsburg he made his way eastward to Philadelphia, thence to France. Spending the night in a cabin somewhere in the Blue Mountains of western Pennsylvania, an English newspaper of remote date had fallen into his hands; there he found the “Flight of the King ” heralded in eighteenth-century scare-heads. He read of Louis XVI’s arrest at Varennes and his return to Paris. His duty to his family, his order, and his king asserted itself, and he made haste to join the émigrés serving in the army of the allies in their war upon the Revolutionary government.

Hostile critics have attempted to throw doubt upon Chateaubriand’s traversing, in eight short months, the great distances which he has described for us. One is entitled to some skepticism as to the extern of his investigation of, for example, the lakes of Canada, the subject of a chapter in his Mémoires. It has been asserted, too, that, as a reader of Bartram,4 he simply drew upon the record of the American naturalist’s studies of the Floridas, never setting foot so far south himself.

Part of the evidence used by Chateaubriand’s critics is internal. Take, for example, the prologue of Atala, in the first edition, where the Mississippi, called — perhaps only for euphony — the Meschacébé, is described in all its grandeur. It waters, he writes, a delicious country, which the people of the United States call the new Eden. “A thousand other streams, tributaries of the Meschacébé, the Missouri, the Illinois, the Akansa, the Ohio, the Wabache, Tenasé,5 fatten it with their slime and fertilize it with their waters. When all these rivers are swollen with the deluges of winter, when tempests have beaten down whole sections of the forests, time brings together . . . the uprooted trees: it unites them with bindweed, cements them with mud, plants young trees there, and launches its work on the waters. Carried upon foaming waves, their radiant growths descend from all parts to the Meschacébé. . . . Grace is always united to magnificence in the scenes of nature; and while the central current bears toward the sea the trunks of pines and oaks, one sees in the two lateral currents . . . floating islands of pistia and of water-roses, whose yellow blossoms raise themselves like little tents. Green serpents, blue herons, red flamingoes, young crocodiles, embark as passengers on these flower-boats, and the colony, unfurling to the wind its sails of gold, will land, asleep, in some retired cove.”

Is it strange that Sainte-Beuve queries, with a show of seriousness, “Are we in North America ?” A writer in the American Quarterly Review of December, 1827, is even more pointed in his criticism. The contrast which Chateaubriand draws between the two banks of the river is, he says, founded on little more than imagination. “The savannas are not all on one side, nor the forests on the other,” lie declares. But according to the French traveler the west bank of the Mississippi shows nothing but the undulations of a country clothed with savannas, and boundless meadows where one sees troops of three and four thousand wild buffalo. “Sometimes an aged bison, cleaving the billows, lies down amid the long grass of an islet in the Meschacébé; with his forehead garnished with two crescents, and his old and slimy beard, you would take him for the bellowing god of the stream, casting a satisfied eye on tlie grandeur of his floods and the wild abundance of his banks.” It is a fit prospect that Chateaubriand provides for his deified bison ; and he gives one bank of the river silence and repose, the other movement, a murmured harmony, a mingling of colors and of bird-notes. Such a setting as this is a fit one, too, for Chactas, the Indian who has an acquaintance with Racine and Bossuet, has been presented at court, and who has returned to the solitude of the forests. Incidentally, one may see where Victor Hugo derived his love for antithesis at its strongest, and for the monstrous in nature. Chateaubriand makes it clear enough in all his American writings that he is fascinated by the bison, the serpent, and above all, the crocodile. When one believes that nature has reached her greatest beauty, she smiles and embellishes her picture, he writes. And then he shows us one of these embellished pictures: gold-fish, the crocodile floating like the trunk of a tree, trout, pike, perch, bass, bream, drum-fish — “all natural enemies of one another, swam pell-mell in the lake, and seemed to have made a truce in order to enjoy in common the beauty of the evening.” Most of the scene must be omitted here: most of the islands, the flowers and the fruits, and most of the magical tints of the sunset. “At our right were the Indian rivers, at our left our hunting camp. . . . In the east the moon, touching the horizon, seemed to rest motionless on the distant hills; in the west the vault of heaven was melted in a sea of diamonds and of sapphires, in which the setting sun seemed to be dissolving. The animals of the creation were, like us, attentive to this grand spectacle: the crocodile, turned toward the evening star, lashed with its open jaws the water of the lake into coloured sheaves; perched on a. rotten bough, the pelican praised in his own fashion the Master of nature, while the crane flew over to praise Him above the clouds! ” The exclamation point is Chateaubriand’s own, for he is evidently unafraid of calling down upon his head those vials of presidential wrath reserved for the frenzied naturalists of a later day.6

Apart from the briefness of his stay in the United States and the southeast, and his errors, unconscious and wanton, one’s suspicions as to the extensiveness of his travels might be aroused by the fact that his journals very frequently show a poverty of detail; yet it is true of his prose generally that it is weak in scientific detail, however solemn the pretense of erudition ; and ennui overcoming him, René seems sometimes to yawn in his reader’s face and to set up a conversation about himself instead of sticking to the subject of discourse. However subtle in rendering colors and shades, accuracy is not to be looked for in one so fond of antithesis and of juxtaposition. Yet Chateaubriand owed more to his wanderings in the United States than to his later visits to Palestine and to the Orient. In his life as an author America is an influence secondary only to his youth in the sombre old town of Saint-Malo, where he was born and where he now lies buried, on the Ile de Bêy.

The Chateaubriand who set sail from the Breton port for Baltimore had accomplished nothing that raised him above his fellows; the Chateaubriand who returned to France from Philadelphia bore with him, in his journals and — what proved to be of infinitely greater importance — in his memory, a body of fact, experience, and impression that was to color all his work, and was to give him his colossal prose epic, Les Natchez, from which he carved out Atala and René for his Génie de Christianisme; this in addition to his Voyages en Amérique. “Rousseau had discovered and painted Alpine nature, the garden of the Pays de Vaud, and the beautiful forests of our climes; Bernardin de SaintPierre revealed to us the sky and vegetation of the Indian islands; but Chateaubriand, first of all, unfolded the vasts of the American desert, of the transatlantic forest.” And Sainte-Bcuve adds that youth alone has the gift par excellence of peopling the solitude; it has within itself the stuff that dreams are made of.7 Wordsworth remarked something of this: nature has its mysteries, and has nothing to communicate to the man of ambition, of pleasure, who, in an hour of boredom, or of disappointment, demands a passing distraction, and who thinks familiarly to enjoy nature because at one time he loved and knew its secrets. But Chateaubriand visited America in the days when he was young, when his accord with nature was perfect, before his disappointment had come thick upon him; before he wrote, in bitter pessimism, his Essai sur les Révolutions. It is to Atala and René, with all the rich perfection of their harmonies, with their youthful freshness and vigor; to these works which have the closest association with his American travels, that one turns first and turns most often. Atala, René, and the Génie de Christianisme, — these are the books that show Chateaubriand at his best and his most characteristic.

It is not only because his travels in America gave Chateaubriand material for whole volumes of his works and for chapters of description in his Essai sur les Révolutions and his Mémoires, that we regard those travels as significant. They helped to form the genius which we know as Chateaubriand ; and the solitude of the American forest had its place in developing the type of René — the type that we place beside Childe Harold, and Werther in studying nineteenth-century romanticism. Perhaps it is less obvious that to a great extent the disillusion of Chateaubriand dates from this double disappointment of his American expedition: his failure to distinguish himself as a discoverer and his discernment of the limitations of the “state of nature ” to which, as a pupil of Rousseau, he must have looked with far more of enthusiasm than one would ever guess from his own pronouncements. For though an early follower of Jean-Jacques, and always his literary descendant, a revulsion of feeling came when the Revolution shattered Chateaubriand’s ideals and cooperated with the American travels in completing his disillusionment.

It is Chateaubriand’s greatest critic who has once and for all expressed the truth of the relationship of these two writers, and has branded the disingenuousness of the preface to Atala, where Chateaubriand asserts that he has never believed in the “ natural man ” or in the perfection of the “natural state.” The critic might have added that it was not until after his American travels, after he had come to appreciate the fact that no problem is unconfused, and that no phrase yet devised can furnish a universal panacea, that Chateaubriand studiously denied Rousseau his mastership. The Mémoires of Benjamin Constant furnish an incident of the period when Rousseau’s enthusiasm for men unspoiled by society had been taken up by the world of Paris and Versailles. A young Avegron savage, Degérando, incapable of speaking a word of French, was a guest at a dinner party where Mme. de Récamier was his table-companion. In the midst of a heated discussion about Lalonde’s fondness for spiders, cries were heard, and every one went out into the garden, whither Degerando had preceded them. There he was, installed in the branches of a tree, and altogether naked. The ladies were terrified; the savage could be enticed down only by means of a basket of peaches. La Harpe quietly chuckled his wish that Jean-Jacques had been present to witness the behavior of a “natural man” in constituted society.

La Harpe did not, perhaps, require disillusionment on any point. Chateaubriand, however he may in later years have tried to disguise the fact, did require it; and he, too, saw the “natural man,” as La Harpe saw him in the pear tree, and Napoleon in Egypt. Chateaubriand describes his first view of Indians, both in his Mémoires and in the earlier account of his American travels, published in 1827. It was soon after the passage of the Mohawk River, in New York, in a forestclearing on the frontier of solitude itself that Chateaubriand found himself among twenty savages, “men and women, besmeared like sorcerers, bodies half naked, ears slit, crows’ feathers on their heads and rings through their nostrils. A little Frenchman, powdered and curled as of yore, in a coat of apple-green, a vest of drugget, frills and sleeves of muslin, was scraping a pocket-violin and making these Iroquois dance Madelon Friguet. M. Violet [the dancing master], in speaking to me of the Indians, always said: Ces messieurs sauvages et ces dames sauvagesscs.... I have never seen such skipping. M. Violet holding his little violin between his chin and his breast, tuned the fatal instrument; he cried in Iroquois: A vos ’places! and the whole troupe leapt like a band of demons.” 8

If, then, the American forest meant more to Chateaubriand than a setting for his stories, an illustration for his defense of Christianity, it meant, above all, disillusion. And disillusion has its place in art: it is a saying of Joubert, Chateaubriand’s critic and counselor, that the essence of art is to be found in the union of l’illusion et la sagesse — which one may freely translate as illusion and disillusion. An American essayist, commenting on this dictum, says of Milton that the noble isolation of his soul schooled him to speak understandingly the ideal language of Arcadia, the language of illusion; yet there must always, in the greater poets, “run a note of disillusionment — a note subdued for the most part so as scarcely to be heard, but rising to the surface now and again with a strange quivering of mingled sadness and joy, of sadness for the fair enchantment it dispels, of joy for the glimpse it affords into something divine and very high. You may hear this note of disillusion many times in Shakespeare, clearest of all in The Tempest, where with a word Prospero puts an end to his fairy drama in the woods, and all the insubstantial pageant fades away.” 9

To America Chateaubriand carried with him a heart old in its store of Breton traditions, but young in its sylphine images, its dream of great performances, its faith in the repose of the forest, its conviction that “ a thousand delights and rewards are reserved for the primitive man.” Chateaubriand was matured by his view of a world as it was: a northwest passage that refused to be discovered unless, perhaps, after years of study and of preparation; a savage race that danced to the music of an exscullion of Rochambeau; a forest that was too often an incongruous mixture of wilderness and civilization. He was aged, too, by the Revolution; he lost his brother-in-law, the noble-spirited de Malesherbes, on the scaffold; the survivors of his family were impoverished; he was wounded, ragged, almost dying; he all but starved in a London garret. His fate was not, like Byron’s, to awake famous ; he rose from his dreams a refugee and a beggar; a young man who had forgotten what it was to smile. If his disillusionment bore bitter fruit at first, later he was to blend the beauty of Christianity and the senses in works whose worth as religious documents, whether greater or less, can never blur their poetic value. To quote Joubert once more — art at its best is l’illusion et la sagesse : this is preeminently true of the stormy René.

If the performance of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre is more perfect than Chateaubriand’s, it is evident enough that Chateaubriand is always a sophisticated artist. As a transcendentalism throwing his white veil over the passions, and as a classicist, unsatisfied with their unaided position and so grouping his natural objects, he proves himself anything but a mere observer, and a recorder of impressions. He was told that the two Indian women of Florida from whom he was rather rudely separated were filles peintes, but they serve him as models, the one of Mila, the other of Atala — the latter the symbol of an almost unearthly quality of virtue.

And in his travels Chateaubriand was always seeing, not what was, but what best satisfied his cravings; he ended by writing beautiful if overladen descriptions, and stories that are vital appeals to human sympathy, however remote Chactas and Atala may be from Indian life. In catching the wild beauty of the American forest, in opening up a new territory to literature, he succeeded better as artist than as explorer. One need not regret the fact — and why should one be severe on Chateaubriand either for his lapses from fact or for his unashamed borrowings from the works of less vividly inspired voyagers ? In the days when he gazed at Niagara — and was seized by a desire to take the wild plunge — the thought that doctors’ theses would be written on his American travels did not enter his head, egoist though he was.

  1. Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe. vol. i, pp. 378385; édition Legrand, Troussel et Pomey; Voyages en Amérique, etc., Paris, 1829, pp. 20-24. In both accounts of his American experiences, Chateaubriand introduces an exhaustive comparison of Washington and Bonaparte. With his love of antithesis and his hatred of the Emperor, he paints a portrait of Washington that must he granted an impressive monument to the President’s memory.
  2. That such a journey as this was accomplished in the eight months at Chateaubriand’s disposal is unbelievable. Dr. Madison Slathers, in his Chateaubriand et Amérique (University of Grenoble, 1905), accepts Chateaubriand’s own statements except asto the Boston excursion with its pilgrimage to the “ fields of Lexington,” and the Canadian explorations. This part of the Voyages has its debt to the History of the Fur Trade of Sir Alexander MacKensie, London, 1801. Dr. Slathers believes in the authenticity of the journey through Louisiana and the Floridas, but questions its thoroughness.
  3. M. Bédier, in the Etudes Critiques already cited, names as Chateaubriand’s principal sources, as author of the Voyages, the works of Bartram and of Charlevoix. Dr. E. Dick, in the Revue d’ Histoire Littéraire de la France, Avril, 1906 (also in Les Plagiats de Chateaubriand, Coire, 1906), calls attention to the Pilgrimage in Europe and America of T. C. Beltrami, New Orleans, 1824. Chateaubriand’s debt to Beltrami was pointed out by a contributor to the Foreign Review and Continental Miscellany, ii, p. 468 ff. (1828). Chateaubriand did not conceal the fact of his borrowing from Beltrami, whose friend he became.
  4. See the essay on “ Chateaubriand’s America,” contributed by Miss E. K. Armstrong to the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, June, 1907. Her paper is noteworthy in removing all doubts as to the reality of the visit to President Washington — doubts expressed with particular vigor by Professor Joseph Bédier in his Etudes Critiques [Paris, 1908, pp. 127-274]. An examination of Washington’s papers preserved in the Library of Congress has revealed the letter of introduction, endorsed in Washington’s hand : “ From General Armand, Marquis de la Rouerie.” The letter is dated 22d March, 1791, and begins, “ Mr. le Chevalier de Combourg, a nobleman of the State of Brittany and a neighbourg [sic] of mine, is going over to North America. The purpose of that journey, I presume, is to inrich his mind by the active contemplation of such a moving and happy country.” (Department of MSS., Letters to Washington, vol. 70, 1790, p. 210). It is significant that this letter, although of considerable length, has nothing to say of Chateaubriand’s project of discovering a northwest passage.
  5. In a footnote to his Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire (éd. Paris, 1889, i, 201, 202), Sainte-Beuve proves unsympathetic to this reformed spelling of the poetic school. Dr. Stathers, in the essay referred to, notes (p. 153, footnote) that “ Chateaubriand has adapted French orthography to English pronunciation. In some of his later works ... he has always followed the English spelling.”
  6. The anonymous writer in the American Quarterly Review, December, 1827, ventures the opinion that Chateaubriand never pushed so far west as the Mississippi, or so far south as Louisiana. His peopling’ the borders of the Mississippi with monkeys and flamingoes especially excites the American critic — and with good reason.
  7. Cf. Sainte-Beuve, op. cit.,i, pp. 134-137.
  8. Voyages en Amtrique, en Italic, etc., p. 30 ; Mémoires, i, pp. 394, 895.
  9. Mr. Paul Elmer More : Shelburne Essays, First Series, pp. 122-124. New York. 1904.