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´╗┐Title: Emile Zola
Author: Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Emile Zola" ***

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William Dean Howells

In these times of electrical movement, the sort of construction in the
moral world for which ages were once needed, takes place almost
simultaneously with the event to be adjusted in history, and as true a
perspective forms itself as any in the past.  A few weeks after the
death of a poet of such great epical imagination, such great ethical
force, as Emile Zola, we may see him as clearly and judge him as fairly
as posterity alone was formerly supposed able to see and to judge the
heroes that antedated it.  The present is always holding in solution
the elements of the future and the past, in fact; and whilst Zola still
lived, in the moments of his highest activity, the love and hate, the
intelligence and ignorance, of his motives and his work were as
evident, and were as accurately the measure of progressive and
retrogressive criticism, as they will be hereafter in any of the
literary periods to come.  There will never be criticism to appreciate
him more justly, to depreciate him more unjustly, than that of his
immediate contemporaries.  There will never be a day when criticism
will be of one mind about him, when he will no longer be a question,
and will have become a conclusion.  A conclusion is an accomplished
fact, something finally ended, something dead; and the extraordinary
vitality of Zola, when he was doing the things most characteristic of
him, forbids the notion of this in his case.  Like every man who
embodies an ideal, his individuality partook of what was imperishable
in that ideal.  Because he believed with his whole soul that fiction
should be the representation, and in no measure the misrepresentation,
of life, he will live as long as any history of literature survives.
He will live as a question, a dispute, an affair of inextinguishable
debate; for the two principles of the human mind, the love of the
natural and the love of the unnatural, the real and the unreal, the
truthful and the fanciful, are inalienable and indestructible.


Zola embodied his ideal inadequately, as every man who embodies an
ideal must.  His realism was his creed, which he tried to make his
deed; but, before his fight was ended, and almost before he began to
forebode it a losing fight, he began to feel and to say (for to feel,
with that most virtuous and voracious spirit, implied saying) that he
was too much a romanticist by birth and tradition, to exemplify realism
in his work.  He could not be all to the cause he honored that other
men were--men like Flaubert and Maupassant, and Tourguenieff and
Tolstoy, and Galdos and Valdes--because his intellectual youth had been
nurtured on the milk of romanticism at the breast of his mother-time.
He grew up in the day when the great novelists and poets were
romanticists, and what he came to abhor he had first adored.  He was
that pathetic paradox, a prophet who cannot practise what he preaches,
who cannot build his doctrine into the edifice of a living faith.  Zola
was none the less, but all the more, a poet in this.  He conceived of
reality poetically and always saw his human documents, as he began
early to call them, ranged in the form of an epic poem.  He fell below
the greatest of the Russians, to whom alone he was inferior, in
imagining that the affairs of men group themselves strongly about a
central interest to which they constantly refer, and after whatever
excursions definitely or definitively return.  He was not willingly an
epic poet, perhaps, but he was an epic poet, nevertheless; and the
imperfection of his realism began with the perfection of his form.
Nature is sometimes dramatic, though never on the hard and fast terms
of the theatre, but she is almost never epic; and Zola was always epic.
One need only think over his books and his subjects to be convinced of
this:  "L'Assommoir" and drunkenness; "Nana" and harlotry; "Germinale"
and strikes; "L'Argent" and money getting and losing in all its
branches; "Pot-Bouille" and the cruel squalor of poverty; "La Terre"
and the life of the peasant; "Le Debacle" and the decay of imperialism.
The largest of these schemes does not extend beyond the periphery
described by the centrifugal whirl of its central motive, and the least
of the Rougon-Macquart series is of the same epicality as the grandest.
Each is bound to a thesis, but reality is bound to no thesis.  You
cannot say where it begins or where it leaves off; and it will not
allow you to say precisely what its meaning or argument is.  For this
reason, there are no such perfect pieces of realism as the plays of
Ibsen, which have all or each a thesis, but do not hold themselves
bound to prove it, or even fully to state it; after these, for reality,
come the novels of Tolstoy, which are of a direction so profound
because so patient of aberration and exception.

We think of beauty as implicated in symmetry, but there are distinctly
two kinds of beauty: the symmetrical and the unsymmetrical, the beauty
of the temple and the beauty of the tree.  Life is not more symmetrical
than a tree, and the effort of art to give it balance and proportion is
to make it as false in effect as a tree clipped and trained to a
certain shape.  The Russians and the Scandinavians alone seem to have
risen to a consciousness of this in their imaginative literature,
though the English have always unconsciously obeyed the law of our
being in their generally crude and involuntary formulations of it.  In
the northern masters there is no appearance of what M. Ernest Dupuy
calls the joiner-work of the French fictionalists; and there is, in the
process, no joiner-work in Zola, but the final effect is joiner-work.
It is a temple he builds, and not a tree he plants and lets grow after
he has planted the seed, and here he betrays not only his French school
but his Italian instinct.

In his form, Zola is classic, that is regular, symmetrical, seeking the
beauty of the temple rather than the beauty of the tree.  If the fight
in his day had been the earlier fight between classicism and
romanticism, instead of romanticism and realism, his nature and
tradition would have ranged him on the side of classicism, though, as
in the later event, his feeling might have been romantic.  I think it
has been the error of criticism not to take due account of his Italian
origin, or to recognize that he was only half French, and that this
half was his superficial half.  At the bottom of his soul, though not
perhaps at the bottom of his heart, he was Italian, and of the great
race which in every science and every art seems to win the primacy when
it will.  The French, through the rhetoric of Napoleon III., imposed
themselves on the imagination of the world as the representatives of
the Latin race, but they are the least and the last of the Latins, and
the Italians are the first.  To his Italian origin Zola owed not only
the moralistic scope of his literary ambition, but the depth and
strength of his personal conscience, capable of the austere puritanism
which underlies the so-called immoralities of his books, and incapable
of the peculiar lubricity which we call French, possibly to distinguish
it from the lubricity of other people rather than to declare it a thing
solely French.  In the face of all public and private corruptions, his
soul is as Piagnone as Savonarola's, and the vices of Arrabbiati, small
and great, are always his text, upon which he preaches virtue.


Zola is to me so vast a theme that I can only hope here to touch his
work at a point or two, leaving the proof of my sayings mostly to the
honesty of the reader.  It will not require so great an effort of his
honesty now, as it once would, to own that Zola's books, though often
indecent, are never immoral, but always most terribly, most pitilessly
moral.  I am not saying now that they ought to be in every family
library, or that they could be edifyingly committed to the hands of
boys and girls; one of our first publishing houses is about to issue an
edition even of the Bible "with those passages omitted which are
usually skipped in reading aloud"; and it is always a question how much
young people can be profitably allowed to know; how much they do know,
they alone can tell.  But as to the intention of Zola in his books, I
have no doubt of its righteousness.  His books may be, and I suppose
they often are, indecent, but they are not immoral; they may disgust,
but they will not deprave; only those already rotten can scent
corruption in them, and these, I think, may be deceived by effluvia
from within themselves.

It is to the glory of the French realists that they broke, one and all,
with the tradition of the French romanticists that vice was or might be
something graceful, something poetic, something gay, brilliant,
something superior almost, and at once boldly presented it in its true
figure, its spiritual and social and physical squalor.  Beginning with
Flaubert in his "Madame Bovary," and passing through the whole line of
their studies in morbid anatomy, as the "Germinie Lacerteux" of the
Goncourts, as the "Bel-Ami" of Maupassant, and as all the books of
Zola, you have portraits as veracious as those of the Russians, or
those of Defoe, whom, indeed, more than any other master, Zola has made
me think of in his frankness.  Through his epicality he is Defoe's
inferior, though much more than his equal in the range and implication
of his work.

A whole world seems to stir in each of his books; and, though it is a
world altogether bent for the time being upon one thing, as the actual
world never is, every individual in it seems alive and true to the
fact.  M. Brunetiere says Zola's characters are not true to the French
fact; that his peasants, working-men, citizens, soldiers are not
French, whatever else they may be; but this is merely M. Brunetiere's
word against Zola's word, and Zola had as good opportunities of knowing
French life as Mr. Brunetiere, whose aesthetics, as he betrays them in
his instances, are of a flabbiness which does not impart conviction.
Word for word, I should take Zola's word as to the fact, not because I
have the means of affirming him more reliable, but because I have
rarely known the observant instinct of poets to fail, and because I
believe that every reader will find in himself sufficient witness to
the veracity of Zola's characterizations.  These, if they are not true
to the French fact, are true to the human fact; and I should say that
in these the reality of Zola, unreal or ideal in his larger form, his
epicality, vitally resided.  His people live in the memory as entirely
as any people who have ever lived; and, however devastating one's
experience of them may be, it leaves no doubt of their having been.


It is not much to say of a work of literary art that it will survive as
a record of the times it treats of, and I would not claim high value
for Zola's fiction because it is such a true picture of the Second
Empire in its decline; yet, beyond any other books have the quality
that alone makes novels historical.  That they include everything, that
they do justice to all sides and phases of the period, it would be
fatuous to expect, and ridiculous to demand.  It is not their epical
character alone that forbids this; it is the condition of every work of
art, which must choose its point of view, and include only the things
that fall within a certain scope.  One of Zola's polemical delusions
was to suppose that a fiction ought not to be selective, and that his
own fictions were not selective, but portrayed the fact without choice
and without limitation.  The fact was that he was always choosing, and
always limiting.  Even a map chooses and limits, far more a picture.
Yet this delusion of Zola's and its affirmation resulted in no end of
misunderstanding.  People said the noises of the streets, which he
supposed himself to have given with graphophonic fulness and variety,
were not music; and they were quite right.  Zola, as far as his effects
were voluntary, was not giving them music; he openly loathed the sort
of music they meant just as he openly loathed art, and asked to be
regarded as a man of science rather than an artist.  Yet, at the end of
the ends, he was an artist and not a man of science.  His hand was
perpetually selecting his facts, and shaping them to one epical result,
with an orchestral accompaniment, which, though reporting the rudest
noises of the street, the vulgarest, the most offensive, was, in spite
of him, so reporting them that the result was harmony.

Zola was an artist, and one of the very greatest, but even before and
beyond that he was intensely a moralist, as only the moralists of our
true and noble time have been.  Not Tolstoy, not Ibsen himself, has
more profoundly and indignantly felt the injustice of civilization, or
more insistently shown the falsity of its fundamental pretensions.  He
did not make his books a polemic for one cause or another; he was far
too wise and sane for that; but when he began to write them they became
alive with his sense of what was wrong and false and bad.  His
tolerance is less than Tolstoy's, because his resignation is not so
great; it is for the weak sinners and not for the strong, while
Tolstoy's, with that transcendent vision of his race, pierces the
bounds where the shows of strength and weakness cease and become of a
solidarity of error in which they are one.  But the ethics of his work,
like Tolstoy's, were always carrying over into his life.  He did not
try to live poverty and privation and hard labor, as Tolstoy does; he
surrounded himself with the graces and the luxuries which his honestly
earned money enabled him to buy; but when an act of public and official
atrocity disturbed the working of his mind and revolted his nature, he
could not rest again till he had done his best to right it.


The other day Zola died (by a casualty which one fancies he would have
liked to employ in a novel, if he had thought of it), and the man whom
he had befriended at the risk of all he had in the world, his property,
his liberty, his life itself, came to his funeral in disguise, risking
again all that Zola had risked, to pay the last honors to his
incomparable benefactor.

It was not the first time that a French literary man had devoted
himself to the cause of the oppressed, and made it his personal affair,
his charge, his inalienable trust.  But Voltaire's championship of the
persecuted Protestant had not the measure of Zola's championship of the
persecuted Jew, though in both instances the courage and the
persistence of the vindicator forced the reopening of the case and
resulted in final justice.  It takes nothing from the heroism of
Voltaire to recognize that it was not so great as the heroism of Zola,
and it takes nothing from the heroism of Zola to recognize that it was
effective in the only country of Europe where such a case as that of
Dreyfus would have been reopened; where there was a public imagination
generous enough to conceive of undoing an act of immense public
cruelty.  At first this imagination was dormant, and the French people
conceived only of punishing the vindicator along with victim, for
daring to accuse their processes of injustice.  Outrage, violence, and
the peril of death greeted Zola from his fellow-citizens, and from the
authorities ignominy, fine, and prison.  But nothing silenced or
deterred him, and, in the swift course of moral adjustment
characteristic of our time, an innumerable multitude of those who were
ready a few years ago to rend him in pieces joined in paying tribute to
the greatness of his soul, at the grave which received his body already
buried under an avalanche of flowers.  The government has not been so
prompt as the mob, but with the history of France in mind, remembering
how official action has always responded to the national impulses in
behalf of humanity and justice, one cannot believe that the
representatives of the French people will long remain behind the French
people in offering reparation to the memory of one of the greatest and
most heroic of French citizens.

It is a pity for the government that it did not take part in the
obsequies of Zola; it would have been well for the army, which he was
falsely supposed to have defamed, to have been present to testify of
the real service and honor he had done it.  But, in good time enough,
the reparation will be official as well as popular, and when the
monument to Zola, which has already risen in the hearts of his
countrymen, shall embody itself in enduring marble or perennial bronze,
the army will be there to join in its consecration.


There is no reason why criticism should affect an equal hesitation.
Criticism no longer assumes to ascertain an author's place in
literature.  It is very well satisfied if it can say something
suggestive concerning the nature and quality of his work, and it tries
to say this with as little of the old air of finality as it can manage
to hide its poverty in.

After the words of M. Chaumie at the funeral, "Zola's life work was
dominated by anxiety for sincerity and truth, an anxiety inspired by
his great feelings of pity and justice," there seems nothing left to do
but to apply them to the examination of his literary work.  They unlock
the secret of his performance, if it is any longer a secret, and they
afford its justification in all those respects where without them it
could not be justified.  The question of immorality has been set aside,
and the indecency has been admitted, but it remains for us to realize
that anxiety for sincerity and truth, springing from the sense of pity
and justice, makes indecency a condition of portraying human nature so
that it may look upon its image and be ashamed.

The moralist working imaginatively has always had to ask himself how
far he might go in illustration of his thesis, and he has not
hesitated, or if he has hesitated, he has not failed to go far very
far.  Defoe went far, Richardson went far, Ibsen has gone far, Tolstoy
has gone far, and if Zola went farther than any of these, still he did
not go so far as the immoralists have gone in the portrayal of vicious
things to allure where he wished to repel.  There is really such a
thing as high motive and such a thing as low motive, though the
processes are often so bewilderingly alike in both cases.  The
processes may confound us, but there is no reason why we should be
mistaken as to motive, and as to Zola's motive I do not think M.
Chaumie was mistaken.  As to his methods, they by no means always
reflected his intentions.  He fancied himself working like a scientist
who has collected a vast number of specimens, and is deducing
principles from them.  But the fact is, he was always working like an
artist, seizing every suggestion of experience and observation, turning
it to the utmost account, piecing it out by his invention, building it
up into a structure of fiction where its origin was lost to all but
himself, and often even to himself.  He supposed that he was recording
and classifying, but he was creating and vivifying.  Within the bounds
of his epical scheme, which was always factitious, every person was so
natural that his characters seemed like the characters of biography
rather than of fiction.  One does not remember them as one remembers
the characters of most novelists.  They had their being in a design
which was meant to represent a state of things, to enforce an opinion
of certain conditions; but they themselves were free agencies, bound by
no allegiance to the general frame, and not apparently acting in behalf
of the author, but only from their own individuality.  At the moment of
reading, they make the impression of an intense reality, and they
remain real, but one recalls them as one recalls the people read of in
last weeks's or last year's newspaper.  What Zola did was less to
import science and its methods into the region of fiction, than
journalism and its methods; but in this he had his will only so far as
his nature of artist would allow.  He was no more a journalist than he
was a scientist by nature; and, in spite of his intentions and in spite
of his methods, he was essentially imaginative and involuntarily


To me his literary history is very pathetic.  He was bred if not born
in the worship of the romantic, but his native faith was not proof
against his reason, as again his reason was not proof against his
native faith.  He preached a crusade against romanticism, and fought a
long fight with it, only to realize at last that he was himself too
romanticistic to succeed against it, and heroically to own his defeat.
The hosts of romanticism swarmed back over him and his followers, and
prevailed, as we see them still prevailing.  It was the error of the
realists whom Zola led, to suppose that people like truth in fiction
better than falsehood; they do not; they like falsehood best; and if
Zola had not been at heart a romanticist, he never would have cherished
his long delusion, he never could have deceived with his vain hopes
those whom he persuaded to be realistic, as he himself did not succeed
in being.

He wished to be a sort of historiographer writing the annals of a
family, and painting a period; but he was a poet, doing far more than
this, and contributing to creative literature as great works of fiction
as have been written in the epic form.  He was a paradox on every side
but one, and that was the human side, which he would himself have held
far worthier than the literary side.  On the human side, the civic
side, he was what he wished to be, and not what any perversity of his
elements made him.  He heard one of those calls to supreme duty, which
from time to time select one man and not another for the response which
they require; and he rose to that duty with a grandeur which had all
the simplicity possible to a man of French civilization.  We may think
that there was something a little too dramatic in the manner of his
heroism, his martyry, and we may smile at certain turns of rhetoric in
the immortal letter accusing the French nation of intolerable wrong,
just as, in our smug Anglo-Saxon conceit, we laughed at the procedure
of the emotional courts which he compelled to take cognizance of the
immense misdeed other courts had as emotionally committed.  But the
event, however indirectly and involuntarily, was justice which no other
people in Europe would have done, and perhaps not any people of this
more enlightened continent.

The success of Zola as a literary man has its imperfections, its phases
of defeat, but his success as a humanist is without flaw.  He triumphed
as wholly and as finally as it has ever been given a man to triumph,
and he made France triumph with him.  By his hand, she added to the
laurels she had won in the war of American Independence, in the wars of
the Revolution for liberty and equality, in the campaigns for Italian
Unity, the imperishable leaf of a national acknowledgement of national

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