Children of Decadence: The Forgotten Children’s Literature of Remy de Gourmont

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Children of Decadence: The Forgotten Children’s Literature of Remy de Gourmont
SHARP 2016 ( Conference )
Huet, Helene
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Remy de Gourmont
Children's Books
Children's Literature
French Literature
Fin de Siecle


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1 I would like to start my talk with a disclaimer. My presentation today is slightly different from what I originally intended to do a few months ago when I submitted my abstract. My books for children has taken me on a differe nt path. #academiclife. Introduction Between 1882 and 1893, French writer and critic Remy de Gourmont published n i ne Cadot and three with Firmin Didot, on a broad range of subjects: from Pompeii and hot air balloons to French Canada and Lapland. Nine books is nothing to sn eeze was able to find only one never published talk about these books. It is almost as if Remy de Gourmont had never written them. They are completely abse nt from the scholarly literature on Gourmont, somehow implying that the beginning of his career does not matter. This is why my goal today is to shed light on the long s need I will first provide you with a quick biography of Remy de Gourmont before starting my both by Gourmont himself and by scholars. Then I will show why we should care about these they deal with and how some can be reminiscent of themes found in Decadent books.


2 Who was Remy de Gourmont? Writer, critic, Remy de Gourmont (who decided to drop the accent off his name), was one of the founders of the Symbolist journal Mercure de France alongside Alfred Valette He was also at the head of a few other journals such as which barely lasted and consisted mostly of images of wood engravings, and La revue des ides His writing career was quite varied. He published pamphlets, linguistic essays, novels, plays, articles, short stories, etc. But in 1882 Gourmont was a great choice to write these books as he was working at the time at the Biblio th que Nationale de France. He was smart, knowledgeable, and ha d an easy access to a great amount of resources. y Despite being written for children, these books show a side of Gourmont that was interested by a wide variety of topics and are a reflection of the many interests he will have in his career later on. As I mentioned earlier, Remy de Gourmont published six books wi th Degorce Cadot in Bibliothque du jeune ge Bibliothque connaissances gnrales Un volcan en ruption (1882), Une ville ressuscite (1883), Bertrand du Guesclin (1883), Temptes et Naufrages (1883), Les Derniers Jours de Pompi (1884), and En Ballon (1884). After a break of a few years in which he publishe d articles a s well as two novels, Merlette ( 1886) and Sixtine (1890), Gourmont worked with Firmin Didot and released three books dealing with more political and ethnographical concerns: Les Franais au Canada et en Acadie (1888), Chez les Lapons, (1890), and Les Canadi e ns de France (1893). To my knowledge, there are no documents remaining pertaining to the publication of thes e books, be it contracts or letters, so we can only assume with a lot of


3 writing articles for journals such as Le Contemporain or La R evue du Monde Latin at the same time, these books alone were certainly not earning him enough to make ends meet. It does make sense then, when in 1886, after going through the pages of the first issue of La Vogue disgusted by his dgo t Promenades littraires IV, 34). Obviously, Gourmont was not really impressed by his works on hot air balloons or Pompeii And yet, paradoxically, he continued revelation and the sub sequential release of his novels Merlette and Sixtine As Uitti notes, It is therefore very likely that hi s two novels were not selling like hot cakes, which would explain with Firmin Didot a few years before obliging him to release these books. Or, as Bernard Jahier the author simply wanted to impart young readers with his love of Antiquity, science, and patriotism. The rejection rejection of his own work, a rejection that was and still is widely accepted and followed by scholars. Indeed, as far as I know, by Bernard Jahier, and it has not even been published in an arti cle books are only very quickly mentioned in the biographical information. Sometimes a scholar adds his or her own thoughts about the books. For example, Charles Dantzig explains that we should not judge Go Merlette and


4 rtaine scheresse au absolutely without merit (11 12). in the bibliographies of his works. This is the case for Les Canadiens de France published in 1893 and which can be easily found digitized on Gallica. This book does not appear listed in (2002) or K book La passion littraire de Remy de Gourmont (1962). It is also not currently on Wikipedia which I clearly need to change and edit! Finally, despi te him mentioning the books in one in Remy de Gourmont. Cher vieux daim (1990). One can read Oeuvres de Gourmont (except Merlette et les ouvrages instructifs) (195). Clearly, these books were deemed not worthy to make an appearance here. been quick to follow suit by dismissing them as well. Interestingly, Gourmont rejected his books eld, explained in the Symbolist journal L a Revue blanche in 1892 that typically had horrendous illustrations, were of poor quality, and that their content was asinine, the genre could only be redeemed by of antiquity and those based on Christian texts, leading children to rediscover great legends of past times (53). And this is ex actly what Gourmont did with his three books on Pompeii or with


5 the legend of Be were and are worth reading! hy do we have a tendency determining their literary merit. It is also because of their pr esence in what makes the culture of a components too often neglected books, therefore, are an example of the culture of France in the late nineteenth century, a very white, mal This is why today, I deemed it important to They have, for instance, a patriotic and na tionalist agenda. After the defeat in the Franco Prussian war and the loss of Alsace Lorraine, urged to get stronger so as to be able to fight back and win a gainst the Germans. This is the case


6 in (1886) by Andr Laurie, where two school kids from France and Germany, who are fighting with one another, end up in the victory of the once weak but now strong French kid. Some of Go ideology. En ballon shows the genius of the French inventors who created and improved hot air balloons and an entire chapter is dedicated to the role of these balloons during the Franco Prussian war and how instrumental they proved to be in some of the battles. As for Bertrand du Guesclin, a famous fourteenth century knight who notably won battles against England, he is is ready to fight the enemy until his death becomes an example to follow for the young male French readers who will need t o regain the lost provinces, Alsace Lorraine, from the hands of the invader, Germany. Many lly white, male, middle courage, initiative, and manliness and supported the French colonial enterprise, reinforcing the sense of national pride and cultural superiority ( Penny Brown 1 09). The three books Gourmont published with Firmin Didot are not adventure stories per say but they are didactic works meant more particularly, its relationship to Canada. In deed there was a rene wed interest for Canada in the second half of the nineteenth Les grands voyages et les grands voyageurs. Dcouverte de la terre (1878), and in literature in general. One could buy to Canada such as le baron Eti e s D Pacifique travers le Canada et le Nord des Etats Unis ( 1888) or books about Canadian history


7 such as Histoire populaire du C anada by Jacques de Baudoncourt (1888) As for Remy de they are meant to redress an issue: French people have forgotten they colonized North America and that a French population of more than two million people l i ve across the ocean ( Les Franais au Canada et en Acadie 7). France needs to prove to the world it was and still is a colonizing and powerful nation. One way to do this is for the younger first civilizing language he only meant to enlighten the readers on the history, mores, and people of Canada but they are also r, np) of the defeat in the Franco Prussian war. Alsace Les Canadiens de France 15), French Canada is a transatlantic Alsace Lorraine : it resisted the dominance and invasion of Anglophone Canadians to remain French just like the lost Alsace Lorraine will fight the Germans to remain French. A H int of Decadence. therefore dealing with tropes many other books were dealing with at the time. But what struck me as I was reading the texts was to see certain themes that were quite reminiscent of themes found in Decadent books at the time, the first of which being the despis e of women. While in Gour femmes fatales Monsieur Vnus (1884) where the main female character, who dresses up as man, ends up having her lover, whom she h as dressing up as a woman, killed, the few women who are mentioned in the texts stand out in their negative depiction. In Bertrand du Guesclin Bertrand clearly despises women. As Tiphaine Ravenel


8 (22), that is to say, do no trust women if you are wise. After the fight, he decides to marry her En ballon which narrates the history of hot air balloons, it is interesting to note that despite the fact that so many men died Blanchard, who set a hot air balloon on fire in 1819 and who fell on a house, then on a street mutilated W hile Gourmont did not make the in the text which was more s theme of violence in young people which echoes a chapter in A rebours (1884) by Joris Karl Huysmans. Bertrand du Guesclin starts out as a very violent child who loves organ izing fights between children. He usually gathers forty to fifty children and has them fight for hours, even joining the fights himself (9). The first illustration of the book shows one of these fights and Bertrand looks like a menacing figure, holding a s tick, ready to hit someone. It is this rage he has in him that will lead him to become a valiant knight, once he learned to control it. This violence and threatening nature is reminiscent of book. The ma in character, Jean des Esseintes, tries to make a killer and a criminal out of Auguste but fails, luckily. His goal is to create an enemy for the hideous society in which he lives but the society will have to do with one fewer dangerous person. Who knows, maybe Auguste challenged his violence into becoming a good soldier. easily it could be for people to become violent and that e veryone has the potential in them to become a nuisance to society. Men are in fact violent by nature and young people can easily be


9 influenced, as is seen when Bertrand leads children to bloody fights and when Jean des Esseintes iolent side for fun. But what matters in the end is that neither Bertrand nor Auguste become dangerous and criminals. Both books therefore are a reflection on the violent side of French society and a commentary on how young people should react to their dar k side: use it to become a fighter on the right side of history ( that is to say use this to reclaim Alsace Lorraine) or choose not to be influenced by evil forces and simply ignore the voices of the crazy man tempting you with prostitutes. Conclusion There are many aspects of R and need to be further investigated. First, one could compare these books to the ones he wrote for adults One could also study the books themselves: who were the illustrators? Who we re the readers? Where were the books sold? Were they given as prizes? Were they popular? What is the relationship between text and image and what can we learn from the placement of the illustrations? But perhaps more importantly, these books need to find a place in our study of Remy de Gourmont, not necessarily for their literary merit but because they are part of his literary career and helped shape who he was and became as a writer. should not be somethin g shameful and undervalued. On the contrary, it need s to be embraced by scholars of various disciplines and today was my attempt toward that goal.


10 Bibliography Boyer, Anne. Remy de Gourmont : l'criture et ses masques Paris: Champion, 2002. Print. Brown, Penny. present. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print. Dantzig, Charles. Remy de Gourmont. C her vieux daim! Paris : Editions du Rocher, 1990. Print. Gourmont, Remy de. Un volcan en ruption Paris : Degorce Cadot, 1882. Print. --. Une ville ressuscite Paris : Degorce Cadot, 1883. Print. --. Bertrand du Guesclin Paris : Degorce Cadot, 1883. Print. --. Temptes et Naufrages Paris : Degorce Cadot, 1883. Print. --. Les Derniers Jours de Pompi Paris : Degorce Cadot, 1884. Print. --. En Ballon Paris : Degorce Cadot, 1884. Print. --. Les Franais au Canada et en Acadie Paris : Firmin Didot, 1888. Print. --. Chez les Lapons, norvgienne Paris : Firmin Didot, 1890. Print. --. Les Canadi e ns de France Paris : Firmin Didot, 1893. Print. --. Promenades littraires IV. Paris: Mercure de France. 1913 29. Print. Jahier, Bernard. Remy de Gourmont, auteur de livres didactiques pour la jeunesse. 2002.


11 rature. La Revue blanche 2 (1892): 53 62. Print. Nires Chevrel, Isabelle. Littraire de la France 1 (2002): 97 114. Print. Uitti, Karl D. La passion littraire de Remy de Gourmont Paris: PUF, 1962. Print. Wilwerth, Evelyne. Visages de la littrature fminine Bruxelles : Pierre Mardaga, Editeur, 1987. Print.

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