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French Historical Studies 25.2 (2002) 357-380

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Review Essay

Political Power and the Emergence of Literature:
Christian Jouhaud's Age of Richelieu

Robert A. Schneider

Les pouvoirs de la littérature: Histoire d'un paradoxe, by Christian Jouhaud (Paris, 2000)

Despite the European Union and the Chunnel, the historiographical divide between Britain and France is as deep as ever, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the history of the seventeenth century. For years late Tudor and early Stuart historians in particular have made considerations of culture—the cultural arenas of court and country, canonical figures like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones, and Milton, the varieties of popular culture—their stock in trade. 1 Moreover, and of great interest to other historians, they have worked these themes into the narratives and interpretations of the period such that cultural and literary history constitutes one of the mainstreams of contemporary treatments of seventeenth-century England. The resulting corpus of work begs comparison with another field, eighteenth-century France, where culture has also loomed large. For French historians of the seventeenth century, however, a period once celebrated as the summit of French cultural achievement, the integration of culture and history has seemed less urgent. There are, to be sure, certain exceptions: the subjects of [End Page 357] the monarchy and Louis XIV's court, for example, continue to attract interest, Le Roy Ladurie's recent book on Saint-Simon being only the latest illustration. 2 And, in the wake of the three-hundredth anniversary of his birth, in 1985, several notable publications focused on the cultural aspects of Richelieu's rule. 3 But by and large, the terrain of seventeenth-century cultural life has been occupied by literary scholars, whose inclinations, in keeping with recent trends associated with the "New Historicism," have increasingly taken a historical turn, often with mixed results. 4

If seventeenth-century French historians, like their English counterparts, ever begin to take literature seriously, we surely will be in debt to Christian Jouhaud's new book, Les pouvoirs de la littérature: Histoire d'un paradoxe. Jouhaud, a historian by training, is certainly well known on both sides of the Atlantic, having published many articles and two important books. One, an innovative study of the Fronde, Les Mazarinades, proposed reading these often intractable texts as scripts for political action; 5 the other, La main de Richelieu, a rather cryptic book on Richelieu, offered tantalizing, sometimes frustratingly obscure insights into the cardinal-minister's manipulation of culture. 6 For the past ten years Jouhaud has been dispatching a series of highly focused, often brilliant articles on the literary politics of the early part of the seventeenth century, concentrating for the most part on writers' complex relationship to Richelieu—the embodiment of "power." Now he has synthesized these studies into the present book, a work that deserves to be placed on the shelf next to two other recent studies of the period, Alan Viala's Naissance de l'écrivain (Paris, 1985), and Public et littérature en France au XVIIe siècle (Paris, 1994), by Jouhaud's sometime collaborator, Hélèn Merlin. [End Page 358]

Despite their differences, these three books share a common critique of the conventional treatment of French classicism, that literary and linguistic movement toward purity, probity, and regularity in language, the standardization of literary forms, and the elevation of French to a vernacular that could rival ancient languages in its expressive capabilities. Though it is usually associated with Louis XIV's Versailles and such figures as Molière, La Fontaine, La Bruyère, and Racine, the formative period of classicism was in the earlier part of the century, with writers like Malherbe, Guez de Balzac, and Corneille, and with the Académie Française, often seen as its institutional embodiment. A somewhat Whiggish understanding of French classicism often pervades standard accounts, in which the development of the absolute monarchy, the pacification of the realm, the rising prestige and power of France in Europe, the reform of manners among the elite...