Jules Michelet and the Populist Romance

I recently scanned the text of this dissertation, The Populist Romance: A Study of Michelet's Le Peuple and Selected Novels of Hugo, James, Zola, and Galdós (University of Texas at Austin, 1980), and have not finished proofing. (Move your mouse pointer over French or Spanish text to see translations.) —David McMurrey

Central to the populist romance is the evaluation of the common people as superior morally, socially, and physically to the other groups in society. Although this idea—which in many respects resembles the tradition of the primitive man or the noble savage—is a familiar one, the view of the lower classes, the workers, and the poor as qualitatively better in a variety of ways than other groups in society represents a reversal of traditional attitudes. Practically any textbook in sociology states that social stratification is a common feature of nearly all societies except the very primitive food-gatherers. Power, wealth, influence, and prestige are in the hands of the upper strata, and the lower strata are looked upon as coarse, vulgar, violent, and even barbaric. Actually, a negative view of the lower classes is a much more logical one to take: lacking the prestige that sanctions upper-class behavior, the lower classes inevitably appear untrustworthy and less than civilized. Moreover, the lower classes live in a world that is often violent and degrading. Leaving aside one's democratic or populist sympathies, their behavior will tend to reflect the realities of that harsh and difficult world. Thus, the populist romance is, sociologically, a surprising inversion or relocation of the prestige usually enjoyed by the upper classes; suddenly that prestige becomes associated with the least prestigious of all social strata—those on the bottom.

Such a phenomenon has never amounted to a full-fledged movement or literary or historical period; but it has always been an under-current, a vague feeling in the minds of a few. Jules Michelet (1798-1874), the great nineteenth century French historian, is simply one among many throughout history and throughout the world who has given expression to these ideas; for most writers or intellectuals, however, the idea is not much more than a passing reference or a vague, half-articulated feeling that informs a work. Even in Michelet's work, which is principally his enormous Histoire de France (1833-1874) which covers the beginning of the nation through the nineteenth century, the idea of the people falls somewhere between a systematic doctrine and a collection of loosely-related feelings and notions. However, in his historical work, and in his moral-political books, particularly Le Peuple (1846), the idea receives a more elaborate expression than it does anywhere else in literature.

To put this work of Michelet in perspective, Le Peuple interrupts Michelet's grand Histoire de France, which he had begun in 1833. This massive work was intended to serve the people and to keep them in mind of their important destiny once revealed in the Revolution of 1789. Michelet intended that his histories be written in a language accessible to the common man and that his histories concern themselves with the life and the development of the French peuple rather than with the irrelevant doings of kings, queens, popes, generals, and institutions. The Histoire de France was to be about the common people of France—"l'histoire intérieure du peuple révolté,"1 a complete, organic "résurrection de la vie intégrale, non pas dans ses surfaces, mais dans ses organismes intérieures et profondes;"2 thus no aspect of a nation's life—geography, economics, agriculture, folklore, language—could be overlooked. However, as the century progressed, Michelet felt that the peuple was gradually forgetting its destiny and losing its revolutionary spirit. Since his histories no longer seemed to be serving the purpose he had intended, Michelet discontinued them and wrote his famous Histoire de la Revolution française and the series of non-historical works which includes Le Peuple. These were designed as a more direct appeal to Frenchmen, and they have a highly moralistic, evangelizing tone as well as political purpose. Eventually Michelet would return to his history of France after these moral-political tracts too had failed; however, he never ceased to write in the latter genre.

Le Peuple is not a call for revolution nor a prescription for social reform; rather, it is a call upon all classes in French society to lay down their hostilities toward each other and embrace each other in a spirit of fraternal love and patriotism for the good of France, which Michelet viewed in the 1840's as endangered by hostile nations on all sides. In particular, it is a protest against the stereotyped view of the lower classes—spread by romantic literature—as criminals, grotesques, and monsters. Le Peuple is a call upon the upper classes, the powerful and the wealthy to appreciate the good that is in the common people, to go to them, to join them, and revere them. Le Peuple is one of the classic calls to "go to the people." In so doing, the bourgeoisie will learn to throw aside its materialism and self-interestedness—a disease of the French spirit which Le Peuple inveighs against. Le Peuple is also a call upon Frenchmen to remember the best elements of their revolutionary tradition which had involved a quest for justice, equality, and fraternity and to remember that theirs is a special mission to bring this spirit to the other peoples of the world.

The book is introduced by Michelet's letter to his friend Edgar Quinet, in which Michelet rehearses his life as a historian of the people and proclaims again and again that he is one of the "peuple." Le Peuple then explores the various ills of each segment of the people. Most readers are surprised to discover that in addition to the peasant, the artisan, the factory worker, Michelet's notion of the people actually includes the bourgeoisie, specifically, the merchant, the manufacturer, and wealthy financier. The latter are simply the contented portion of the people which has forgotten its revolutionary heritage and now believes itself separate from and superior to the common people. Having established the problems of the various segments of the people, Michelet puts forth his remedy, already mentioned—"amour," "amitié," patriotic concern for France and faith in the Revolution. In doing so, he develops the familiar Romantic psychology in which the instincts, the impulses of the heart, are better than human reason. The fact that reason, an anti-social, self-interested, antispiritual force, is dominant in the world is, in Michelet's view, one of mankind's chief ills. In Le Peuple, he writes of his fellow Frenchmen, "Nous nous haïssons, nous nous méprisons, c'est-à-dire nous nous ignorons." The cure for this national moral problem is a spiritual one: "II faudrait guérir l'âme." 3

As opposed to these "bourgeois" values that dominate the world according to Michelet, the values of sociability and spiritualism are located in the peuple who are subjugated and at present unable to make an impact upon the world. This emphasis on moral principles becomes increasingly stronger after Le Peuple to the point that Michelet begins to develop something of his own religion. This impulse to create a new religion, so typical of Michelet's generation, grows increasingly stronger after this time to the point that he writes what he calls La Bible de l'humanité (1864) and, at the insistence of an admiring friend, takes upon himself the designation of "théologien-peuple."4

Thus, it is to this pivotal work, Le Peuple, that we must turn in order to understand what group of ideas and feelings leads to the belief that the common people are a superior group. However, there is more to the populist romance than this "romantic sociology" of the people—that is, a sociology partisan to the people: stemming from and dependent upon this view of the people is an historical vision of the group as chief agent and heroic force of the grand march of humanity. Michelet's view of history flows forth from his view of the people and is a necessary part of it; characteristics of the people are reflected in his historical vision and determine the nature of that vision. The populist romance, however, involves a third important element: the romantic populist himself, who thinks these thoughts and creates these visions of history with the collective plebian hero at the center. Despite his origins in the French peuple, his protestations that he had remained peuple, and his commitment to serving plebian interests, Michelet is a grand example of the romantic populist whose anxiety and guilt about the people and his distance—both psychological as well as spatial—from them feed and exaggerate his tendency to see them as superior. These central elements of the populist romance—the partisan sociology, the historical vision integral to it, and the populist himself, in particular, his relationship to that system of ideas he has half-created out of his own imagination—are the subject of the following pages.

The Romantic Sociology of the People

Before discussing the group of ideas that gives rise to the populist sociology in Michelet's work, some attempt should be made to uncover his sense or definition of the term, "le peuple." In his most idealistic moments, the term refers to practically all French classes and occupations. The chapter titles of Le Peuple bear this out; only the aristocracy and the priesthood seem to be excluded, although it is not clear since Michelet never makes any comment one way or the other about them as a category of the peuple in his book. His idealistic definition of the people as comprising all classes, including the bourgeoisie, reflects his emphasis on the need for the unification and harmony among French social classes and the necessity of eliminating class barriers and prejudices.5 To the reluctant bourgeoisie, Michelet in Le Peuple suggest "qu'ils lui [to the common people] tendent la main, et torment de bonne heure avec lui l'alliance de la régénération commune" (p. 139). Of course, the association of the term with a perfect social unity represents something not yet attained, an ideal to be achieved at some future point in history. Because the term is so idealistically defined, the peuple is obviously not any one group of individuals working at certain occupations, receiving or not receiving certain wages, or residing in certain urban or rural areas or in certain types of housing. The peuple in its grandest, most philosophical sense is inaccessible to the census-taker; the notion is far less a matter of statistical sociology or demography and far more a matter of abstract essence or spirit. Thus, Michelet can write in Le Peuple,

Le peuple, en sa plus haute idée, se trouve difficilement dans le peuple. Que je l'observe ici ou là, ce n'est pas lui, c'est telle classe, telle forme partielle du peuple, altérée et éphémère. (p. 186)

In the absence of this sublime unity of classes, Michelet reverts to a practical, working definition of the people—no doubt, one to which he had a greater instinctive, emotional commitment—a definition which encompasses the lower classes, the workers, the peasants, the artisans, all those in the strata just below the bourgeoisie.6 And, the group of ideas, which is near to a philosophical system, labelled, here the romantic sociology of the people, applies specifically to this segment of society. The term "sociology," linked here with other words such as "populist," "partisan," and "romantic," may seem rather inappropriate inasmuch as sociology refers to an empirical, objective, scientific study or theory of society. Romantic, populist, or partisan sociology as it is used here refers simply to an attitude toward a particular segment within society as in some way superior.

What comprised this more restricted sense of the French peuple in the 1830's and 4O's to Michelet and his contemporaries differs somewhat from what we might read into the term now. For those in the earlier half of the nineteenth century, it included an element called the "petite bourgeoisie," a subclass out of which Michelet himself came and which several scholars of his life and works argue is Michelet's hidden synonym for the "peuple."7 It would be hard now to distinguish the values of the petite bourgeoisie from values that are often called "middle class" or 'bourgeois": such values as hard work, thrift, frugality, neatness, sobriety, and those associated with family life all may seem disconcertingly inappropriate to the people, especially to those who now tend to associate the plebian more with the revolutionary or with the bohemian.

A certain historical element also confuses the definition of the peuple, not only in Michelet's work but in the thought of his period. As Le Peuple shows, Michelet is reluctant to include the newer working class, the factory workers, the salaried employees, in his definition.8 Of course he does include them, but he feels that the nature of factory work, "machinisme," would eventually erode away the very essence of the peuple. In Le Peuple, there is evident a deep nostalgia for a plebian class of an earlier time, slowly dying in Michelet's own life. Michelet prefers the working class of the artisans, the older trades, the guilds, the crafts, the smaller family-owned shops. Mechanized, factory labor is destroying that way of life before Michelet's eyes.9

Thus, historical change, personal sympathies which had tied him to the lower classes, and animosities which had bred in him a hatred for the bourgeoisie that he had grown up with, and grand philosophical idealism all enter into Michelet's complex definition of the people. The group of ideas which comprises the populist sociology, however, applies only to the people defined as the plebian class. These ideas cannot exactly be called a system or doctrine; nowhere in his work does he systematically lay them out. Although his book Le Peuple comes the closest to spelling them out, it might be more appropriate to say that more of the ideas relevant to this discussion are localized in the limited pages of Le Peuple than anywhere else in his work. Perhaps the reason for this lack of systematic exposition of his populist doctrine is Michelet's confusion between several uses of the term, the peuple. Another may lie in his insistence upon the unification of the social classes, the elimination of barriers and hostilities: creating an elite group out of the plebian class would not serve that purpose but simply erect more barriers.10 It may be too that since much of Le Peuple is addressed to the bourgeoisie, a group which did not consider itself part of the peuple and which lacked sympathy for them, such a doctrine of the superiority of an inferior class would only alienate the upper classes. Finally, one can ask the question whether Michelet himself was aware of the full logic he had suggested in scattered statements pertaining to the peuple throughout his work.

Once assembled, reconstructed, and organized, Michelet's system of ideas holds together nicely, or at least logically. Michelet bases his whole theory on a certain view of human nature: man is born with a basic drive to live at peace with his fellows, in community as opposed to competitive isolation. Michelet would have been in perfect agreement with the 18th century philosophe Duclos who in his Considérations sur les moeurs de ce siècle (1754) had written,

Les hommes sont destinés à vivre en société, et de plus, ils y sont obligés par le commun besoin qu'ils ont les uns des autres: ils sont tous à cet égard dans une dépendance mutuelle. Ce ne sont pas uniquement les besoins matériels qui les lient; ils ont une existence morale qui dépend de leur opinion réciproque.11

However, man has somewhow lost sight of his inborn sociable nature, even though human history has continued to progress to higher levels. One of the more recent ways he has accomplished this perversion of his original nature has been, according to Michelet, the coldly calculating self-isolation and unsociability found in the bourgeoisie. This class Michelet saw as a group which "croi[t] pouvoir se passer de leurs semblables." Society under the amoral guide of the middle and upper classes Michelet believed was threatened with "une désagrégation mortelle." As he describes it in Le Peuple,

Ce mal, c'est...le refroidissement, la paralysie du coeur qui fait l'insociabilité; et celle-ci [la bourgeoisie] tient surtout à l'idée fausse que nous n'avons aucun besoin des autres. (p. 156)

Michelet characterizes the bourgeois world as a mountaintop, sterile existence, cut off from the spirit:

Quel froid, si je monte plus haut! C'est comme dans les Alpes. J'atteins la région des neiges. La végétation moral disparaît peu à peu, la fleur de la nationalité pâlit. C'est comme un monde saisi en une nuit d'un froid subit d'égoïsme et de peur...c'est l'égoïsme pur du calculateur sans patrie; plus d'hommes, mais des chiffres...Vrai glacier abandonné de la nature. (p. 141)

On the other hand, the working class, hemmed in by poverty, normally does not have the luxury of the more affluent and instead depends on its plebian community to survive; communal values are preserved in a bitterly practical way. To survive in their harsh, lower world, they must sacrifice themselves to each other daily. From this kind of existence emerge in the peuple "une richesse de sentiment et une bonté de coeur, très-rares dans les classes riches," a "faculté du dévouement, la puissance du sacrifice," all of which Michelet defines as "héroïsme" itself.

Unlike the corrupted, immoral higher spheres of society, the lower classes remain more in touch with original or true human nature and its related, moral sense; thus they can be put forth by Michelet as the moral example to be followed by the rest of society. Michelet often called upon the bourgeoisie—his book Le Peuple is essentially addressed to that class—to go to the people to regenerate themselves in the presence of the spiritual superiority of the common man. To overcome its "culture tout abtraite...séchée," Michelet recommends the bourgeoisie seek out the "instinct fécond du peuple": "la chaleur est en bas. Descendez, vous trouverez qu'elle augments; aux couches inférieures elle "brûle" (p. 141). Michelet views the middle and upper classes as spiritually ill from a dominance of reason over the spirit and over the instincts; the peuple has these elements in a better balance:

Le salut de la France et le vôte, gens riches, c'est que vous n'ayez pas peur du peuple, que vous alliez à lui, que vous le connaissiez, que vous laissiez là les fables qu'on vous fait et qui n'ont nul rapport a la réalité. (p. 138)

The peuple is "la source de la vie où les classes cultivées doivent chercher leur rajeunissement" (p. 193).

The crucial point in Michelet's system is that objective social conditions—the practical realities of plebian life—preserve in the common people more of the true human nature and therefore higher moral and spiritual qualities than in other social groups. It is not that they are hereditarily better; it is their poverty which instills in them a certain stoicism—less of a concern for the material, more of a concern for the spiritual. The desperate conditions of their lives induce a certain communal or cooperative spirit; they must rely on each other to survive; there is little place or potential for privacy and self-interest. The hard life of the people gives them not only physical but moral and spiritual strength. Despite this misery, the peuple possesses to a higher degree than any other social classes "une disposition naturelle à aider, à secourir les autres dans toute espèce de besoins"; "dans cette servitude extérieure, ils gardent un coeur libre de haine,... ils aiment davantage" (p. 104). Michelet scolds the romantic novelists and dramatists of his time, while not naming names, for their completely inaccurate portrayal of the lower classes:

S'ils étaient descendus eux-mêmes, par leurs souffrances personnelles, dans les profondes réalités de la vie de cette époque, ils auraient vu que la famille, le travail, la plus humble vie du peuple, ont eux—mêmes une poésie sainte. (p. 63)

Although Le Peuple calls for popular education, Michelet also argues that the lack of education and literacy in the lower strata of society actually preserves a certain instinctive or spiritual wisdom and prevents the disruptive effects of reason, which Michelet views as a limited, self-interested instrument hostile and blind to matters such as those of the spirit beyond its ken. Michelet argues that the "instinct des simples, et l'inspiration des foules des voix naïves de conscience"—the more common cognitive processes of the peuple—are the "profonde base de la démocratie" (p. 247). The people are in general "ceux qui divisent peu la pensée, qui n'etant pas armées des machines d'analyse et d'abstraction, voient chaque chose, une, entière, concrète" (p. 165). They see "ordinairement les choses à leur état naturel, organisées et vivantes. Donnant peu à la réflexion, ils sont souvent riches d'instinct." Analyzing and ratiocinating less, the people have greater access to the spiritual and to the fullness of their own human nature. There are two modes of cognition for Michelet—the limited self-interested, anti-spiritualistic one employed by the bourgeoisie generally and the more spiritual, humane, communal one employed more often by the peuple: in a journal entry from 1854 he writes,

Personne ne croit plus que moi à la puissance féconde de l'instinct populaire. J'ai fait plus. Dans mon livre Le Peuple, j'ai établi que si les masses, les majorités illettrées, enfin si le nombre avait droit, ce n'etait pas comme nombre, mais parce que l'instinct, l'inspiration naturelle, contient précisement la même lumière que la réflexion et la science. Seulement l'instinct l'a dans une moindre intensité de chaleur, dans une moindre fecondité, une vitalité inférieure.12

One last element that preserves original human nature in the plebian class better than in other classes is its sense of historical mission, revealed once before in the 1789 French Revolution. Though Michelet believed it to dormant at the time of his writing of Le Peuple, that revolutionary spirit was a continuing presence awaiting the right moment to burst forth once again. The common people might be rather unconscious of this destiny they are to fulfill, but its lurking presence nonetheless feeds their collective spirit.

Michelet arrives at this belief in the superiority of the common people through a curious logic: while we normally assume a brutal environment will generate a brutal people, for Michelet the harshness of the plebian environment is simply a training ground for moral and spiritual excellence. In Le Peuple Michelet describes the common workers as a collective "maître en douleurs" whose road, "le chemin de la pensée et de la souffrance," is a veritable means of seeking "la lumière," spiritual enlightenment and excellence (p. 112). While Michelet abhorred all deterministic philosophy which denied man the ability to shape his character and destiny by his own free will, there is a certain element of determinism in this notion that the plebian milieu builds a stronger character and moral sense in the peuple. There is an element of determinism too in his Histoire de France, which begins with the lengthy Tableau de France: its central theme as it explores French geological conditions is that the physical nature of the French countryside has contributed substantially to the formation of the French peuple. Thus Michelet is willing to concede a certain influence to the milieu, but it is scarcely the one we would expect. Harsh environments do not destroy the character of those living in them, as they do in Zola's fictional world, but actually improve them.

The Romantic Revolutionary View of History

For all their moral, spiritual, and social excellence, the common people, in Michelet's view, suffer from a range of ills; after all, they are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Of course, they suffer terrible material needs, injustice, inequality, class hatred and hostility, and a lack of freedom. Therefore they create a constant pressure on the world to move forward as they attempt to better their own lives. Although they have plenty of reason to hate those who oppress them, they do not develop the destructive, vengeful attitude that Henry James and Emile Zola saw in popular revolutionaries, because of the facts of their moral nature. The revolution that they will create will always move forward, under the sign of peace, fraternal love, justice, and equality; enemies will be embraced and spiritually converted rather than destroyed.

Thus it is quite logical that the people in Michelet's view should be the chief progressive instrument pushing human history forward toward a better world; they have their own need for justice, freedom, and equality to satisfy, and as they strive to achieve them they improve the world. Michelet sees the French peuple as carrying forth in his own time man's transhistorical quest to free his spirit from material restraints, to free the soul from the material world. Human history, in fact the history of the world, in Michelet's view, is a long revolution, a set of wars on different fronts: "celle de l'homme contre la nature, de l'esprit contre la matière, de la liberté contre la fatalité."13 This quest of course is infinite, and humanity is always moving forward, upon it. From the very beginning of his study of history, Michelet believed, he recognized "dans la longue suite des siècles, la victoire progressive et toujours indécise de la liberté humaine."14 More specifically, that quest involves a struggle for the perfect city—the perfect society—which would be characterized by perfect justice, freedom, fraternity, and equality—a secularized kingdom of heaven on earth. It is noteworthy that Michelet makes the quests for material prosperity and classlessness only secondary in importance.15

Michelet's common worker is also the hero of history in one other important respect: as that element in society more in touch with its true nature—and therefore in touch with a transcendent, spiritual realm—the people receive a curious version of divine guidance. This doctrine has been labelled in other circumstances vox populi vox dei, a doctrine which equates the voice of the people with that of God. However, Michelet rebelled against traditional Christianity; he was one of those Romantics who could do without the Church and Christian doctrine but could not do without the sense of the infinite, the transcendent, and the sacred. As one of those earlier 19th century "humanitarians" who had discovered the sacred and the infinite in mankind itself, Michelet could argue that the divine guidance requisite for man in his historical quest is within man himself. Borrowing some of the terminology of Christianity upon which much of Michelet's thought is superimposed, the common people are more attuned to that nature and have more of it concentrated within them: they are the world's less fallen Adam and represent more nearly what humanity was meant to be. Thus, the peuple is the natural leader in the historical quest.

As much optimism, progressivism, and utopianism as there seems to be in this historical vision, it is difficult to define how and at what rate history moves forward in Michelet's view. Though often viewed this way. Michelet's vision of history and of the function of the people as the progressive agent within it is not a straightforward, inexorable, linear, cumulative process which ends in a new Eden, a kingdom of heaven on earth, or a utopia.16 Though Michelet is unquestionably a progressivist and undeniably promises a better world in the future, that forward movement in history is generally mysterious, at times dormant, at others miraculous in its suddenness and spontaneity. His view of the French Revolution emphasizes this:

Sans autre direction, le monde semblait se rapprocher de cette unité [of all classes], son but véritable, auquel il aspire toujours...Ce voeu, toujours impuissant, et du monde et de l'âme humaine, un peuple semblait en dormer la réalité dans cette heure rapide, jouer la comédie divine, d'union et de concorde, que nous n'avons jamais qu'en rêve.17

Several factors complicate the progressive element in Michelet's historiography. Most important is his requirement that man be a free agent who shapes his destiny by his own free, conscious choices and actions. Simplistic progressive history, on the other hand, will bring man to Utopia regardless of what he does. Michelet rejected these latter views which attributed the progressive force to any agency other than man's free actions. Like other philosophical systems of this sort, Michelet's hinges on a paradox: progress is and is not inevitable.18 To use an analogy which expresses something of the relationship between progress and human freedom, mankind in Michelet's system is like a group of people in the wilderness searching for the perfect city. Only through their own freely-willed actions can they find it; no one will lead them there. However, it is in their exploration to find the city that they create the city out of what is best in themselves. History in this view becomes the unfolding and the manifestation in social institutions and in other forms of reality what is in human nature. In the wanderers' search for the City, they create the City.

Michelet's progressivism is also complicated by his own acute sense of history as a sequence of tragedies, failures, and disasters and by his sense that humanity in history is a frail, fallible, gullible entity. In contrast, the successes and the bright spots in history for Michelet appear as miracles. Human efforts through the ages are ultimately successful but not in an immediately apparent way; only the historian can discern this movement. And that movement is a collective, transhistorical project, not the effect of limited, individual parties, sects, or leaders. History moves forward almost imperceptibly and does so only at the behest of centuries of accumulated, collective efforts on the part of the peuple: so collective and so imperceptible is the movement of history that individuals can scarcely affect it or even be aware of it. Historical movement occurs

le plus souvent dans l'ombre, à la fois sans être vus et sans soupconner eux-mêmes [the peuple] la portée de leur audace. Il faut toute la perspicacité de l'historien pour discerner, sous le train monotone de leurs humbles travaux, le ferment des révolutions futures. Avant que le jour de gloire n'arrive, l'émeute peut longtemps cheminer au fond des âmes, sous la forme d'une indécise rêverie.19

The revolutionary peuple always seem doomed, to repeated failure; after brilliant beginnings, for example in 1789, they seem to fail in the face of the myriad of problems associated with achieving the perfect society and are eventually duped by a self-interested leader or dictator. Thus whatever progress flows from the efforts of the common people is limited by the nature and weaknesses of that same group: their strengths—innocence, instinctive knowledge, cooperative and communal spirit, selflessness—make them gullible and easily exploited.

Michelet's optimism about the historical process does not remain constant throughout his life. The enormous optimism, which he felt in 1830 at the time of the July Revolution which brought Louis-Philippe to power and which he recorded in his Introduction à l'histoire universelle (1831), erodes as he grows older. The maturing Michelet becomes more pessimistic about the world, begins to doubt his work as historian and his faith in the people, particularly after his experience of the failures of 1848-1851, when yet another revolution has failed and has brought yet another dictator to power.

Despite all these complicating factors, Michelet maintains a belief in progress, at first with youthful exuberance then later with dogged determination, to the very end. of his life. The crucial element which enables him to continue this historicist faith is precisely the element of faith—a vision of history in many ways modelled or superimposed upon Christian eschatology. Michelet is no exception among those romantic revolutionaries who viewed revolution in a highly millenialistic way.20 Romantics who could no longer accept the Christian church and its doctrines, but still had an intense need for the divine and the infinite, seemed to superimpose the patterns of Christian doctrine and particularly its eschatology upon their thinking about secular history and revolution. Michelet is one of the great examples of this tendency, which so marked the first half of the 19th century. In fact, his historical thinking is continually marked throughout his career by consciously, carefully applied analogies to the Christian doctrines of the Revelation and the Second Coming. As he grew older and more pessimistic, this structure of thought enabled him to keep his faith and to accept the failures, disasters, and the declining revolutionary spirit of the people.

Michelet acknowledges that each of the major phases in human history makes an important contribution to that overarching process of freeing man from bondage to the material world; Christianity, for example, is accredited with having done much to free the individual's spirit from earthly concerns.22 However, it had not dealt with social problems, and it had an authoritarian, whimsical core: man must obey God, God is above all Law, and He bestows grace as He sees fit. Moving forward in history, Michelet saw the French Revolution of 1789 as the next major step and possibly the most important step in human history. Despite its own failure, the importance of the Revolution had surpassed that of the coming of Christ.

The French Revolution accomplished far less than it promised: Michelet describes it as a revelation just as Christ's appearance in the world is a revelation. 1789 reveals the truth about human nature and the world—in this case, that man is intrinsically good by nature, that man can "be the architect of his own destiny, and that he by his own efforts can achieve a world marked by perfect justice, fraternal love, equality, and freedom. Just as Christ's crucifixion seemed to have meant the failure of his efforts, the degeneration of the French Revolution into the Terror and dictatorship seemed to have marked it as a failure. Both Christ and the revolutionary spirit are promised to return, however, and at that time usher in a perfect world. Resurrection applies in both cases. Of course the sufferings and the persecutions of Christ are analogous to those of the common people. On the whole, Michelet emphasizes that the French Revolution was just as miraculous, spontaneous, unrehearsed, or unexpected as had been the coming of Christ into the world. A number of critics have noted the religious overtones in Michelet's "foi humanitaire," here described as romantic populism, and have seen it as a common feature of social thought in the years leading up to 1848 and the coup d'état of Napoleon III: in Les Legendes de la démocratie (1851) he describes the Revolution as "la fondation d'une religion nouvelle, de la religion de la justice," as opposed to one of Grace: "Michelet a transmué ses anciennes idées sur la Passion et la Croix, les a laïcisées a la gloire des héros et des martyrs de la République."23 As for the "Fête de la Fédération," Michelet describes it as a visitation of God, or rather the presence of divinity among the celebrants of the new constitution, the beginning of a new religion.

Thus the interval between the French Revolution of 1789 and the ultimate revolution that it had promised, like that between Christ's Revelation and his second coining, cannot truly be described at progressive. Nations war, great Utopian projects are started but fail, revolutions with the best of intentions turn sour and destructive—history seems to continue as usual. However those same abortive revolutions serve to remind, mankind, of the ultimate one to come. At the end of that interval will come variant forms of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

No wonder then that romantic revolutionism takes on the character that it does—a character that Zola satirizes in his novels. Revolution to the Romantics, and particularly to Michelet, is miraculous, unplanned and unplannable, spontaneous, and peaceful rather than violent. It is sudden and apocalyptic and has the look of a massive spiritual conversion. Class conflict, conflicts of all kinds, in this brand of revolution are suddenly silenced by a general manifestation of fraternal love and harmony. Men are suddenly free to associate themselves in perfect societies in which they lay aside their self-interest and take up a communal spirit; in other words, all men begin to live according to their true inner nature—a nature which, in Michelet's view, is already manifest in the common people.

Michelet sees his role in this process as similar to that of a Matthew, Mark, or Luke—although he was not present at the Revolution. His task is to record, or as he put it, "resurrect," history, to keep the memory and the spirit of revolution alive in the minds of men, and to spread this faith. His task as historian is to record the Revelation that the people had brought forth in 1789 and to keep them in mind of their destiny when they seem to forget it.

Although it helps explain the perplexing nature of progressivism in Michelet's thought, it would be wrong however to push the eschatological analogy too far: certainly Michelet's peuple takes on the appearance of a Christ figure, and viewing the common people as a martyred Christ was a widespread phenomenon in France leading up to 1848. However, Michelet rejects Christianity on several grounds—its absolutism, its authoritarianism, and the way in which, in his view, it whimsically bestows grace. In addition, the Christ figure for Michelet is too passive; he views the peuple as a striving, active heroic force.24 They in Michelet's history and in Le Peuple can also be viewed in many ways as similar to the hero of a romance story. Hayden White has argued, that romance characteristics are prevalent in the Histoire de France and in the Histoire de la Revolution française. In the middle ages, the French peuple is described as still in its infancy; in the French Revolution it comes of age. In Le Peuple it is expected to save the heroine in distress, that is, France, and is temporarily under a spell. Describing "cette captivité" of the urban industrial worker, Michelet sees in machine work a great danger: "...en face de la machine l'homme tombe tombé si bas! ...La tête tourne, et le coeur se serre, quand, pour la première fois, on parcourt ces maisons fées, ou le fer et le cuivre éblouissants, polls, semblait aller d'eux mêmes, ont l'air de penser, de vouloir, tandis que le homme faible et pâle est l'humble serviteur de ces géants en acier" (pp. 98-99, emphasis added). The romance language extends from the spellbound, enslaved hero to the landscape of France itself: Le Peuple describes it as "cette terre stérile et froide" (p. 155).

The evil force, the dragon, in this romance, however, is not the bourgeoisie as one might expect; instead it is that set of values—the self-interest, the rationalism, the anti-spiritualism, the anti-communalism that, it just so happens, is often found in the bourgeoisie. Like the standard romance hero, the peuple receives a certain divine guidance, often in the form of miracles; plebian divine guidance, however, means a more direct connection with its own true inner spirit.

The Romantic Populist

Seemingly unlike Michelet's historical writings as well as those other non-historical works, romances generally occur in some exotic past or in some exotic geographical distance. Romances seem to occur in a world quite unlike our own, one in which good and evil are distinct and separate, in which the gods take a direct and intervening interest. This distance—whether geographical or temporal, or both—permits or even promotes a certain idealization, a vague deformation of reality, a romanticization of people, places and events; it is a kind of displacement which occurs in the direction of legend, romance, myth, away from the real. Certainly, Michelet intentionally nudged his works in that direction as even the titles of some of his works indicate: La Bible de l'humanité, Le Livre des livres, Lágendes démocratiques, La Légende d'or de la démocratie. Unembarrassedly, Michelet emphasized the important role of imagination in his work.27 Also, he intended his histories to have a mass popular appeal and, either consciously or unconsciously, moved them in the direction of popular narrative forms like legend and romance.28

Some of Michelet's work, on the other hand, takes place in a distance past, a rich and fascinating past but not an "exotic" one. Instead, the "distance" in Michelet's thought and work is more social and psychological; he feels himself to be cut off, isolated, or distant from the peuple, despite all of his remarks to the contrary. This pyschological fact can help explain the romance vision of the people found in his work. His life reveals a continuing anxiety concerning his identity as peuple, especially in view of his success in the bourgeois world.29 His claims "je suis peuple!" are conspicuously urgent and repeated. The constant insistence betrays a deep anxiety as to just who he was. Paul Viallaneix echoes this insistence throughout his biography: "Formé à la discipline des humanités classiques, de l'érudition allemande et de la philosophie, Michelet bien loin de se détacher ainsi du peuple, apprend à l'aimer mieux et à le mieux connaître."30 Michelet in this view succeeds in his effort to "monter sans renier ses origines." In Le Peuple, Michelet argues that he has avoided that corruption that had so characterized his century:

Presque toujours, ceux qui montent y perdent, parce qu'ils se transforment; ils deviennent mixtes, bâtards; ils perdent l'originalité de leur classe, sans gagner celle d'une autre. Le difficulté n'est pas de monter, mais, en montant, de rester soi. (p. 72)

Michelet is a primary example of what may indeed be a minor type of personality or even character type in the 19th and 20th centuries: the reluctant, hesitant, guilt-ridden parvenu, who clings to his identity as commoner though he has long since transcended it. In Michelet's work there is an unmistakable undercurrent of anxiety that he is no longer "one of the people," that he has become alien to them, distant from them.31 This anxiety translates often as guilt concerning his material comfort and success and translates as doubt that his work is truly serving the people. Though the "faubourgs" of the people may be just blocks away, they are much further than that in social or psychological terms to Michelet.

One of the best known stories about the historian is his experience one evening when he realized as he studied that he was warm and relatively satisfied whereas others, many others, were cold and starving:

La vie n'a sur moi qu'une prise, celle que j'ai ressentie le février dernier, environ trente ans après. Je me retrouvais dans un jour semblable, également convert de neige, en face de la même table. Une chose me monta au coeur; "Tu as chaud, les autres ont froid.. .cela n'est pas juste...Oh! qui me soulagera de la dure inégalité?" (p. 70)

There are numerous moments like this one, recorded in the preface to Le Peuple, in which converge the elements of pity, guilt, outrage at social injustice, and a renewed dedication to his cause. Michelet, looking back upon it, characterizes this moment which took place in 1814 as one that determined his future and his values. Some thirty years later in the preface to Le Peuple, Michelet claims that this was the moment that he decided to dedicate his life to the people. As opposed to the simple hunger to succeed, he felt at this moment in his life a deep sense of guilt at his own relative warmth and comfort as he studied and an equally profound sense of the injustice suffered by the workers and the poor. Out of that experience, remembered again and again, came an almost desperate, religious crusade to do what he could for the peuple and to remain faithful to them. The terms of his commitment were indeed, religious: his Journal occasionally testifies to the way in which he probed his conscience regularly to discover if he had strayed in his loyalty to the peuple. One gets the picture of a man continually scrutinizing himself for attitudes, values, and behavior that were "bourgeois" and no longer "peuple," examining himself in some internal mirror to see if he had become "embourgeoisé."

The central problem for this self-professed "historien du peuple" was this: "Est-il permis d'appartenir encore, par le coeur, au peuple, quand on ne vit plus comme lui?"32 This fear of betraying the peuple, which often haunted him, hides a deeper one: a fear that he night no longer "be one of the peuple at all: "Quand il se croit sur de son talent et de ses idées," writes Viallaneix, "soudain la pensée du peuple éveille en lui un doute et une gêne. 'Suis-je conrpris? Suis-je fidèle?', se demande-t-il alors." At one point in the preface to Le Peuple Michelet constructs the self-justifying paradox that he had sacrificed his life among the peuple and perhaps even his identity as peuple as well to become their historian and thus to serve them better.33 In one other respect, he claimed that he knew the peuple much more intimately through his historical research; the past he argued was a better field in which to know the peuple than plebian faubourgs and busy streets. But these self-justifications are simply a series of maneuverings in his attempts to defuse that fear of isolation and transformation of his social identity.34

Thus, the kind of work Michelet was engaged in from youth, the physical circumstances of isolation that work, and the world in which he had to live—all worked, to generate in him a question about his identity as to social group as well as guilt at having deserted the social group of his origins. Paul Viallaneix, his most recent and probably his best biographer, is eager to reinforce Michelet's ardent claims to have remained peuple all the same:

A quarante ans, il détient les honneurs les plus enviés, il exerce les responsabilités les plus hautes de la carrière universitaire. Or la fête ne lui tourne pas...il va avoir le courage de s'en servir pour rendre au peuple dont il demeure le fils un hommage publique...Contrairement, en effet, à beaucoup de ses prédécesseurs et de ses successeurs il ne se montre jamais plus fidèle à ses origins qu'au moment ou il achève de s'éléver dans la hiérarchie sociale.35

Michelet strove in a variety of ways to overcome this anxiety, which in many respects is that same distance there has always been between the intellectual and the common man. One way was simply to repeat incessantly that he had not changed: "l'aisance matérielle, l'éclate de ses fréquentations ne troublent pas ses habitudes. II se souvient de la pauvreté ou il a été élévé...il demeure attaché a ces joies simples et gratuites, inaccessibles aux coups du sort, qu'il illuminent la rude vie du simple travailleur." Also, he strove to popularize his historical works, giving them a tone and a language that would readily be accessible to the common reader. As early as l820 he was thinking of this audience when he described his plans for a "book to be entitled Exhortations à mes contemporains: "Ce livre écrit avec chaleur et bonne foi, avec charité pour les deux partis, pourrait produire quelque bien s'il se répandait. Qu'il soit populaire surtout. Si j'en avals le talent, j'aimerais à écrire pour le peuple des livres qu'on vendrait a bien bas prix."36 Nor was Michelet anxious to be considered, an artist, a "bohemian," as well as a bourgeois: "II n'ose croire que sa tâche puisse être facile, il n'a pas l'audace de se conduire en artiste, il demeure un artisan."37 It is no wonder then that Michelet often described his work in terms of hard, sweaty, physical labor. There is a marked overeagerness in his effort to associate himself with the common worker: "Moi aussi, moi aussi, j'ai travaillé de mes mains. Le vrai nom de l'homme moderne, celui de travailleur, je le mérite en plus d'un sens." And there is almost a sense of anxious relief in his reiteration that his had been a standard working class background: "Avant de faire des livres, j'en ai composé matériellement; j'ai assemblé des lettres avant d'assembler des idées. Je n'ignore pas les mélancolies de l'atelier, l'ennui des longues heures" (p. 58).

As a way of justifying himself to his imagined working class audience, Michelet recalls how hard he and his father worked at scholarly pursuits: "Il faillait nous voir, nous deux papa et moi, suer à grosses gouttes pour faire, malgré Minerve, les plus faibles vers qu'on puisse imaginer." At every chance he pictures scholarly vork not as a gentlemanly and leisurely abstraction but as something acquired by "un travail artisanal." He believed that he succeeded in school because he took such a disciplined, vigorous, industrious, workmanlike approach to his intellectual duties. Working class life had disciplined him, he felt, better than were his bourgeois and aristocratic classmates. Michelet is often quick to reiterate that the academic's life is not inappropriate to the worker nor does it denaturalize him: "Sans doute," writes Viallaneix, "les littératures grecque et latine ne se distinguent-elles pas toujours par leur virilité. Ni la grace, ni le pathétique, ni la précosité ne leur defaut. Mais, meme alors, elles ne détachent pas l'enfant de la saine simplicité du peuple."38 Even late in his career, in a letter written in 1857 while at work on L'lnsecte, he maintains this same self-image: "Moi qui venais me reposer ici, je travaille plus que jamais. Peut-être, je le crains, avec un trop aveugle acharnement, et sans attendre les moments d'inspiration. Voilà, ce que c'est que d'avoir été ouvrier toute sa vie."39 Viallaneix is perhaps too uncritical of Michelet's description of his labor as "ma tâche de rude travailleur," his often repeated "Moi aussi, travailleur, ouvrier laborieux."

But more important to Michelet was the sense that his life's work, the history of France, was serving the people by recalling to them their heroic revolutionary past—in a historical literature in their own language. However, in 1851 Michelet complained in a letter to a friend that he had become weary of the intellectual, bourgeois life that he was constrained to lead in Paris and that he longed to abandon everything and take up once again "la vie du peuple":

Nous sommes, le dirais-je?, embêtés d'entourages aristocratiques ou, ce qui est pis, bourgeois. Que ne puis-je quitter mes souliers, mettre des sabots... Mon livre et mon cours me consument...en vain. Nous n'atteignons pas les masses. II faut la musique, le dessin et le style, que j'e n'ai pas. J'aspire violemment à descendre. Car je crois que c'est monter."40

Such statements, which reveal his lack of familiarity with popular culture, indicate how cut off he had become from that world. The populist romance to which he gives such enormous expression is nourished by this same social distance again and again in the 19th century.

Although he continued to call for mass education in France after 1848, his own academic career kept him among a class of people alien to that which he had come from. His scholarly work for the histories, it seemed to him, also kept him isolated from the people. After all, the writing of the Histoire de France carried with it a serious and even sacred purpose; for Michelet, it was "un devoir sacré."41 It is no wonder that he might tend to feel that he was neglecting the peuple while he was writing of the age of the Pléiade poets and Montaigne, for instance.

In one sense he feared that the work he was doing, the information that he was uncovering, was only erudition and not in keeping with his high purpose as "historien du peuple." For another, this fear involved a fundamental questioning of the activity of researching and writing history. As frustrations of the post 1848 years mounted, Michelet wondered about the value of his historical project. There seemed to him something dangerously egotistical, solitary, and inadequate about historical scholarship as a means of serving the people. As Viallaneix explains it,

Quand il entasse, comme il le doit, les "matériaux" dont il bâtira son oeuvre, il lui semble sans cesse qu'il "retombe dans l'histoire." Il ne commence à se sentir historien qu'en "mettant "bas" l'historien qu'il est...En tout cas, il ne se livre jamais sans remords à la joie intellectuelle que procurent le déchiffrement d'un document ou l'interprétation logique d'un fait.42

Michelet found himself as far from the peuple in his "culte du passé" as the aristocrat in his privileges; thus the dangers of his sacrifice had been more painful and thoroughgoing than he had ever expected. And late in his life he was finding that this sacrifice to the project of writing a history of the French peuple, which had caused so much havoc in his own life, which had estranged him from the very class it was to serve, late in life he was finding this entire project a failure: "Ces terribles événements qui ne sont qu'un, au fond, m'avertirent cruellement, me ramenèrent violemment de ma situation aristocratique d'érudit solitaire au peuple, à l'éducation." Increasingly frustrated with the inability of his history to "atteindre le peuple" or to make any difference in the world, he felt more and more a part of the "classe cultivée" which, he argued, had neglected the duties which its knowledge and talents imposed on it toward the community. Obviously popular indifference towards his own works was more vexing to Michelet, and for different reasons, than it was for other writers, and it sparked a crisis that would lead him away from his role as historian.

This crisis as historian which Michelet suffered, is reflected in his Le Peuple, which appeared, before the revolution of 1848. In the late 1840's Le Peuple was only the first of many projected volumes of popular literature by the means of which he hoped to reach his intended audience. All of these works, La Bible de la humanité, Soldats de la Révolution, Femmes de la Révolution, some of which were published only much later, were intended to guide the peuple during that period and to help them avoid the mistakes of the first republic. But for all these ambitious projects, Michelet found himself, as Viallaneix puts it, "vaincu par l'histoire."43 Even in these popular works, he found himself adhering to "habitudes traditionelles de son métier, incompatible avec cette science du passé éducative et populaire qu'il a révé de fonder."

The historian, he thought, ought to be able to liberate himself from the past and to rise above pure intellectualism, but when the revolution had come, he had reacted "en "bourgeois: tout en applaudissant à l'élan de rénovation gui soulevait le peuple, il a conservé lui-même ses irréprochables routines" and had kept to a form of historical study "repliée sur elle-même,"44 which betrayed the class it to ought enlighten.

This problem of distance from the peuple, which clearly torments Michelet often, returns in different ways in other works studied here. Hugo turns it into a source of strength and power for Marius in Les Misérables: there, the romance hero is a Perseus, an alien or outsider, who descends into the underworld to liberate the peuple, envisioned, as Andromeda, from its seemingly eternal chains. He must bring a certain wisdom, enlightenment, and even spiritual redemption to the people before they can be led into the historic quest. In James and Zola, this distance between the romantic populist and his dream vision, "the people," is a great source of irony—of outright absurdity and comedy in The Princess Casamassima, of pathetic confusion and danger in Le Ventre de Paris, La Fortune des Rougons, and Germinal. In Galdó's La Revolución de Julio Beramendi returns to an understanding and acceptance of this distance, acts like a self-confessed, "bourgeois" Michelet, who admits his alienation from the people, his esteem for them, and his desire to be among them and identified with them.

Michelet, on the other hand, cannot accept this role of the heroic outsider, the savior of the people that Hugo projects into Marius. Rather, Michelet's desire is to regain a secure identity as peuple, to assuage his guilt and his doubts, and to feel himself secure as one of those merged in the collective hero, the people, struggling for its goals. It is a simple need for belonging, for identity.

Though Michelet may have come to see himself increasingly in the 184O's as the hero of the people, the events of 1848 and those following, a terrible crisis period for Michelet, proved him wrong. His notion of the hero had been the result of a compromise: after all, in the early volumes of the history he had not wanted to write a history which depended upon the doings of kings, queens, individual heroes, or institutions but rather one that narrated the anonymous struggle of the common Frenchman as a whole. But as he worked and wrote, he realized he must acknowledge the influence of individuals on the course of French history. But the effect of such "heroes" as Joan of Arc or Danton had to be carefully restricted. The hero in L'Histoire de France was defined then as simply the instrument of the peuple and was given an almost miraculous facility of language to move the masses to revolutionary action. The common people were actually manipulating their leaders in Michelet's view; they quite arbitrarily would select their leaders, use them as needed, then discard them as mysteriously as they were chosen. The hero was only a hero by this undefined consent of the people and by an unexpected ability to speak for and represent the people as a whole:

Tout le monde s'étonne de voir les masses inertes vibrer au moindre mot qu'il dit...Pourquoi s'en étonner? Cette voix, c'est celle du peuple; muet en lui-même, il parle en cet homme, et Dieu avec lui. C'est là vraiment qu'on peut dire: Vox populi, vox Dei.45

The hero is "la grande image du peuple," marked by a fundamental simplicity, innocence and even naivete.

It is quite possible that Michelet considered himself as just such an "heros du peuple" in the years leading up to 1848. He believed that he carried himself "le sens du peuple," and as he told an audience in 1845,

Pour savoir, il fallait porter le peuple en soi..., ne pas renter ses origines comme ceux qui cachent sous des gants jaunes les grosses mains...C'est ce coeur filial qui a été récompensé en moi.46

This "sens du peuple," this direct access to the collective mind and spirit of the common people, was Michelet's muse, his credentials as "historien du peuple." In fact, his special gift he felt was that same "don verbal" that he attributed to the hero. Also, Michelet described himself and thought of himself as an instrument of the people, as its voice. That Michelet thought of himself as a chosen leader of the people particularly in his capacity as historian, while at the same time fretting about his alienation from them, is no where clearer than in this journal entry dated 1842:

il leur [le peuple] faut un Oedipe qui leur explique leur propre énigme, dont ils n'ont pas lus le sens, qui leur apprenne ce que voulaient dire leurs paroles, leurs actes, qu'ils n'ont pas compris. Il leur faut un Prométhée et qu'au feu qu'il a dérobé.

Oedipus of course is the great leader of the people of ancient Greece, a wise man who could decipher the great riddles of existence, but was also alien from and feared by his subjects and eventually forced out of their realm by this suspicion and fear. The comparison is in several ways apt for Michelet's own situation.

In the days leading up to 1848, Michelet was filled with an exaltation and a confidence in himself; he saw himself as a prophet, gifted with a vision of the common people's destiny and with his sens du peuple: "L'histoire est une violente chimie morale où mes peuples se font moi, où son moi retourne animer les peuples."48 This massive confidence in himself as leader would be tested and found vastly lacking in the days following February 1848. No doubt this sudden recognition of his lack of heroic influence upon the masses contributed to his emotional crisis which struck after the revolutionary days had subsided and the Second Empire began. Michelet in the post 1848 disillusionment must have felt doubly disappointed: not only had the revolution failed but events had proven he was not the chosen leader, the hero with the great gift of language, that he had imagined himself.

But in his more optimistic days, before 1848, Michelet imagines the peuple functioning spontaneously, anarchically, leaderlessly; in that earlier phase it already contains within itself the essential values it needs to reconstruct society. Le Peuple, the histories, his educational projects are not intended to transform the peuple but simply to awaken them and recall them to their true destiny, once revealed in the French Revolution. "L'historien," he wrote in the Histoire, "de la France doit au peuple qui la servit tant, de sa vie et de sa mort, de dire une fois ce que ce fut ce peuple, de lui restituer (s'il pouvait!) sa vie historique."49 As historian and as educator, he is simply helping the people by restoring their memory, itself a plot motif of romance, as Northrop Frye has observed.50

Thus this discussion of Michelet depends not only upon an exposition of his ideas concerning the people in history, of the romance characteristics of those ideas, but also on his own psychological orientation to those ideas. Whether consciously or not on the part of Zola, James, or Galdós, what is a biographical dilemma for Michelet is transformed into a fictional one for Florent, Etienne Lantier, Sigismond, the Princess Casamassima, and Beramendi.

Contents Next chapter


1Maurice Bouvier-Ajam, "De la methode de Michelet," Europe, Nos. 535-36 (November-December, 1973), p. 18.

2Paul Viallaneix, "Michelet et la revolution vivante," Europe, Nos. 535-36 (November-December, 1973), p. 7.

3Jules Michelet, Le Peuple, ed. and introd, Paul Viallaneix (Paris: Flammarion, 1974), p. 146. All further references to this work appear in parentheses in the text and in the footnotes.

4Paul Viallaneix, La Voie royale; essai sur 1'idée de peuple dans l'oeuvre de Michelet (Paris: Flammarion, 1971), p. 370. As will soon become apparent, the background on Michelet's life and history in this chapter is greatly indebted to Viallaneix's indispensable work.

5According to Picon, "Michelet ne méconnait pas l'existence des classes. II en déplore l'existence." (p. l4) Michelet wanted "l'unité, l'union: il la pose comme finalité parce qu'il la pose aussi comme principe, comme origine" (pp. 15, 25). (Jules Michelet, L'Edudiant, ed. Gaetan Picon [Paris: Seuil, 1970]).

6Paul Viallaneix notes this vacillation between the two uses of the word peuple in Michelet's work:

Cède-t-il à son instinct, consulte-t-il son expérience d'enfant des rues, recrée-t-il l'atmosphère des journées révolutionnaires, il pense plebs quand il écrit "peuple." Mais il lui arrive de se reprendre, soit pour respecter la vérité historique, soil ménager l'avenir de la démocratie; alors il traduit mentalement peuple par populus.

In Latin, plebs refers to the restricted sense of the people, the lower classes, while populus is more of an all-inclusive term. The same relationship holds between the French "plebe" and "peuple." Viallaneix concludes that ultimately "pour l'auteur du Peuple, le peuple, c'est la plèbe." (Viallaneix, La Vote royale, pp. 282, 286.)

7George Rude's effort to analyze the revolutionary crowds in the years around 1789 indicates fairly concretely what this restricted sense of the "peuple" constituted in practical terms in Michelet's mind: labelled often "le menu peuple" or the "sans-culottes," the peuple is generally that class of "small shopkeepers, petty traders, craftsmen, journeymen, labourers, vagrants, and city poor" (George Rude, The Crowd in the French Revolution [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959] p. 257).

8Andre Wurmser bluntly argues that Michelet was a half-century behind, still living in the years of the '89 Revolution, that "l'historien de la Révolution française en est resté à la Révolution française," and saw nothing of the social and demographic changes in the intervening years ("Raisons et déraisons du coeur: après une relecture du Peuple," Europe, Nos. 535-35 [November-December, 1973], p. 73).

9Rude makes the same point in his study of revolutionary crowds:

The Industrial Revolution of Louis-Philippe's had "brought in railways and the beginnings of mechanized industry: among the arrested insurgents of June [1848], we note, alongside the joiners, cabinet-makers, and locksmiths of the traditional crafts and small workshops, the names of some eighty railway-men and 257 mécaniciens. As June 1848 marks the first great armed collision between ouvriers and bourgeoisie, so it marks the final eclipse of the sans-culottes and the emergence of the wage-earners as the new shock-troops of insurrection and. the predominant element in revolutionary crowds.

(Rude, p. 235.)

10Gaëtan Picon in his preface to a collection of Michelet's university lectures in the 1840's warns that just as Michelet rejected what he saw as an elitism implicit in the Christian doctrine of Grace, he could not accept in "la mystique socialiste du prolétariat ...la mystique du peuple élu. Vouloir détruire et reconstruire au profit du prolétariat, c'est d'admettre l'idée janseniste du salut, de la grâce réservée à quelques-uns" (Picon, p. 15).

11Cited in Viallaneix, La Voie royale, p. 139.

12Cited in Viallaneix, La Voie royale, p. 374.

13Jules Michelet, "Introduction à l'histoire universelle," in Oeuvres completes, Vol. II, ed. Paul Viallaneix (Paris: Flammarion, 1972), p. 229.

14Viallaneix, La Voie royale, pp. 157-58.

15Benichou argues that for Michelet the principle of liberty was more important than any other: "il le réaffirme en 1868-1869, en refusant de séparer la liberté politique et la liberté économique, en 187O en subordonnant à la liberté la question sociale" (p. 515). (Paul Benichou, Le Temps des prophetes: doctrines de l'age romantique [Paris: Gallimard. 19771]).

16Picon goes so far as to say that progress is not relevant to Michelet's sense of history; after all, "Ses héros sont plutôt les hommes de l'échec que ceux du succès:

Les grands moments [of history] ne sont pas les jalons d'un processus irréversible, des acquis définitifs: ce sont des appels—qui peuvent être étouffés—ou réentendus ...La Révolution n'est pas plus un modàle qu'une base de départ. Elle est fin et commencement... à la fin derriàre et devant nous.

(Picon, pp. 23-24).

17Viallaneix, La Voie royale, p. 141.

18Benichou explains the paradox by describing Michelet's Providence as "exempte de caprice et d'obscurité," and as acting upon "l'humanité en la faisant agir par elle-même...Cette Providence garantit contre la nécessité le libre vouloir de l'homme; c'est au fond un double de l'humanité, au nom duquel est légitime un progrès dont l'homme est l'auteur volontaire" (pp. 518-19).

19Viallaneix, La Voie royale, p. 286.

20According to Benichou, "L'humanitarisme," in which he includes Michelet's philosophy, "qui a prospéré puissamment jusqu'à, la révolution de Février, tient au moins autant du libéralisme que de l'utopie dogmatique, non sans joindre à cette double parente la contagion de la théologie et de l'eschatologie chrétiennes. Liberté, théorie de l'avenir, profession de foi religieuse se rencontrent en lui" (p. 568). Michelet is typical of the generation, "angelisant l'humanité et le peuple, parlant de l'avenir comme d'une résurrection" (p. 569).

Alain Besancon summarizes these similarities nicely:

...the nation is the supreme reality and object of faith. It is the temple of the divine, perhaps the divine itself...
The Histoire de France imposes a new legend of their origins on the French. It is a preparation to the kairotic event, the Revolution. The Revolution is an advent, the incarnation of the popular Logos. Michelet calls himself "theologien-peuple" because God, the Church and the People are all one. Federation Day, the day of unanimity among all, is the Pentecost, the day when the only true Chruch receives the Truth. This truth is imminent. It is sufficient that the people assemble for it to break forth. The general will crystallizes, therefore into Revelation. Nevertheless, Michelet's theological vocabulary is consciously metaphorical. The people is the hidden truth of the Church.

("Michelet and Dostoyevskism in History," Clio VI [1977], P. 134).

22It should be pointed out that only early in his career, in the 1830's, was Michelet able to admit that "le christianisme a constitué l'homme moral et fondé la dignité spirituelle de toute conscience, ce qui demeure à ses yeux, dans le monde moderne même, l'essentiel" (Benichou, p. 517).

23Benichou, pp. 537-38.

24Benichou sees Michelet as having transposed Christian notions into his own humanitarian system of thought: for Michelet, the "Passion" becomes a "Passion héroïque. . .active et volontaire" unlike the passive suffering of Christ (p. 522). Michelet believed that Christianity had wrongly separated sainthood and active heroism and that the French Revolution had shown that the two could be put back together again in the actions of the common people.

25According to White,

The plot of Michelet's history of France describes the gradual rise of the protagonist (the French people) to a full sense of its own essential nature and to a full, though momentary achievement of its inherent unity against the blocking figures, institutions, and traditions seeking to frustrate its growth and self-realization.

(Metahistory; The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973], pp. 162, 176).

26In the prefatory letter to Quinet, Michelet writes, "La situation de la France est si grave qu'il n'y avait pas moyen d'hésiter...je vois la France baisser d'heure en heure, s'abîmer comme une Atlantide" (p. 73).

27Concerning Michelet's use of documents in a seemingly rigorous, professional manner, Viallaneix warns "...pour lui, l'essentiel n'est pas là encore. Le document authentique, s'il sollicite l'intelligence, mobilise surtout l'imagination. II produit le choc dont l'invention jaillit." As Michelet confided to Gabriel Monod, he began writing on a historical subject only when "il avail le sentiment qu'il se l'était assimile comme une chose personnelle, vue directement." ("Michelet et la Révolution vivante," (p. 13). According to Bouvier-Ajam, Michelet used his imagination only to fill in the "lacunes" and to continue his story, but it is precisely the "récit," the overall, continuous story that is the work of the imagination, operating in the romance mode (Bouvier-Ajam, p. 27).

28Charles Rearick points out that in the 1840's when Michelet was searching for new models for his hooks, which would exert influence over his intended plebian audience, legend—particularly medieval legend—seemed most appropriately effective to him. After all, the people made legend, and the history of France right through the Revolution was full of legend. Michelet, as recorder of these legends, was presenting French history from the point of view of the plebian imagination ("Symbol, Legend, and History: Michelet as folklorist-historian," French Historical Studies, 7 [1971], pp. 86-88).

29Marie-Claire Bancquart makes a strong case for this view. For both Jutes Vallès and Michelet, something separates them from the peuple: "c'est la fréquentation du collège, c'est la culture acquise et bien acquise, en latin, en rhétorique, en ce que était le plus éloigné des connaissances et de la langue du peuple alors." Belonging really to no class, both have to choose consciously to become peuple—an "identification posteriori"; both seem to produce a "biographie rémaniée" in which they show themselves to have always been peuple ("Michelet et Valles, 'fils du peuple,'" Michelet et le Peuple: collogue de l'Université de Nanterre, February 23, 1975 [Nanterre: Université de Paris X, 1975], Vol. 2, pp. 76-78).

30La Voie royale, p. 103.

31Linda Orr's observation concerning Michelet's oeuvre is in this respect quite appropriate: "L'oeuvre de Michelet est toujours un dialogue, souvent un dialogue intérieur. Entre lui et le peuple, ou lui et ses héros. . ." ("Les 'Alternatives "bizarres' de Michelet," Europe, Nos. 535-36 [November-December, 1973], p. 117).

32La Voie royale, p. 45.

33In Le Peuple, Michelet recalls his oath which reveals this paradox: "Si tu travaillais avec le peuple, tu ne travaillerais pas pour lui...Va done, si tu donnes à la patrie son histoire, je t'absoudrai d'être heureux" (p. 70).

34Frank E. Manuel senses this separation from the common people both in the Histoire de France and from the Journal. Concerning the former, "his idea of a people's history remained unfulfilled. His History of France is not bursting with a record of popular smells and tastes and sounds and sights and desires." Concerning the latter, despite Michelet's eloquence about the people, Manuel does not "find the people too close by in his immediate ambience. It is the speciousness of this relationship to the people that may have cut short the life of his History of France... Rétif de la Bretonne, the peasant's son who loved the people less, bears more credence...one is struck by how rarely ordinary people ever appear in the voluminous journals" of Michelet's life and travels (Manuel, pp. 158-59).

35La Voie royale, p. 40.

36La Voie royale, p. 26.

37From Michelet's Memorial, cited in La Voie royale, p. 108. As Michelet writes in Le Peuple, "Je ne voulus point vivre de ma plume. Je voulus un vrai métier" (pp. 70-71).

38La Voie royale, p. 109.

39La Voie royale, p. 25.

40La Voie royale, p. 31.

41La Voie royale, p. 351.

42La Voie royale, pp. 355-56.

43La Voie royale, p. 358.

44La Voie royale, p. 359.

45La Voie royale, p. 332.

46La Voie royale, p. 55.

47La Voie royale, p. 48.

48La Voie royale, p. 48.

49La Voie royale, p. 296.

50Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976), p. 129. Frye argues that the romance hero experiences in his descent a growing confusion as to his identity, a "break in consciousness," often symbolized by his falling asleep; in his "ascent," the hero recovers or remembers his identity as Michelet hoped he could spark the French peuple to do.