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The Enduring Moral Outrage of Emile Zola

September 29, 2002|FREDERICK BROWN | Frederick Brown is the author of "Zola: A Life" and is writing a biography of Gustave Flaubert.

During the early morning hours of Sept. 29, 1902, Emile Zola died in his sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective flue. Almost five years had passed since the publication of his open letter to the president of the French Republic alleging that the army, with evidence of espionage in its midst, had framed a Jewish artillery officer, Alfred Dreyfus. And two weeks earlier, on Sept. 10, 1902, L'Aurore had begun serializing his novel "Verite," which was based in part on what had come to be known as "The Affair."

Zola's death was ruled accidental, but unanswered questions left open the possibility that one of the many anti-Dreyfusards who regularly sent him threatening letters had murdered him. When a leftist government elected in June closed all 3,000 schools run by monastic orders known to have preached against Dreyfus, Jews, freemasons and republican institutions, the vindictiveness Zola had excited in 1898 with "J'Accuse" boiled up anew.

Huge crowds, including a delegation of miners grateful for the legislation inspired by "Germinal," followed Zola's coffin to the Montmartre cemetery, where soldiers stood ready to maintain civil order. Fearful that praise of her husband's political heroism might spark a riot, Alexandrine Zola asked the principal eulogist, Anatole France, whether it might not be prudent to commemorate only his literary achievement. France, another eminent foe of the reactionary elements marshaled against Dreyfus, ignored her request; he paid homage above all to Zola the polemicist, whose famous letter had, in his view, launched a movement of social equity predicated upon respect for individual rights and the rule of law.

"Let us not pity the man who endured and suffered," France urged the mourners, among whom stood Dreyfus. "Let us envy him. Enthroned atop a prodigious collection of outrages heaped up by folly, ignorance, and wickedness, his glory shines on high. Let us envy him: He has honored his country and the world with an immense body of work and a great act." France's last line is what rings loudest today: "Let us envy him, for his destiny and his heart have earned him the highest distinction of all: He was a moment in the history of human conscience."

Had Zola's childhood been allowed to intrude upon this lordly farewell, a eulogist might have described the Dreyfus Affair as satisfaction finally given to a born duelist, or as the event rounding out a life that had begun with injustice meted out in rigged trials. Born in 1840, Zola was 7 when his father, an Italian engineer who had designed a dam under Mont Sainte-Victoire for channeling water to Aix-en-Provence, died on the eve of its construction. Well-connected swindlers gained control of the Zola Canal Co., reincorporated it and left Madame Zola with worthless shares. She sued, making one futile appeal after another in litigation that spanned Zola's adolescence.

This rancorous drama--with its scheming notables, its hero defrauded posthumously of his accomplishment, its heir cheated of his birthright, its poverty-stricken widow--served the novelist and polemicist throughout his life. It led him, in his 20s, to lash out against the artistic establishment in articles championing Edouard Manet, who had been rejected by the Salon jury. It became the paradigm of his great novelistic cycle, "Les Rougon-Macquart," which swarms with outcasts, the disinherited and plots that illustrate mischief practiced by the avaricious upon the naive or defenseless. And it fired his imagination when Dreyfus' partisans, needing a big voice, called upon him to trumpet the evidence they had collected. Their recitation of the facts became poetry for Zola, according to one such partisan: " 'It's gripping!' he'd say from time to time .... And he exclaimed: 'It's thrilling! It's horrible! It's a frightful drama! But it's drama on the grand scale!' "

Still, not every celebrant of Zola's courageous indictment would have been quick to salute him. From the outset, before the first word of "Les Rougon-Macquart" had been written, he inveighed against ideologues who viewed art as a lackey to their political agendas. In an article on the socialist thinker Proudhon, Zola wrote that good citizenship had no bearing upon the creative enterprise, that an artist would lose his defining credentials without license to speak his imagination or to chronicle his experience.

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