Victor Hugo

b. 2-26-1802

d. 5-22-1885


The third son of a French Army major, Victor Hugo traveled to Italy and Spain as a young child, as his family was blown by the turbulent political winds of the times. He was schooled in the trades as well as Latin and Greek, and showed great literary promise early on. He published a magazine with his brothers in 1819-21, Le Conservateur Litteraire for which he authored 112 articles and 22 poems in 16 months. He soon found popular acceptance with his Odes et Ballades (1828) and other writings.


Hugo was a member of "Le Club des Hashishins," a group founded in 1844 by Theophile Gautier, but he seems to have discovered Oriental delights years earlier. In 1829 Hugo published a book of poems titled Les Orientales wherein is found the poem "Ecstasy":


Mes yeux plongeaient plus loin que le monde reel (My eyes were plunged beyond the real world)

Et les bois, et les morts, et toute la nature (And the woods, the mountains, and all of nature)

Semlaient interroger dans un confus murmure (Seemed to interrogate in a confused murmur)

Les flots des mers, les deux du ciel (The waves of the sea, and the fires of the sky)

Et les etailes d'or, legions infinites (And golden stars in infinite galaxies)

A voix haute, a voix basse, avec mille harmonies, (Sang high and low with a thousand harmonies)

Disaient. . .C'est le Seigneur, le Seigneur Dieu! (This is the Lord, the Lord God!)


In the Preface to the book Hugo wrote, "Art's concern is not to burden itself with leading-strings, handcuffs and gags; it says 'Go!' and looses you into the great garden of poetry where there is no forbidden fruit." The book secured Hugo's leadership of his generation's artists, who revered him and praised his work. "Victor Hugo," said Baudelaire, "was the one man to whom everybody turned for the watchword of the day." (L'Art Romantique XIX) Jules Janin said, "One might search in vain through all Europe before finding a prince, a king, a military leader more deserving of envy, or happier, than the author of Les Orientales." Hugo's wife Adele, who was busy bearing and caring for five children during this time, failed to appreciate the sensual verses of the "drunken treader of the grapes."


One month after Les Orientales, Hugo published Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamne (The Last Day of a Condemned Man), about a prisoner facing the death penalty, saying it was "to silence those who had reproached him on grounds of insolent virtuosity." Hugo's mother was a Voltarian, and her son was doubtlessly familiar with Voltaire's fate. While finding spirituality everywhere in nature, Hugo took on organized religion as directly as Voltaire had, staring, "We carry in our hearts a rotting corpse--the corpse of that religion which was a living presence in the lives of our fathers."


Adele's "drunken treader" was a flurry of productive activity in 1829, writing a successful play, Hernani, in six week's time and bringing to production a play based on Walter Scott's Kenilworth, which when read caused Alexandre Dumas to shout, "we will carry you to glory!" while lifting Hugo off his feet. These plays and other works stirred condemnation as well as praise, at a time when Shakespearean plays were booed in French theatres for being too English, the Church exerted moral codes and the State, political ones. When his play Le roi s'amuse (The King Amuses Himself) was banned for satirizing nobility in 1832, Hugo wrote Lucrece Borgia in 14 days, a play about the illegitimate daughter of a Pope whose name came to represent innocence corrupted.


The death of his daughter and other difficulties of life sobered Hugo in later years, but not enough to prevent him from taking off with his mistress or becoming even more famous for Notre Dame de Paris ("The Hunchback of Notre-Dame"). In 1851, Hugo took to the streets during another uprising, and escaped to Brussels where he finished the enduring novel Les Miserables, which has seen huge stage success as the modern Les Miz. When the new guard of a factionated France decried Hugo's works because of his politics, Theophile Gautier replied, "say what you will, he remains the great Hugo, the poet of mists and clouds and sea."


On May 22, 1885 Hugo uttered his last words: "Je vois de la lumiere noire" (I see the black light"). At his last breath, a storm of thunder and hail passed over Paris, the Senate and the Chamber adjourned in respect. He left his manuscripts, writings and drawings to the Biblitoteque national of Paris, "which will, one day, be the Library of the United States of Europe." Besides 40,000 francs given to the poor, he left most of his money to his two grandchildren, for whom he had written The Art of Being a Grandfather. On May 31, the whole city came to a vigil at the Arc de Triomphe, and two million Frenchmen walked in the funeral procession to the Pantheon. It was the first time a poet was honored in the manner of a military hero.


Alexandre Dumas

b. 7-24-1802

d. 12-5-1870


Alexandre Dumas ranks among the most widely read novelists of Romantic literature and may be the most beloved writer France has ever produced. (Pocket Books)


Dumas's father was born a slave on Santa Domingo (now Haiti), the son of a black slave and her owner, a Marquis. By the age of 31 he was serving as a general in the French army, but had a falling out with Napoleon during the Egyptian campaign and was denied his pension, leaving his family penniless when he died at the age of 43.


Alexandre Dumas began his working life in Paris as a clerk to the future King Louis-Philippe. He spent his early twenties reading and attending the theatre, and in 1829, the same year Victor Hugo published Les Orientales, Dumas had instant success with his play Henri III et sa cour at the Comedie Francaise. After several other popular plays, Dumas traveled extensively and began writing books and articles. Often working with collaborators, his complete works fill 300 volumes.


Press censorship was lifted in 1830s France, and this coupled with increasing literacy lead to a market for serially published novels. Dumas's The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo both appeared in serial form in 1844, the same year "Les Club des Haschishins" was founded. They were wildly successful and earned him a worldwide audience when they were quickly translated into several languages. Dumas became known as the King of Paris and a saying held that, "when Dumas snores, Paris turns in its sleep."


Although modern editions delete much from the 117-chapter The Count of Monte Cristo, references to hashish remain. When the Count, calling himself Sinbad the Sailor, offers hashish to a guest, he calls it "nothing less than the ambrosia which Hebe served at the table of Jupiter." When his guest expresses disinterest, he says,


"Are you a man for the substantials, and is gold your god? taste this, and the mines of Peru, Guzerat, and Golconda are opened to you. Are you a man of imagination -- a poet? taste this, and the boundaries of possibility disappear; the fields of infinite space open to you, you advance free in heart, free in mind, into the boundless realms of unfettered revery. Are you ambitious, and do you seek after the greatnesses of the earth? taste this, and in an hour you will be a king, not a king of a petty kingdom hidden in some corner of Europe like France, Spain, or England, but king of the world, king of the universe, king of creation; without bowing at the feet of Satan, you will be king and master of all the kingdoms of the earth. . . ."


"Judge for yourself...judge, but do not confine yourself to one trial. Like everything else, we must habituate the senses to a fresh impression, gentle or violent, sad or joyous. There is a struggle in nature against this divine substance, -- in nature which is not made for joy and clings to pain. Nature subdued must yield in the combat, the dream must succeed to reality, and then the dream reigns supreme, then the dream becomes life, and life becomes the dream. . . Taste the hashish, guest of mine -- taste the hashish." (See full excerpts)


Like Hugo, Dumas left France in 1851, but in Dumas's case it was to escape debts brought on by his extravagant lifestyle. He soon returned to France where he edited L'Indipendente, a literary and political journal published in French and Italian. He died in 1870.


In November 2002, by order of the French President Jacques Chirac, Alexandre Dumas's body was exhumed from the cemetery at his birthplace, Villers-Cotterets. Flanked by four Republican Guards costumed as the Musketeers - Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D'Artagnan - Dumas was transported in a solemn procession to the Pantheon of Paris, the great mausoleum where French luminaries are interred. In his speech, President Chirac said: "With you, we were D'Artagnan, Monte Cristo or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castles--with you, we dream." In an interview following the ceremony, President Chirac acknowledged that racism that had existed, saying that a wrong had now been righted with Dumas enshrined alongside fellow authors Victor Hugo and Voltaire.


Alexandre Dumas's home outside of Paris, the Chateau Monte Cristo, has been restored and is open to the public. His stories have been translated into almost a hundred languages, and have inspired more than 200 motion pictures.

Copyright 2006

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