In 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was put on trial for passing military secrets to the Germans. Despite improper court procedures and scant evidence of his guilt, he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison on Devil's Island. The Dreyfus affair scandalized France and divided the country between the Catholic Church, the royalists, and the army and the more liberal, republican society.
Emile Zola--one of the most widely read French novelists of his day and a founder of the literary school of naturalism--risked his reputation to defend the principles of truth and justice. On January 13, 1898, he penned an open letter to President Felix Faure titled "J'accuse" ("I accuse"). Published on the front page of the daily paper L'Aurore, the letter accused the French government of anti-Semitism and of a cover-up in the Dreyfus case. Zola pointed fingers at the real traitor, who had been acquitted, and named officers involved in the scandal. Accused of libel, Zola fled to England. "Truth is on the march, and nothing can stop it," he wrote.
When he returned to Paris a year later, Zola (1840-1902) had become something of a hero. "Zola's part in the Dreyfus case has compelled the admiration of the disinterested public," noted The Dial (3/16/1898). It also renewed interest in Zola's scandalous portraits of French life--literature quite in keeping, in fact, with his public call for justice. In more than two dozen novels, plays, and essays that scrutinized different aspects of French life, Zola confronted the Second Empire's ills head on--alcoholism, sexual exploitation, disillusioned priests, rampant commercialism, and detestable working-class conditions. L'assommoir (The Dram Shop, 1877), part of the epic 20-novel cycle Les Rougon-Macquart (The Rougon-Macquart Cycle), shocked readers with its depiction of Parisian lower-class life; the risque Nana (1880) sensationalized prostitution; and Germinal (1885) tragically portrayed a miners' strike in northern France. With great fanfare and only slightly less controversy, Zola denounced French society's hypocrisy. By the time Dreyfus had been pardoned, Zola had become less an "apostle of the gutter" than a champion of truth and justice. Today, readers around the world revere the author as one of the finest chroniclers of 19th-century France.
BORN IN PARIS to an Italian engineer and a French woman, Zola spent his childhood in Aix-en-Provence in southeast France. In his semiautobiographical novel La confession de Claude (Claude's Confession, 1865), he described himself as "a strange creature" that constantly "looked for affection." At the College Bourbon, he befriended artist Paul Cezanne, a friendship that later involved him in Paris's cutting-edge art world. In 1858, 11 years after his father's death, extreme poverty forced Zola and his mother to move to Paris, where he studied at the Lycee Saint-Louis. After failing his baccalaureate, Zola embarked on a series of odd jobs. In 1862, he started working at the publishing house of Louis Christophe Francois Hachette and writing articles. His political pieces barely hid his disdain for French Emperor Napoleon III, who had unjustly grasped power. His muckraking articles condemned the poverty of the French, and his art reviews lauded the growing Impressionist movement. Zola barely eked out an existence; the racy La confession de Claude, which led to his resignation from Hachette, narrates how one cold day the protagonist pawned both his coat and trousers.
One of Zola's biographers noted the "gulf between Zola in his early twenties, in a very real sense the poet starving in the garret, and Zola only a few years later, the bustling, prosperous pressman" (F. W. J. Hemmings, Emile Zola, 1953). Indeed, Zola's fortune changed in 1867 with publication of his first major novel, Therese Raquin. In 1870 he married Gabrielle-Alexandrine Meley; a later affair produced two children. He also started Les Rougon-Macquart, for which he interviewed experts, read reports, and visited sites to obtain the most realistic picture he could of his subjects' lives and conditions. L'assommoir made him famous throughout France; the popular Nana and Germinal followed. Some of his novels, including La debacle (1892), which openly censured the French government during the Franco-German War of 1870-1871, drew sharp criticism. While he wrote Les Rougon-Macquart, Zola remained active in Paris's art and literary scene. By the end of the 1870s, his villa in Medan, near Paris (he was now a rich...