Academie frangaise (Writer)

(1635-present) movement/school

The Academie frangaise was founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister of King Louis XIII, as a means of regulating the French language and influencing the direction of French literature. The Academie fran^aise has acted ever since as France’s supreme court of letters, passing judgment on questions of language and literature.

France was experiencing a surge in cultural activity in 1633, when Richelieu learned of a group of men with literary interests who were meeting informally in Paris and who were interested in the purity of the French language. He granted them his protection, and they became the charter members of the Academie fran^aise. According to its statutes, its purpose was “to work with possible care and diligence to give certain rules to our language and to render it pure, eloquent and capable of treating the arts and sciences.” The members were given the task of compiling grammatical rules and creating an official dictionary of the French language.

The parliament of Paris initially refused to recognize the Academies role in cultural and literary matters. Richelieu saw his opportunity to prove the Academies usefulness in 1637, when controversy broke out over Pierre corneille’s immensely popular play Le Cid, which several prominent critics condemned for immorality and ignoring the rules of classical drama. Richelieu ordered Corneille to submit his play to the Academie for judgment, and the members agreed with Corneille’s critics. Because of its important role in settling the controversy, the Academie was accepted and its authority assured.

The 40 members of the Academie were known as the Forty Immortals. Men were elected to vacant posts by the members with the king’s approval. Seventeenth-century members included Jean racine, Nicolas boileau-despreaux, and Jean de la Fontaine, among others. One famous exception was moliere, who was not admitted because he was also an actor, which then was regarded as a disreputable profession.

In 1672 Louis XIV took the Academie under his protection, moved it to the Louvre, and gave the members their own library. In addition to publishing the first edition of the French dictionary (1694), the Academie held public readings of new literary works and awarded prizes for prose speeches and poetry.

Members tended to be conservative in questions of language and literature, looking to classical Greece and Rome for models of proper writing. But not all members agreed. In 1687, Perrault read to the Academie his poem, “The Century of Louis the Great,” which praised authors of his own day as equals or superiors of classical authors. This gave rise to a dispute among the members, known as the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns.

Secret balloting on new members was instituted in 1671, but many members owed their election to court influence or favoritism by women of the literary salons. As a result, many members of the 18th century had little literary expertise. One of the most prominent enlightenment thinkers, voltaire, ridiculed the Academie. While he was elected as a member in 1746, his efforts to interest other members in new literary projects failed.

The election of another free-thinker, Jean d’alembert, led to the formation of a strong group of radical Enlightenment thinkers within the Academie. They urged the consideration of works on more modern subjects in literary competitions, but they, too, had little influence on traditionalist members.

The Academie was abolished along with other royal academies in 1793, during the French Revolution. It became part of the Institut National in 1795. It regained its former name and statutes in 1816, however, and its current members are still responsible for editing the official French dictionary.

The Academie frangaise remains largely conservative, but it provides a forum for literary ideas, stands as a cultural tradition, and influences standard French spelling.

Works about the Academie Frangaise

Levi, Anthony. Richelieu and the Making of France. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.

Racevskis, Karlis. Voltaire and the French Academy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Department of Romance Languages, 1975.

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