Émile François Zola, born in April 2 1840, was a French writer and one of the most important people of the literary school of naturalism and an important contributor to the development of theatrical naturalism. He also became a major figure in the political liberalization of France and in the exoneration of the falsely accused and convicted army officer Alfred Dreyfus. J’Accuse means “I accuse”, and this was exactly what Zola did when he defended Dreyfus who was falsely convicted. On February 23 1898, Zola was imprisoned in France after writing this letter to the French Government.
Zola was born in Paris and his father, François Zola (Francesco Zolla), was an Italian engineer. With his French wife, Émilie Aurélie Aubert, the family moved to Aix-en-Provence in the southeast when Émile was 3 years old. Four years later, in 1847 his father died leaving his mother on a small pension. The family moved back to Paris where also Émile’s childhood friend, a painter named Paul Cézanne joined them. Here Zola started to write in romantic style.
Before his breakthrough as a writer, Zola worked as a clerk in a shipping company, in the sales department for a publisher (Hachette) and would write literary and art reviews for newspapers. According to one story, Zola was sometimes so broke that he ate sparrows that he trapped on his window sill. During his early years, Émile Zola wrote several short stories and essays, four plays and three novels. After his first major novel, Thérèse Raquin (1867), Zola started the long series called Les Rougon Macquart, about a family under the Second Empire.
Although Zola and Cézanne were friends from childhood and in youth, they broke in later life over Zola’s fictionalized depiction of Cézanne and the Bohemian life of painters in his novel L’Œuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886). Then from 1877 onwards with the publication of l’Assommoir, Émile Zola became a wealthy man. He became a figurehead among the literary bourgeoisie and organized cultural dinners with Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans and other writers at his luxurious villa in Medan near Paris after 1880.
With L’Assommoir (1877, Drunkard), a depiction of alcoholism, Zola became the best-known writer in France, who attracted crowds imitators and disciples, to his great annoyance: “I want to shout out from the housetops that I am not a chef d’ecole, and that I don’t want any disciples,” Zola once said. His personal appearance – once somebody said that he had the head of a philosopher and the body of an athlete.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish artillery officer in the French army. When the French intelligence found information about someone giving the German embassy military secrets, anti-Semitism seems to have caused senior officers to suspect Dreyfus, though there was no direct evidence of any wrongdoing. Dreyfus was court-martialled, convicted of treason and sent to Devil’s Island in French Guiana.
Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, though, came across evidence that implicated another officer, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, and informed his superiors. Rather than move to clear Dreyfus, the decision was made to protect Esterhazy and ensure the original verdict was not overturned. Major Hubert-Joseph Henry forged documents that made it seem that Dreyfus was guilty and then had Picquart assigned duty in Africa. Before leaving, Picquart told some of Dreyfus’s supporters what he knew. Soon Senator August Scheurer-Kestner took up the case and announced in the Senate that Dreyfus was innocent and accused Esterhazy. The right-wing government refused new evidence to be allowed and Esterhazy was tried and acquitted. Picquart was then sentenced to 60 days in prison.
Émile Zola risked his career and even his life on January 13th 1898, when his “J’accuse“, was published on the front page of the Paris daily, L’Aurore. The newspaper was run by Ernest Vaughan and Georges Clemenceau, who decided that the controversial story would be in the form of an open letter to President, Félix Faure. Émile Zola’s “J’Accuse” accused the highest levels of the French Army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism by having wrongfully convicted Alfred Dreyfus to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. The case, known as the Dreyfus affair, divided France deeply between the reactionary army and church, and the more liberal commercial society. For this he also wrote and said: “Dreyfus is innocent. I swear it! I stake my life on it and my honour! At this solemn moment, in the presence of this tribunal which is the representative of human justice, before you, gentle. men, who are the very incarnation of the country, before the whole of France, before the whole world, I swear that Dreyfus is innocent. By my forty years of work, by the authority that this toil may have given me, I swear that Dreyfus is innocent. By all I have now, by the name I have made for myself, by my works which have helped for the expansion of French literature, I swear that Dreyfus is innocent. May all that melt away, may my works perish if Dreyfus be not innocent! He is innocent. All seems against me — the two Chambers, the civil authority, the most widely-circulated journals, the public opinion which they have poisoned.”
For this, Zola was brought to trial for criminal libel on 7 February 1898, and was convicted on 23 February, sentenced, and removed from the Legion of Honour. Rather than go to jail, Zola fled to England. Without even having had the time to pack a few clothes, he arrived at Victoria Station on 19 July. After his brief and unhappy residence in London, from October 1898 to June 1899, he was allowed to return in time to see the government fall. The government offered Dreyfus a pardon, which he could accept and go free and so effectively admit that he was guilty, or face a re-trial in which he was sure to be convicted again. Although he was clearly not guilty, he chose to accept the pardon. Emile Zola said, “The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.” In 1906, Dreyfus was completely exonerated by the Supreme Court.
The 1898 article by Émile Zola is widely marked in France as the most prominent manifestation of the new power of the intellectuals (writers, artists, academicians) in shaping public opinion, the media and the state.
The death of Zola
Zola died at the age of 62 of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a stopped chimney while sleeping in September 29th 1902. His enemies were blamed because of previous attempts on his life, but nothing could be proven. Decades later, a Parisian roofer claimed on his deathbed to have closed the chimney for political reasons. Addresses of sympathy arrived from all parts of France; for an entire week the vestibule of his house was crowded with notable writers, scientists, artist and politicians, who came to inscribe their names in the registers. On the other hand, Zola’s enemies used the opportunity to celebrate in malicious glee. Zola was in the end buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris, but on 4 June 1908, almost six years after his death, his remains were moved to the Panthéon, where he shares a crypt with Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. At Zola’s funeral Anatole France declared, “He was a moment of the human conscience.”
What was special about Zola is that he did not believe in the possibility of individual freedom, but emphasized that “events arise fatally, implacably, and men, either with or against their wills, are involved in them. Such is the absolute law of human progress.”
“I have for me only an ideal of truth and justice. But I am quite calm; I shall conquer. I was determined that my country should not remain the victim of lies and injustice. I may be condemned here. The day will come when France will thank me for having helped to save her honour.” Émile François Zola