From the CFPL Vault Collection. Purchased from Up-Country Letters, 2005.
The New England Transcendentalists regarded Germaine de Staël (1766-1817)—novelist, essayist, playwright, literary critic, political writer, memoirist, traveler, and conversationalist—as an archetypal intellectual woman. Born in Paris, Mme. de Staël spent her life among the political and intellectual elite of her time. Exiled by Napoleon for her opposition to his regime, she entertained visitors from all over and agitated against Bonaparte at her family’s estate near Geneva.
Although de Staël’s unhappy marriage, multiple lovers, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies made her an unlikely role model for New England descendants of the Puritans, the force of her mind, her celebration of Romantic ideals and liberal ideas in her writings, her embrace of emotion, enthusiasm, and religious feeling, and her championing of German philosophy and literature in her influential De l’Allemagne (On Germany) stirred Emerson and his associates.
Lettres sur Les Écrits et le Caractère de Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Letters on the Writings and Character of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; 1788) was Mme. de Staël’s first published critical work. Her Essai sur les fictions (Essay on Fiction)—which Goethe translated into German—appeared in 1795, De l’Influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations (On the Influence of the Passions on the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations) in 1796, De la littérature considerée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (On Literature Considered in Its Relationship with Social Institutions)—a significant work in the history of comparative literature—in 1800. De Staël’s successful novels Delphine (1802) and Corinne (1807) both offered portraits of emotionally and intellectually complex female characters stifled by accepted notions of women’s roles.
When De l’Allemagne appeared in 1810, Napoleon found it subversive to French supremacy and ordered all copies of it destroyed. A second edition in French (shown here) was issued at London in 1813, in which year the book was first translated into English. De Staël’s Considérations sur les principaux événemens de la Révolution française (Considerations on the Principle Events of the French Revolution) and Dix années d’exil (Ten Years of Exile) appeared posthumously.
Emerson, Fuller, Ripley, Parker, and Peabody all read and appreciated the writings of Mme. de Staël. Ripley and Parker in particular were inspired by her work to read deeply in German literature and philosophy in the original.
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