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The Atlantic Monthly

THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY - VOLUME V -
NUMBER 29 - MARCH - 1860
VARIOUS
Produced by Joshua Hutchinson, David Widger and PG Distribut ed Proof-
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THE
ATLA NTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITE RA TURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. V.–MARCH, 1860.–NO. XXI X.
THE FRE NCH CHARA CTE R.
The American character is now generally acknowledged to be the most
cosmopolitan of modern times; and a native of this country, all things
being equal, is likely to form a less prescriptive idea of other nations
than the inhabitants of countries whose neighborhood and history unite
to bequeathe and perpetuate certain fixed notions. Before the frequent
intercourse now existing between Europe and the United States, we
derived our impressions of the French people, as well as of Italian
skies, from English literature. The probability was that our earliest
association with the Gallic race partook largely of the ridiculous.
All the extravagant anec dotes of morbid self-love, miserly epicurism,
strained courtesy, and frivolous absurdity current used to boast a
Frenc hman as their hero. It was so in novels, plays, and after -dinner
stories. Our first personal acquaintance often confirmed this prejudice;
for the chanc e was that the one specimen of the Grand Nation familiar to
our childhood proved a poor ´emigr´e who gained a precarious livelihood
as a dancing-master, cook, teacher, or barber, who was profuse of
smiles, shrugs, bows, and compliments, prided himself on la belle
Franc e , played the fiddle, and took snu. A more dignified view
succeeded, when we read ”Tᄡelᄡemaque,” so long an initiatory text-book
in the study of the language, blende d as its crystal style was in our
imaginations with the pure and noble character of F´enelon. Perhaps the
next link in the chain of our estimate was supplied by the bust of
Voltaire, whose withered, sneering physiognomy embodies the wit and
indierenc e, the soulless vagabondage that forms the worst side of
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the national mind. As patriotic sentiment awakened, the disinterested
enthusiasm of Lafayette, woven, as it is, into the record of the
struggle which gave birt h to our republic, yielded anot her and more
attractive element to the fancy portrait. Then, as our reading expanded,
came the tragic chronicle of the first French Revolution and the
brilliant and dazzling melodrama of Napoleon, the traditions so pathetic
and sublime of gifted women, the tableaux so exciting to a youthful
temper of military glory. And thus, by degrees, we found ourselves
bewildered by the most vivid contrasts and apparently irreconcilable
traits, until the original idea of a Frenchman expanded to the widest
range of associations, from the ingenious devices of a mysterious
cuisine to the brilliant manoeuvres of the battle-field; infinite
female tact, rare philosophic hardihood, inimitable bon-mots ,
exquisite millinery, consummate generalship, holy fortitude, refined
profligacy, and intoxicating sentiment,–Ude, Napoleon, Madame R´ecamier,
Pascal, Ninon de I’Enclos, and Rousseau. Casual associations and
desultory reading thus predispose us to rec ognize something half comical
and half enchanting in French life; and it depends on accident, when we
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