Wednesday, January 25, 2017

J’accuse . . . ! by Emile Zola

A cry for justice
Though a newspaper editorial may seem an unlikely subject for a book review, “J’accuse . . . !” may just be the most famous newspaper editorial of all time. Published in the 13 January 1898 edition of the Paris newspaper L’Aurore, the piece was written by Emile Zola in the form of an open letter to the President of the French Republic Felix Faure. In it, Zola passionately defends Alfred Dreyfus, the persecuted artillery officer caught in the center of what became known worldwide as the Dreyfus Affair, a government corruption scandal that rocked the French nation. 

When it was discovered that a French officer was passing military secrets to the Germans, accusations fueled by antisemitism were leveled at Captain Dreyfus, who was of Jewish heritage. With little supporting evidence, army officials convicted him in a military court and sentenced him to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. As evidence arose that indicated another officer was guilty of the espionage, the army covered up the new information, refusing to admit its mistake. The Dreyfus Affair had a tremendously polarizing effect on French society, with the citizenry organizing itself into opposing camps of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, based on their political and religious inclinations. Into this breach stepped Zola, a literary celebrity and elder statesman with a track record of using his pen to champion society’s downtrodden. Zola’s 4,500-word open letter caused a sensation when it hit the newsstands, igniting the fervor of the Dreyfusards and making himself a target for the opposing faction. 

Unfortunately, if you want to learn about the Dreyfus Affair, reading “J’accuse . . . !” is not the best way to go about doing it. Zola was writing for an audience of readers already familiar with the course of events. You’re unlikely to understand the point of his commentary and criticism unless you have already read a historical synopsis of the scandal. To that end, I would suggest at the very least boning up on Wikipedia before you attempt to tackle “J’accuse . . . !” For more curious readers, Frederick Brown’s biography Zola: A Life gives a very detailed, roughly 150-page, blow-by-blow account of the Dreyfus Affair (and if you’re a Zola fan, you’ll enjoy the rest of the book too). Without some degree of prior knowledge, “J’accuse . . . !” is bound to read like a legal deposition devoid of context.

Beyond its historical import, “J’accuse . . . !” also has literary merit as an exercise in persuasive rhetoric. Not surprisingly, the author expresses his cry for justice with great eloquence and passion. Would-be freedom fighters can draw inspiration from quotable nuggets like, “The truth marches on and nothing will stop it.” Soul-stirring passages are few and far between, however, amid the morass of legal detail. Those seeking moving examples of Zola’s social justice prose would do better to look in novels like Germinal or La Terre. The fiery rhetoric of “J’accuse . . !” may have also suffered the dulling effect of poor English translation (the translator of my copy was anonymous). The most incendiary portion of the letter is its hard-hitting finale, in which Zola points his finger one by one at the various guilty parties and enumerates their crimes with the condemning phrase, “I accuse . . .”

In return for the accusations he penned in “J’accuse . . . !”, Zola was convicted of libel and sentenced to jail time, but he fled to England instead, where he lived in exile for a year until a change of government allowed him to return to France. He died soon after, leaving behind one of the greatest bodies of literary work ever created by a man of letters. Even so, “J’accuse . . . !” stands as testament to the fact that he was more than just a man of letters. Zola was a potent force for change in French society and an outspoken proponent for human rights.

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