Monday, February 1, 2021

The Dreyfus Case: Four Letters to France by Emile Zola

Zola’s incendiary editorials
Emile Zola
Alfred Dreyfus was a captain in the French Army who was court-martialed and convicted of treason for disclosing secret information to the Germans. In reality, however, Dreyfus was framed for the crime by military and government officials who considered him an easy target because he was a Jew. At the height of this divisive scandal, author Emile Zola emerged as an outspoken defender of Dreyfus. Zola published four newspaper editorials in which he vehemently criticized this gross miscarriage of justice, spoke out against antisemitism, and demanded a reopening of the Dreyfus case. The book The Dreyfus Case: Four Letters to France, published in 1898, reprints these four editorials in English translation. Zola wrote these articles in the form of open letters addressed to particular officials or groups of French citizens. The purpose of these letters was to bait the accused parties into charging Zola with libel, thus bringing about legal proceedings that would make public new evidence in Dreyfus’s favor. The strategy worked, and Zola was convicted of libel. He fled the country and lived in exile in England from July 1898 to June 1899. 

The best-written and best-known of these essays is the third editorial, “Letter to M. Felix Faure, President of the Republic,” also commonly referred to as “J’Accuse . . . !” Certainly one of the most famous newspaper editorials of all time, this work is an artful exemplar of persuasive rhetoric with several quotable nuggets of liberal eloquence. In the last several paragraphs of the essay, Zola singles out specific officials who contributed to the railroading of Dreyfus and introduces his itemization of each party’s crimes with a condemnatory “I accuse.” The fourth letter in this book, “Letter to the Minister of War,” is merely a brief recapitulation of the points made in “J’Accuse . . . !”

In the book’s first two entries, “Letter to the Youth of France,” and “A Letter to France,” Zola addresses the general public. In both cases, he recounts details from the case and persuasively lays out his argument for Dreyfus’s innocence. The one addressed to youth is aimed at students of high school and university age, criticizing their apathy and urging them to care about injustice. At the time these letters were published, the audiences to which they are addressed would have been quite familiar with the details of the case, so while Zola does recap certain events and evidence, he does not provide a comprehensive narrative of the Dreyfus affair. This English edition includes a brief summary, but even American and British readers of the time were expected to know the fundamentals of the scandal, so while these editorials from Zola are valuable historical documents, they don’t provide the reader with a complete education into the details of the Dreyfus case.

Of the four letters, “J’Accuse . . . !” is the only one that really rises to any remarkable level of literary merit. The rest are well-crafted essays that inform more than they stir the soul. Nevertheless, this book provides admirers of Zola with a good look at his role in the Dreyfus affair and his persona as a public intellectual in fin-de-siècle France.

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