Ferdinand Brunetière (1849-1906), French critic and man of letters, was born at Toulon on the 19th July 1849. After attending a school at Marseilles, he studied in Paris at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. Desiring to follow the profession of teaching, he entered for examination at the école Normale Supérieure, but failed, and the outbreak of war in 1870 debarred him from a second attempt. He turned to private tuition and to literary criticism. After the publication of successful articles in the Revue Bleue, he became connected with the Revue des Deux Mondes, first as contributor, then as secretary and sub-editor, and finally, in 1893, as principal editor. In 1886 he was appointed professor of French language and literature at the école Normale, a singular honour for one who had not passed through the academic mill; and later he presided with distinction over various conférences at the Sorbonne and elsewhere. He was decorated with the Legion of Honour in 1887, and became a member of the Academy in 1893. The published works of M. Brunetière consist largely of reprinted papers and lectures.
They include six series of études critiques (1880-1898) on French history and literature; Le Roman naturaliste (1883); Histoire et Littérature, three series (1884-1886); Questions de critique (1888; second series, 1890). The first volume of L'évolution de genres dans l'histoire de la littérature, lectures in which a formal classification, founded on the Darwinian theory, is applied to the phenomena of literature, appeared in 1890; and his later works include a series of studies (2 vols., 1894) on the evolution of French lyrical poetry during the 19th century, a history of French classic literature begun in 1904, a monograph on Balzac (1906), and various pamphlets of a polemical nature dealing with questions of education, science and religion. Among these may be mentioned Discours académiques (1901), Discours de combat (1900, 1903), L'Action sociale du christianisme (1904), Sur les chemins de la croyance (1905). M. Brunetière was an orthodox Roman Catholic, and his political sympathies were in the main reactionary. He possessed two prime qualifications of a great critic, vast erudition and unflinching courage.
He was never afraid to diverge from the established critical view, his mind was closely logical and intensely accurate, and he rarely made a trip in the wide field of study over which it ranged. The most honest, if not the most impartial, of magisterial writers, he had a hatred of the unreal, and a contempt for the trivial; nobody was more merciless towards those who affected effete and decadent literary forms, or maintained a vicious standard of art. On the other hand, his intolerance, his sledge-hammer methods of attack and a certain dry pedantry alienated the sympathies of many who recognized the remarkable qualities of his mind. The application of universal principles to every question of letters is a check to dilettante habits of thought, but it is apt to detain the critic in a somewhat narrow and dusty path. M. Brunetière's influence, however, cannot be disputed, and it was in the main thoroughly sound and wholesome. He died on the 9th of December 1906.
His Manual of the History of French Literature was translated into English in 1898 by R. Derechef. Among critics of Brunetière see J. Lemaître, Les Contemporains (1887, etc.), and J. Sargeret, Les Grands Corvertis (1906).