Challenging history: Charles Péguy and the fight for literature
The enduring impact of French culture on the twentieth century is difficult to understand without a thorough consideration of French literary criticism and theory. Indeed, the elaboration of critical theory (often branching further afield than its literary roots) is one of the most influential aspects of French intellectual life on American scholarship and literary studies over the last hundred years, if not longer. At the heart of the French contribution in this field is a long-term debate between, on the one hand, the scientistic and historicist approaches to literature, and, on the other, the critics of this same tradition who turn their attention toward the text-in-itself. We are familiar with the belle-lettristic interbellum activity of Albert Thibaudet and the critics of the Nouvelle Revue française, as well as subsequent forms of anti-positivist literary theory that appeared in the 1960s, when Jacques Derrida criticized the scientistic pretensions of structuralism and Roland Barthes challenged the foundations of academic historicism. However, the earlier stages of the debate are decidedly less widely known. Antoine Compagnon, for one, has referred to them in his book La Troisième République des lettres, although it remains a topic for the most part unexplored in English.
One of the least known and yet more provocative actors in these early debates – whose important role is almost completely ignored outside of France – is the essayist and poet Charles Peguy (1873-1914). Indeed, Peguy's turn-of-the-century fight against historicism and scientism heralded many of the later developments in literary theory that would mark the last half of the twentieth century on both sides of the Atlantic. This dissertation is therefore an examination of the often-contentious relationship of history to literature in the intellectual debates of the early twentieth century; debates to which Peguy was a crucial contributor. A fierce opponent of nineteenth-century positivism and its incursion into the humanities and social sciences, Peguy's fight against the historicism of his time was also, and perhaps more importantly, a defense of the relevance of literature beyond its narrow historical origins. By way of this "fight for literature," Peguy emerges as one of the first writers of his generation to reject categorically the text-as-historical-document approach to literary history that would hold sway over French academic criticism for the better part of the twentieth century. Peguy's passionate and sometimes demanding thought thus shares a direct parentage with the later critical methods of both the American New Critics and the post-structuralist literary formulations of La Nouvelle critique; connections that, when explored, invite us to reconsider and reevaluate Peguy's significant contribution to twentieth-century literature and literary theory.