On this date in 1840, Emile Zola was born in Paris. The novelist pioneered naturalistic writing, believing ugly problems could not be solved as long as they stayed hidden.
As a struggling young writer, Zola supported himself as a clerk. Legend has it he sometimes resorted to trapping birds on his windowsill in order to eat. Zola also moonlighted as a political reporter and critic.
He was fired from a publishing house after an early autobiographical novel created notoriety. His breakthrough novel was Therese Raquin (1867). By the time his book L’Assammoir (“The Drunkard,” 1878) appeared, Zola was France’s most famous writer, yet he was barred his entire life from the Academy. His book Germinal (1885), about conditions in a coal mine leading to a strike, was denounced by the rightwing. Nana (1880) examined sexual exploitation.
Zola’s most enduring work is his open letter “J’Accuse,” about the Dreyfus case. He campaigned with Clemenceau to free the the French Jewish army officer falsely accused of spying. Zola was sentenced to imprisonment for writing “J’Accuse” in 1898, escaping to England until he could safely return after Dreyfus’ name had been cleared.
Zola, who was baptized Catholic, was a notable critic of the Roman Catholic Church (and vice versa). The Church particularly condemned his books Lourdes, Rome, and Paris (1894-98). The agnostic was an honorary associate of the British Press Association in England. D. 1902.
“When truth is buried underground it grows, it chokes, it gathers such an explosive force that on the day it bursts out, it blows up everything with it.
The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.”
—-Emile Zola, “J’Accuse!” L’Aurore, Jan. 13, 1898