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Short biography - Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who called himself "the greatest deliverer in France" can be considered the great reporter of the 18th century. Poet, journalist, writer, he lived under several political regimes ranging from the monarchy, to the Empire, including the Constituent, the Convention and the Directory. His "Tableau de Paris" earned him his first success, but also his setbacks and the Academy was banned. Author of an Essay on the Dramatic Art which revolutionized critical thinking in the theater, Mercier in his time met with great success as a playwright, but has since been forgotten. The Romantics, however, saw him as a precursor because of his view of history.
Louis-Sébastien Mercier, young writer
Born in the heart of Paris in June 1740, this son of a merchant "furnisher", in other words a gunsmith, spent his youth near the Pont Neuf. He belongs to this bourgeois class, wealthy craftsmen without being really rich, committed to equal rights and freedom of expression. Continuing his studies at the Collège des Quatre-Nations, he left to replace the Collège de la Madeleine in Bordeaux by becoming Regent in 1763. Preferring modern literature, theater and foreign letters, he did not flourish in this position and returned to Paris a few years later.
He definitely went into writing, writing a few heroics, but quickly gave up on this genre with little success. In 1764, he published "Calas on the scaffold to his judges" which helped trigger the Calas affair started by Voltaire to rehabilitate this man. Then knowing of the rising fame of JJ Rousseau, he tried his hand at academic discourse, with several "letters and praise" and worked for the theater. In 1766, he wrote stories like "The Wild Man" translated from German, then collections of short stories and wrote a tragedy "Virginia" in 1767. All this not obtaining the hoped-for success, he decided not to write only prose like "Dreams and philosophical visions" in 1768 and show himself the stubborn detractor of poets and their works: he became friends with Rousseau, Diderot, Crébillon son, Restif de la Bretonne.
His great work
At the age of thirty, he found his own style in "the year 2440" written in 1771. This sharp text showed that a revolution was necessary in France and practically inevitable! The work was banned by the authorities ... he then embarked on writing plays featuring real characters in their daily problems.
In 1775, he was offered the direction of the Journal des Dames, which initially was based on the promotion of women. Mercier then took the opportunity to convey his literary and political opinions, but he had to leave this post two years later. His fame increases, but also the outbursts and trials.
In 1781, he began his famous “Tableau de Paris”, a description of the manners of the capital, an “inventory and dramatic description of Parisian life” in his hometown. Starting in two volumes, and in front of the great success, it is to eight in 1783 and will pass to twelve volumes in 1788. In the meantime, in front of certain threats, being afraid of being badly judged (the Parisian rumor said that his work was attributed to several authors), he left Paris to settle in Neufchâtel in Switzerland. He travels in this country, amazed by the mountains and nature, but retains in him a certain mistrust of men, a feeling that has pursued him for a long time and publishes “portraits of the kings of France” in 1783 then “My nightcap” in 1784. It is in Switzerland that the first edition of the “Tableau de Paris” comes out, a battle of booksellers vying for publication. Mercier becomes famous, but is shunned by the Academy. The public does not like his style, as Rivarol said, "it is a work thought out in the street and written on the terminal" ... It is true that Mercier delivered certain abrupt truths with a few satire-like characters.
Member of the Convention
He returned to Paris in 1786 and extended his work with four new volumes and received praise from the Courrier de l'Europe "it is the work of a sensitive and courageous citizen who does not stop small considerations. He wanted to see what nobody contemplates ”. But he continues as a journalist and his writing becomes political. He attacks the Ancien Régime with the "Portrait of Philip IX, King of Spain". But the Revolution is brewing, Mercier is certain of having been a prophet in his edition of L’An 2440 where he thought of the demolition of the Bastille!
A moderate supporter of new ideas, he became involved in the revolutionary movement and became closer to the Girondins. He published a newspaper "Les Annales patriotiques et littéraires de la France" between 1789 and 1791, then "the Chronicle of the month" in which he never ceased to point out the Jacobins as the most formidable enemies of the constitutional system. He pleads for a revolution of the institutions which must protect the citizen; he protests for the increasingly poor people and fights for more justice, more morality, less selfishness.
Opposed to the death of Louis XVI
Elected deputy for Seine and Oise at the Convention from September 1792 to October 1795, then deputy for Sarthe until December 1799, he did not vote for the death of the king, thinking that perpetual detention would suffice "As a national judge , I say that Louis deserved death; as legislator, the national interest speaks here higher than its crimes, and I must, for the interest of the people, vote a less severe sentence. What is justice here? It is the tranquility of the nation. But I say that a death warrant, which would have its immediate execution, would be impolitic and dangerous. Louis is a hostage; it is more, it serves to prevent any other pretender from ascending the throne; it protects, it defends your young republic, it gives it time to form. If his head falls, tremble! A foreign faction will find him a successor. Louis is no longer a king, nor does his son and his brothers have rights to the crown; but the phantom serves us wonderfully here; yes, we must walk with this phantom, with the time which is also a legislator: do not rush an irrevocable measure. I vote for the detention of Louis in perpetuity ”.
In the spring of 1793, he voted against the arrest of the Girondins ... but was imprisoned on October 3 with 72 other protesters. Released after the fall of Robespierre in July 1794, he reappeared in the Assembly in December 1794 and passed to the Council of Five Hundred in October 1795 elected deputy for the Côtes du Nord and du Nord. It was a period when Mercier "took" a little bit to everyone: he refused to allow Descartes to accede to the honors of the Pantheon, judging him responsible for the Terror with his freedoms of thought; he accuses Voltaire of having destroyed morality; he accepts a position as controller of the Lottery cash desk even though he had caused its abolition previously ... he left the Conseil des Cinq Cents in May 1797 to be appointed professor of history at the Ecole Centrale and swears not to no more talking about politics!
The last writings of Jean-Sébastien Mercier
He took advantage of his time to produce the “Nouveau Paris” in 1797 and six volumes were produced on the mores of the Revolution; but Mercier has changed, he is embittered and defends the dream of an enlightened and egalitarian society, he will not approve of the Empire either and will be angry with Napoleon. He published one of his last works in 1801 "Neology or vocabulary of new words, to be renewed or taken in new acceptances", then in 1808 "Satires against Racine and Boileau" where he ironically describes fearful, narrow-minded, clinging France. to its classicism.
He died on April 25, 1814, between the abdication of Napoleon and the arrival of Louis XVIII, having these words published in the year 2440 "men of all countries, envy my destiny: born subject, I died free and republican" .
He will have the right to speeches, to burial at Père-Lachaise, but will be forgotten. “Reporter” of the late 18th century, no one will pay homage to him when this word appears in the dictionary.
- Women of Paris - Edition Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, March 2012.
- Table of Paris, the New Paris - The discovery, 2006.
- Dictionary of French parliamentarians from 1789 to 1889 - Robert and Cougny.
- Louis Sébastien Mercier, a heretic in literature. Collective work, Mercure de France, 1995.