Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804 - 1869) was one of the 19th century's greatest literary critics. Admired, attacked and vastly influential, he was perhaps the most ardent reader in the history of literature. His small house in the Rue de Montparnasse was a veritable Parnassus, frequented by Flaubert and the brothers Goncourt, Gavarni and Renan, George Sand and Théophile Gautier. In a century that worshipped science, Sainte-Beuve was an uneasy man, torn by inner conflicts and at least partly aware of the horrors into which the modern world would soon be plunged.
Sainte-Beuve remains a controversial figure. Like Nietzsche, one could view him as the short-tempered, vengeful critic – or, like Henry James, admire the firmness of his convictions. With Marcel Proust, one could accuse him of skimming the surface of a biography and failing to note its author's deeper intentions – or take George Steiner's view, that Saint-Beuve is the only critic of his age whose writings are still relevant.
Sainte-Beuve is one of the great critics of modernism, conservative yet not reactionary, a writer who noted with regret the tendencies toward a levelling of society in his time. Yet he knew, too, that such tendencies could not be reversed. Extreme in his disappointments, a realist in his expectations, Sainte-Beuve was not a fanatic. Nor was he a coward, as Nietzsche asserted. He was simply cautious, sampling ideologies in small doses only, returning rapidly to the plainer fare of common sense.
Wolf Lepenies' thorough study of Sainte-Beuve is also an engrossing book about the 19th century and the role of the critic.