Session 12A: Revolution and Revival

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12A. Revolution and Revival

Vittorio Frigerio (Dalhousie): "Backwater of History: Alexandre Dumas and the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799"
Anne Mallory (Georgia): "Burke, Boredom and the Age of Revolutions"
Andrew M. Stauffer (California State): "Anger, Inflammation and Revolutionary Discourse"

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"Backwater of History: Alexandre Dumas and the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799"
Vittorio Frigerio
Dalhousie University

This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the Neapolitan Revolution, the popular movement that briefly unseated the Bourbon King Ferdinand the First and instituted an egalitarian Republic modeled after the French. The events surrounding this little-known episode of modern European history form the core of one of French writer Alexandre Dumas' last -- and possibly most interesting -- novels: La San Felice.

Dumas, who had been personally involved in the last act of the fall of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies -- the liberation of Naples by Giuseppe Garibaldi's red shirts -- took advantage of the availability of hitherto confidential or relatively unknown historical documents to write a monumental epic on the ill-fated power grab of the Neapolitan Jacobins.

This novel was initially published in instalments on the pages of L'Indipendente, a newspaper produced and largely written by Dumas himself to disseminate the gospel of Italian unity and of Garibaldi's revolution. La San Felice represents one of the aging romantic writer's most significant attempts at making sense of the changing tides of history.

Virtually the father of the French school of historical novelists, and undoubtedly its most successful representative, Dumas masterfully combines in La San Felice the formulae that made him one of the century's most widely-read novelists with intriguing reflections on the mechanisms of history, and the lessons that can be drawn from such exemplary historical tragedies as that which befell the Neapolitan Jacobins.

In and of itself, an analysis of La San Felice would prove very interesting just to highlight the specificities of the writer's evolution, and his peculiar and deeply felt vision of historical progress. In addition, this late romantic novel, written at a time when the fascination with fictionalized history typical of the early part of the century had largely dissipated, also seems to have struck somewhat of a raw nerve among its late 20th century readers. A new Italian translation of La San Felice has appeared this year thanks to the initiative of a small Neapolitan publisher. Coming immediately before the beginning of the celebrations for the anniversary of the Revolution, Dumas' novel has re-ignited the flames of discord among leading Italian intellectuals and historians by providing abundant fodder for a re-evaluation of the events that led to the Revolution, its bloody aftermath, the psychology of its principal characters, and the significance of the episode for contemporary Italy. The editorial and critical success of this new edition has also contributed to a renewal of the debate on the validity of the novel as a means of historical knowledge, and generally on the qualities, or lack thereof, of modern historiography compared to romantic history.

In this paper, I will endeavour to discuss Dumas' distinctive perception of the direction and meaning of history. I will contrast the conclusions he draws in La San Felice with his earlier theories on the forward movement of historical progress, as expressed both in his fictional creations and in his notable historical work Gaule et France. At the same time, I will examine the debate surrounding the Italian edition of the novel in light of the current controversy about the impact of revisionism in historiography and the ideological use of history. I will conclude by suggesting reasons for the continued appeal of Dumas' historical novels among the general public.

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Last updated June 7, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell