Birth of a National Icon

The Literary Avant-Garde and the Origins of the Intellectual in France

By Venita Datta

Subjects: French Studies
Paperback : 9780791442081, 340 pages, May 1999
Hardcover : 9780791442074, 340 pages, May 1999

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents

List of Illustrations


Introduction: Birth of a National Icon

1. The Literary Avant-Garde at the Fin de Siècle

2. The Generation of 1890

3. Aristocrat or Proletarian?: Intellectuals and Elites in Fin-de-Siècle France

4. The Jew as Intellectual, the Intellectual as Jew

5. Intellectuals, Honor, and Manhood at the Fin de Siècle

6. The Sword or the Pen: Cometing Visions of the Hero at the Fin de Siècle

7. Individualism and Solidarity: Organicist Discourse in the Dreyfus Affair

Conclusion: From "Mystique" to "Politique"





Examines the rise of the intellectual in fin-de-siecle France, setting this important phenomenon against the backdrop of an emerging mass democracy and concentrating on the key role played by the avant-garde.


Birth of a National Icon examines the emergence of the intellectual in fin-de-siècle France, setting this important phenomenon against the backdrop of an emerging mass democracy and concentrating on the key role played by the avant-garde.

Venita Datta is Associate Professor of French at Wellesley College.


"Birth of a National Icon is an outstanding piece of scholarship. It makes a significant contribution to the history of the French intellectual for a number of reasons. First, Datta convincingly argues—against the long-standing conventional wisdom—that the birth of the French intellectual cannot be seen simply as a product of the Dreyfus Affair. In a richly textured survey of the 'little magazines' of the 1890s, she establishes that the set of concerns later attributed to the 'intellectual' were already very much in evidence in the years preceding the Dreyfus Affair. Second, she documents the role of the literary avant-garde in the construction of the French intellectual. Her impressive mastery of the avant-garde literary groups in the 1890s allows her to paint a portrait of their hopes and, even more importantly perhaps, their anxieties, both of which combined to give shape to the emerging intellectual. Third, in perhaps her most impressive contribution, she demonstrates that emphasis on the political division between Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard obscures the degree to which each side shared a common outlook, especially in regard to the role of the intellectual." — Paul Mazgaj, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

"The topic is significant and, given the centenary of 'J'Accuse,' very topical. It builds upon existing scholarship and shows the limitations of established interpretations. The central argument—that the intellectual is a product of modern, democratic, mass society—is insightful, and, I think, of the first importance." — Martha Hanna, University of Colorado, Boulder

"I predict that this book will become the standard reference work on the rise of the French intellectual." — Willard Bohn, author of Apollinaire and the International Avant-Garde