1902 Encyclopedia > Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm

Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm
German critic and journalist

FRIEDRICH MELCHIOR, BARON VON GRIMM, (1723-1807), the author of the celebrated Correspondance littéraire, was, though a naturalized Frenchman, both of German descent and a native of Germany, having been born of poor parents at Ratisbon, 26th December 1723. He studied at the university of Leipsic, where he had as professor the celebrated Ernesti, to whom he was doubtless in no small degree indebted for his critical appreciation of classical literature. On completing his studies he made his literary début by a tragedy wdiich was received with ridicule by the audience and by the critics, including Lessing, and which is now forgotten even in Germany. In all probability it was this disappointment which led him to think of seeking his fortune in Paris, whither he accompanied the count of Schonberg as tutor to his sons, and where afterwards, at a small salary, he was for some time reader to the young hereditary prince of Saxe-Gotha. In 1749 he made the acquaintanceship of J. J. Rousseau, which, through a mutual sympathy in regard to musical matters, soon ripened into intimate friendship. Through Rousseau he was introduced to the Encyclopedists, and about the same time he became secretary to Count Friesen, nephew of Marshal Saxe, which gained him admission to the most brilliant society of Paris. Endowed with more than, average intellectual abilities, thoroughly versed in all current topics of interest in literature, science, and art, gifted with remarkable insight into character, possessing engaging manners and great social tact, and actuated in all his conduct by a keen regard to his own interest, he won almost immediately general appre-ciation and respect. He rapidly obtained a thorough knowledge of the French language, and acquired so perfectly the tone and sentiments of the society in which he moved that all marks of his foreign origin and training seemed completely effaced. A witty pamphlet entitled Le petit Prophète de Boehmischbroda, written by him on the respective merits of the Italian and French operas, a subject which at that time greatly exercised the society of Paris and on which he sided with the Italian section, at once firmly established his literary reputation. It is possible that the origin of the pamphlet is partly to be accounted for by his admiration of Mdlle. Fel, the prima donna of the Italian company. This admiration quickly developed into a passion so vehement that he was seized with a kind of catalepsy which continued for several days, but from which he suddenly awoke completely recovered both in body and mind. In 1753 Grimm was engaged by the Abbé Raynal to aid him in conducting his literary correspondence with German sovereigns ; and this opened up to him that sphere for his ambition which perhaps wyas most in accordance with his peculiar tastes, and in which his abilities best fittod him to excel. Although from the beginning he had the principal share in the work, it was probably conducted until 1759 in the name of the Abbé Raynal. With the aid of friends during his temporary absences from France, he carried it on until 1790, and it latterly extended to six sovereigns, including the empress of Russia, the king of Sweden, and the king of Poland. It was probably in 1754 that Grimm was introduced by Rousseau to Madame d'Épinay, his relations with whom led to an irreconcilable rupture between him and Rousseau. The exact amount of Grimm's blameworthiness it is impossible to determine, and the whole matter would be of little consequence but for the fact that Rousseau allowed his resentment to gain such a complete possession of his mind as to induce him to give in his Confessions a wholly mendacious portrait of Grimm's character, by which his reputation was for a consider-able time injuriously affected. After the death of Count Friesen Grimm obtained the patronage of the duke of Orleans, through whom he was appointed secretary to Marshal d'Estrées during the campaign of Westphalia in 1756-57. Subsequently he was named minister of Saxe-Gotha at the court of France, but he was deprived of that office on account of having criticized rather caustically certain French ministers in a despatch that was intercepted by Louis XV. His introduction to Catherine II. of Russia took place in 1773, when he accompanied the suite of the landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt to St Petersburg on occasion of the marriage of a daughter of that prince to the only son of Catherine. After the Revolution Grimm retired to Gotha, and in 1792 he emigrated to Russia, where he enjoyed high favour at the court of Catherine, and had assigned him the nominal and agreeable duty of entertaining her for so many hours a day by his conversation. This state of things came, however, to an end in 1795, when, notwithstanding his supplications to be retained at court if only as one of her majesty's dogs, he was appointed minister of Russia at Hamburg. He died at Gotha, 19th December 1807.

The correspondence of Grimm forms perhaps the most valuable of existing records of any important literary period. It embraces nearly the whole period from 1750 to 1790, and although parts of it during his absence from France were written by Diderot, Madame d'Epinay, and others, the work as a whole may be regarded as substantially his. At first he contented himself with enumerating in the simplest manner the chief current views in literature and art, and indicating only very slightly the contents of the principal new books, but gradually his criticisms became more extended and trenchant, and he touched on nearly every subject—political, literary, artistic, social, and religious—which interested the Parisian society of the time —his narrative, which moves lightly and easily from one theme to another, being frequently seasoned by piquant anecdotes or witty reflexions. Not only, however, did he aim to give a truthful and just account of the subjects on which he, wrote ; his purpose extended considerably beyond that of affording a few hours' amusement to his royal patrons, and his descriptions and criticisms were fitted to satisfy more than a superficial curiosity. His notices of contemporaries are somewhat severe, and he exhibits in all the nakedness of truth the foibles and selfishness of the society in which he moved ; but he appears to have been unbiassed in his literary judgments, and such is their justness and penetration that time has only served to confirm them. In style and manner of expression he is thoroughly Trench. He is generally somewhat cold in his appreciation, but his literary taste is delicate and subtle; and it is the opinion of Sainte-Beuve that the quality of his thought in his best moments will compare not unfavourably even with that of Voltaire. His religious and philosophical opinions were entirely negative, and his references to Christianity generally assume the form of either a sneer or a witticism.

Grimm's Correspondance littéraire, première partie de 1753 à 1770, was published at Paris in 1813 in 6 vols. 8vo ; deuxième partie de 1771 à 1782, in 1812 in 5 vols. 8vo; and troisième partie, pendant une partie des années 1775 et 1776, et pendant les années 1782 à 1790 inclusivement, in 1813 in 5 vols. 8vo. A supplementary volume appeared in 1814 ; the whole correspond-ence was collected and published by M. Jules Taschereau in a
Nouvelle édition, revue et mise dans un meilleur ordre, avec des noies et des éclaircissements, et oil, se trouvent rétablies pour la première fois les phrases supprimées p>ar la censure impériale, Paris, 1829-1831, 15 vols. 8vo ; and the Correspondance inédite, et recueil de lettres, poésies, morceaux, et fragments retranchés par la censure impériale en 1812 et 1813 was published in 1829. Grimm's Mémoire historique sur Vorigine et les suites de mon attachement pour l'impératrice Catherine II. jusqu' au décès de sa majesté impériale, and Catherine's correspondence with Grimm to September 1774, have been published in the Collection of the Russian Imperial Historical Society. She treats him very familiarly, and calls him Heraclite, George Dandin, &c. He signs himself " Pleureur. " See also Mme. d'Bpinay's Mémoires ; Rousseau's Confessions ; the notice by Galgues in the introduction to the second part of the Correspond-ance, and that by Taschereau in the introduction to the new edition ; Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du lundi, vol. vii.

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