January 13: On this day in 1898 Emile Zola published his “J’Accuse” letter on the Dreyfus Affair in the French newspaper L’Aurore. In his letter Zola listed eight politicians and military personnel (including the President of the Republic) whom he held responsible for the scapegoat, anti-Semitic conviction of Captain Dreyfus for treason three years earlier. Before the morning was out over 300,000 copies of L’Aurore, ten times the usual number, had been sold — not a few to those so outraged at Zola’s charges that they made newspaper bonfires.
Zola’s crusades — newspaper articles defending the new Expressionist painting, Left-leaning novels about a nation reduced to poverty, alcoholism and prostitution by the power elite — were often flamboyant, but he had in fact tried to rouse public support for the Dreyfus issue less dramatically. A year-and-a-half earlier his “Plea for the Jews” had registered disgust with rising anti-Semitism. In the weeks immediately prior to “J’Accuse,” he had written a series of newspaper articles on Dreyfus specifically. When the last of these was canceled by the newspaper as too provocative, and when both the stonewalling and the public indifference continued, Zola published two pamphlets on the topic at his own expense — “Letter to Youth,” a call for charity and fairness addressed to French students, and “Letter to France,” which forecasted doom to any nation that found comfort in the solidarity of scapegoat politics. Feeling that these appeals had fallen on deaf ears, and not having the time or temperament for alternatives, Zola decided to name names. He missed the Major whose lies and forgeries were at the center of the scandal, and it would take years of cover-ups, trials, suicides, and riots to reveal all, but Zola’s list turned out to be remarkably accurate.
The letter set off a chain of events that would force Zola to flee to England to avoid his own prison term for defamation, but also force authorities to return Dreyfus from Devil’s Island for retrial and, ultimately, exoneration. By the time of his death four years later — caused by a chimney fire set, some still say, by his “Anti-Dreyfusard” enemies — Zola was so revered that 50,000 joined his funeral procession, and heard Anatole France eulogize him as “a moment in the human conscience.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.