Emile Zola (1840-1902) made his presence known in almost every aspect of society during his life. He was perhaps one of the most famous and controversial figures ever known on the French literary scene. Aside from the colossal amount of literary output, which includes novels, dramas, poetry, and criticism, he also dominated the theoretical side of literary endeavor. Equally important, he became known as one of the great champions of the downtrodden, and he never hesitated to allow his name to be added to any cause.
Zola was born in Paris, the only child of an Italian immigrant and a French mother. The father died when Zola was about nine years old, leaving the mother and Emile in extreme financial straits. After failing to pass the examinations for his baccalaureate, Zola lived what might be accurately called the life of the poverty-stricken poet. For about two years, he existed in abject want while trying to find some type of suitable employment. Certainly, during these years, he learned a great deal about poverty, which often appears in many of his subsequent novels.
Zola began his career as a poet. After obtaining a clerical position, he was able to write on the side and in a few years had published enough to allow him to devote his full time to literary endeavors. From 1862 until the appearance of L'Assommoir in 1877, Zola struggled along, publishing about a novel a year. But with L'Assommoir, Zola became famous and began to reap a certain amount of profits from his writings.
Zola's "Rougon-Macquart" series is his great contribution to French literature. This is twenty volumes which depict various aspects of life and society under the second empire in France. Not all of the novels are as successful as Nana, but as one reads from one novel to another, one is struck by the tremendous imagination of the author.
In his later life, Zola became a champion of many causes. His intervention in the Dreyfus affair and his famous article "J'accuse" became a bible for the left-wing radicals. Actually, Zola was defending a Jewish officer who he thought was being unfairly crucified by the officers of the army. His response was that of a humanitarian rather than a crusader.
Zola was equally famous for his views about naturalism, and he asserted that the novelist could utilize the scientific method in creating characters for fiction. His theoretical criticism influenced the course of modern literature even though it is not considered profound or original. Ultimately, Zola's reputation rests upon the tremendously imaginative feat connected with the conception of the "Rougon-Macquart" series.