Reader's Encyclopedia

Académie française

The French Academy. Originating in secret meetings of literary men in Paris around the year 1630, the Academy was established by order of the king, at Cardinal Richelieu's urging, in 1635. Made up of forty members, supposedly the most distinguished living men of French letters, the Academy took as its purpose the protection and perfection of the French language and began compiling an authoritative dictionary in 1639; the task has not yet been completed. The Academy also undertook the composition of definitive treatises on grammar, poetry, and rhetoric. Ordered by Richelieu to censure Corneille's Le Cid, the Academy early adopted a policy of advocating old rules and traditions at the expense of innovation and change. In the late 18th century, the philosophes gained a majority in the Academy and briefly influenced it with their views. Inactive during the Revolution, the Academy was reestablished in 1803 by Napoleon as part of the Institut de France and two years later took up headquarters in the Palais Mazarin, which it still occupies. Inevitably the Academy is a conservative body, reflecting the tastes of its membership -- those, by definition, of age and secure reputation. Including many of the most significant names in past and present French literature, criticism, and philosophy, the membership nonetheless reveals several surprising omissions, most regrettably that of Molière. In this century, the Academy may be said to have fairly represented the cultural life of France and, in general, to have exercised a beneficent effect upon the preservation of the language. In 1981 Marguerite Yourcenar became the first woman to be elected to the Academy.

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