Julien Green, novelist, autobiographer, dramatist, critic, and first non-French national elected to the Academie Francaise (1971), was greatly attached to his American nationality and to his roots in Georgia. A large section of his writing constitutes a quest for identity by an American living abroad in France.
Green was born in Paris of American parents; his mother was from Savannah, Georgia, his father from Virginia. He was baptized Julien Hartridge Green in honor of his maternal grandfather, Georgia congressman Julian Hartridge. His paternal grandfather, Charles Green, from Halesowen, England, attained great wealth in the cotton industry in Savannah, where his magnificent Tudor-style mansion, the Green-Meldrim House, was completed in 1861.
Green’s father, Edward, had a bent for speculation that led to financial losses and the acceptance of a post with a cotton agency in Le Havre, France, where he already had business contacts. The family left for Le Havre in 1893 and moved in 1897 to Paris, where their eighth child, Julien, was born on September 6, 1900. Julien’s childhood was imbued with his mother’s stories of the Civil War (1861-65) and her regret that the South had lost the war. This created in Green a nostalgia for his Georgian roots and a sense of exile, a prominent theme in his novels. His mother died when he was fourteen, and he was converted to Catholicism at sixteen. In 1919 he thought of becoming a Benedictine monk but later abandoned the idea.
Education and Early Career
During World War I, Green enlisted in the American Field Service in 1917 and later transferred to the French Foreign Legion and then to the regular French army. After the war, in 1919, he left for America to enroll at the University of Virginia, where he studied Latin, Greek, English literature, history, German, and elementary Spanish.
This was a significant period in his career. On the level of his quest for identity, he became acquainted with various family relatives in Savannah and elsewhere. On a personal level, there was his encounter with a man whom he called Mark. This platonic relationship left Green burdened with his inability to express his love. He realized he was gay, which intensified his inner religious struggle between flesh and spirit, sin and grace. This conflict also constitutes the central drama of his main works. Ultimately, Green’s orientation led him to reject Catholicism, and he did not rejoin the church until 1939.
Green published his first literary work, a short story, “The Apprentice Psychiatrist,” in the University of Virginia Magazine in May 1920. In the 1920s he continued to write short stories, some of them set in Savannah. He also wrote an important article on Joyce’s Ulysses that was published in the review Philosophies in May 1924. It was around this time that he began the writing of his journal, an activity that was to engage him all his life. The entries written in Virginia contain the embryo of his novels of the 1940s. Green returned to France in 1922, but he visited America again in the 1930s and spent the World War II years (1941-45) there as well.
Green’s first novel, Mont-Cinere (1926; published in English as Avarice House), occurs in Virginia on the property of Kinloch, owned by one of Green’s relatives. Set twenty-three years after the end of the Civil War, the novel focuses on a mother and daughter who live in an atmosphere of tension, resentment, and greed. His novels of the 1930s and 1940s deal with family relationships, violence, the quest for identity, and escape into the fantastic and the world of dreams. The main novels of these years are Epaves (1932; The Strange River), Le visionnaire (1934; The Dreamer), Minuit (1936; Midnight), and Si j’etais vous (1947; If I Were You). Green’s interest in eastern mysticism, which developed during the 1930s, is especially evident in such novels of the 1940s as Varouna (1940; Then Shall the Dust Return) and Si j’etais vous, both of which, according to critic John M. Dunaway, concern the migration of souls.
Green’s masterpiece is undoubtedly Moira (1950; published in English under the same title), an autobiographical novel set at the University of Virginia and dominated by the conflict between flesh and spirit, sin and grace. His next novel, Chaque homme dans sa nuit (1960; Each in His Darkness), is partly set in the Wormsloe Historic Site near Savannah and presents a more positive vision of Catholicism.
The culmination of Green’s quest for his Georgian roots is his series of novels on the Civil War, “the Dixie trilogy,” written in the 1980s and 1990s. Here Green gives full vent to his passion for the South in a vivid and sometimes sentimental evocation of life in Savannah before and during the Civil War.
Green’s journal stretches from 1928 to 1996 and deals with a wide variety of topics, including the problems of creative writing, religion, travel, and his conversations with leading twentieth-century French writers. It gives an interesting and moving analysis of his childhood, of his involvement in World War I, and of his study in Virginia. Green also wrote plays, the most important of which, Sud (South; 1953), explores a gay drama on the eve of the Civil War. In 1983 he published a biography of St. Francis of Assisi entitled Frere Francois (God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi).
Julien Green died on August 13, 1998, and is buried in Klagenfurt, Austria, where he frequently spent his holidays.