Novelist Emile Zola flees France on this day in 1898 to escape imprisonment after being convicted of libel against the French army in the notorious Dreyfus affair. Zola was a well-known writer who had published his first book, a collection of stories, more than three decades earlier. After failing his baccalaureate, he worked in the sales department of a major French publisher, who encouraged his writing and published his first book.
He became one of the most famous writers in France with the publication of his 1877 hit, The Drunkard, part of his 20-novel cycle exploring the lives of two families. In 1898, Zola wrote an inflammatory newspaper letter, entitled “J’Accuse,” exposing a military cover-up regarding Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus, a French army captain, had been accused of espionage in 1894 and sentenced in a secret military court-martial to imprisonment in a South American penal colony.
Two years later, evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence surfaced, but the army suppressed the information. Zola’s letter blamed the military for concealing its mistaken conviction. Zola’s letter provoked national outrage on both sides of the issue, among political parties, religious organizations, and others. He was brought to trial for libel, convicted, and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. He fled France but returned in 1899, after Dreyfus was pardoned. Zola died in 1902, four years before Dreyfus was finally exonerated.