Albert Brisbane – From Batavia to France and Beyond

Sorbonne Or University Of Paris In Paris, France.

The Sorbonne, more formally known as the University of Paris


Last week, in showing how language teacher Jean Manesca‘s method was likely plagiarized by Heinrich Ollendorf we used direct testimony from Albert Brisbane, who was a student of both teachers and provided Ollendorf with Manesca’s course notes. Beyond his innocent and yet fundamental role in the Ollendorf-Manesca story, Brisbane is of interest to us for another reason: he is an example of just how far meticulous and motivated study of foreign languages can take you.

Albert Brisbane was born in 1809 in Batavia, New York – a small town smack in the middle of Genessee Country in the far western reaches of Upstate New York which at the time was essentially a frontier town; in fact Batavia now bears the nickname 1802 Birthplace of Western New York. At the age of 15, Albert’s father sent him to New York City to study. The meeting with French teacher Jean Manesca was fateful, and at the age of 18 Brisbane set sail for France armed with a solid knowledge of the French language and an enthusiastic curiosity about the Enlightenment culture which had pervaded the teachings of his French instructor.

Upon arriving in Paris Brisbane made a beeline for one of the most prominent institutions of learning in the world at the time – the Sorbonne, more formally known as the University of Paris. From rural Batavia by way of bustling New York, Brisbane had finally arrived at what most have seemed to him the center of the intellectual world. However before long he began to realize that the lessons of the teacher who most interested him at the Sorbonne – Victor Cousin – were nothing more than a translation of German philosophical thought. Kant, Jacobi, Schelling and Hegel were all to be found to the east of the Rhine.

And thus, as the land of his intellectual interest shifted eastward, so did Brisbane’s linguistic curiosities. The meeting with German teacher Heinrich Ollendorf was pursuant to the discovery of German philosophers and it served its purpose – after only a year in Paris Brisbane left for Berlin. However the magic of Germany lasted about as long as had that of France, and in October 1930 Brisbane left on a grand tour which would take him first to Vienna and then as far as Turkey and Greece before eventually bringing him back to Paris.

It was upon his return to Paris that the exemplary student met his final teacher. After having travelled all across Europe, delved into French and German philosophy and hobnobbed with the most avant-garde intellectuals on the continent, Brisbane decided that the way of the future was to be found in a French philosopher. Charles Fourier was one of the earliest socialists and in particular is associated with “utopian socialism,” a branch of early socialism which imagined the creation of future utopian societies based on positivist ideals. We are told that Brisbane paid Fourier five francs an hour to teach him his system – and just as it had with Manesca and Ollendorf, the investment paid off.

Albert Brisbane returned to Batavia after two more years in Paris, and in 1840 he published Social Destiny of Man, a text which essentially translated Fourier’s ideas across linguistic and national boundaries. The book brought Brisbane great prestige, and he quickly built Fourierism into a national movement with branches all across the United States, including in the Federal Government. By 1844 10 Fourierist “Phalanxes” (utopian communities) had been established across the United States and others were in the works.

At the head of a national movement, Albert Brisbane could at this point look back and be happy with the results of his education. His French and German lessons had allowed him to absorb the highest level of European intellectual thought and had paved the way for the series of lessons in philosophy which would become the foundation of an important career. The story of Brisbane’s career up until 1844 is a tale of the utility of foreign languages.

However, at the height of his career, Brisbane left the United States to spend 8 months in France. In his absence the Fourierist movement – which had been at the peak of its inertia – collapsed and would never again recover.

Historian Carl Guarnieri sees in Brisbane’s escape to France at this crucial moment a “lifelong inability to cope with power and responsibility.” However, Brisbane split the rest of his life between France and the United States, and so we might surmise that despite any career disappointments, Brisbane continued to look back gratefully on those French lessons he had received from Jean Manesca as an eager, wide-eyed teenager freshly arrived from Upstate New York.


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