Is there a French Literature textbook that could be compared to the famous "Wheelock's Latin" textbook? This textbook was used in the 1950's and consisted of 40 chapters, all based on classical literature with a vocabulary list and grammar to suit it. Is there something out there for French like this?
This reader is the one I've used sometimes with my students: Nouvelle Anthologie Française, 1943
It's a delightful volume with a decent selection of authors and miniature biographies for each. Moreover, for $2 used, it's hard to beat even if you're just curious to try it.
The authors include Rabelais, Montaigne, Corneille, Racine, Molière, Voltaire, Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Hugo, Balzac, de Vigny, Michelet, Flaubert, Zola, Maupassand, and various poets.
Obviously, it's only been brought up to the date of the War, but if you're looking for a contemporary of Wheelock's... :)
The only reason I don't use it more often is that many of my students are just beginning to brush up against the age and level of mastery it requires. That said, the most difficult words and archaisms are often glossed in English, only sometimes in modern French, so it is meant for a learner.
Here's a representative paragraph or two with the footnotes from the text:
La grande route d'Artois et de Flandre1 est longue et triste.2 Elle s'étend en ligne droite, sans arbres, sans fossés,3 dans des campagnes unies4 et pleines d'une boue5 jaune en tout temps. Au mois de mars 1815,6 je passai sur cette route, et je fis une rencontre que je n'ai point oubliée depuis.
J'étais seul, j'étais à cheval, j'avais un bon manteau blanc, un habit rouge, un casque7 noir, des pistolets et un grand sabre ; il pleuvait à verse8 depuis quatre jours et quatre nuits de marche, et je me souviens que je chantais Joconde9 à pleine voix. J'étais si jeune ! — La Maison du Roi,10 en 1814, avait été remplie d'enfants et de vieillards ; l'Empire semblait avoir pris et tué les hommes. ...
— de Vigny, « Laurette »
1. Anciennes provinces du nord de la France ; une partie de la Flandre appartient maintenant à la Belgique. 2. gloomy.
3. ditches. 4. flat. 5. mud. 6. Napoléon, échappé de l'île d'Elbe, avait reconquis son trône et chassait Louis XVIII.
7. helmet. 8. à torrents. 9. chanson populaire de l'époque. 10. la garde royale.
Yes, check out the following
Littérature progressive du Français - Niveau débutant - Livre + CD - 2ème édition
Littérature progressive du français - Niveau intermédiaire - Livre + CD - 2ème édition
Littérature progressive du français - Niveau avancé
They are all published by CLE and if you browse their catalogue you might find other books worth studying. There is another publisher CIDEB who publish language study books, and have educational versions of classical stories at various levels, like
The books come with an audio CD and are interspersed with exercises and grammaire and other side notes. Unusual words are explained.
If you are mainly interested in French-English translations of vocabulary on the page then there are a large number of parallel texts out there, for example
French Classics in French and English: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Dual-Language Book), Penguin.
I would recommend the book: French Grammar in Context by Margaret Jubb and Annie Rouxeville, currently to its fourth version published by Routledge (I have bought its third version as a used copy from Amazon published by another editor).
It presents the essential French Grammar (upper-intermediate to advanced level) through literary texts and poems taken from works by renowned French authors such Camus, Zola, etc. and even Francophone writers.
There are also texts taken by sources like Liberation, Le Monde Diplomatique, La Voix du Nord, Marie-Claire and Elle.
In order to give an example of presentation, chapter 3 treats the Imperfect tense (temps imparfait) through one text called: "Le dromadaire mécontent" (Contes pour enfants pas sages by Jacques Prévert). This story is in fact available online. As one sees, the author of the story employs a lot the imperfect and the authors of the book use this story to introduce various elements of the tense (usage, formation, imperfect vs perfect tense, etc.).
The book is accompanied by a useful webpage here.
A concise book that I greatly enjoy is the (A) French Reference Grammar by H. Ferrar (Oxford University Press) which being a little archaic (second edition 1967; there several subsequent reprints with corrections though) presents grammatical phenomena using phrases (citations) from various celebrated authors like Hugo, Daudet, Sand, Maurois, Verne, Flaubert, Mérimée, Balzac, Maupassant and others to great effect (the phrases are accompanied by their translation in English of course).
Most of the grammar is still relevant (there are some minor issues with the so-called reforme of the orthographe of 1990) and I really like the presentation of the so-called literary tenses (passé simple, passé antérieur, imparfait et plus-que-parfait du subjonctif).