Best on Whidden (2014)


Whidden, Seth. Authority in Crisis in French Literature, 1850–1880. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2014. Pp. vii + 193. ISBN: 978-1-4724-4426-4

Janice Best, Acadia University

In this book, Seth Whidden explores crises of literary authority in the second half of the nineteenth century through a selection of four “case studies” highlighting different literary phenomena. The overarching concept that informs his analyses is that the definition of what it means to be an author is fluid and evolving, responding to cultural and historical changes. The nineteenth century is seen as a key moment in the ever-evolving notion of the author, since it marks some of the first attempts to undermine the prestige and authority traditionally bestowed on the writer.

The first chapter looks at a play, Le Supplice d’une femme (1865), which premiered without authorial attribution. The result of a collaboration between journalist, politician, and publicist Émile de Girardin and Alexandre Dumas fils, this play was based on an idea by Girardin who submitted it to the Comédie Française. When the theatre returned it to him for significant revisions, Girardin sought the help of Dumas fils, who was already a well-known playwright. Although the revised play was accepted, Girardin was unhappy with the result and eventually disowned the project. Dumas fils also refused to claim ownership of the play, which was presented as the work of "MM. XX." Through this example, Whidden explores the ways in which multiple authorship and literary collaborations bring to the foreground many questions about what it means to be an author and who has authority over a text.

The second chapter deals with a group of writers, musicians, and artists, known as the Cercle zutique, who met in the fall of 1871, shortly after the fall of the Paris Commune. As Whidden explains, many studies have focused on the 1871 Album zutique from a variety of perspectives, but none have discussed the meaning of the central word, “zut.” This word was widely used in the nineteenth century to express frustration or anger, and, later, to mark a refusal. What exactly were the Zutistes refusing? The answer can be found in the writings of journalist and poet Eugène Vermersch, where the word is often used to destabilize the authority of the text, and of literary conventions. Later, the Cercle zutique continued where Vermersch left off, with a blend of literary collaboration, parody, and biting social and political criticism. Whidden links the anti-authoritarian sentiment of the Album zutique to that which prompted the dismantling of the Vendôme column, a symbol of the empire and authority, during the Paris Commune.

In the third chapter, Whidden examines some post Commune-era poems written by Rimbaud. Political themes and parody were already evident in many of Rimbaud’s early poems. In his post-Commune poems, however, there was a shift in the formal patterns followed. His poems became increasingly reflective about language and the poetic process. They also displayed an increasing number of intertextual influences and subversive poetic practices, deconstructing the conventional structure of the alexandrine, while at the same time exploring questions of order and disorder, individual authority and chaos.

The final chapter looks at a short story by Jules Verne, “Un voyage en ballon,” first published in 1851 and later revised and reprinted as “Un drame dans les airs” in 1874. Many issues related to narrative authority are central to this story. There are relatively few changes between the two versions. In both, the protagonist and first-person narrator prepares to set off on a balloon ride from Frankfurt. An uninvited guest suddenly joins him in the nacelle just prior to take-off. The story then focuses on the ensuing battle for control of the direction of the balloon, and for control of the narrative. Opposing the narrator’s reason and logic, the uninvited passenger represents a different kind of logic, and a different way of thinking about flight and direction. As the guest begins to give the narrator a series of lessons about the history of balloon travel, these stories threaten the narrator’s authority, drawing the reader’s attention away from the plot, toward the act of storytelling itself.

Whidden ties together his precise and intricate analyses of different texts by exploring common themes of collaboration, parody, and challenging the established order, both politic and poetic. He also links these texts to their specific historic and political context. Given the analogies that Whidden makes between the toppling of the Vendôme column in 1871 and writers’ attempts to undermine authority, it might have made more sense to begin his essay with “Un voyage en ballon,” first published in 1851, and then move on to a discussion of the other works, which are closer in time to this event. Despite this anachronism, this book will appeal to a variety of readers, interested in the ways in which writers challenged authority during and after France’s Second Empire.