Curulla on Douthwaite Viglione, Sol, and Seth, eds. (2019)

Douthwaite Viglione, Julia, Antoinette Sol, and Catriona Seth, editors. Teaching Representations of the French Revolution. Modern Language Association of America, 2019, pp. ix + 368, ISBN 978-1-603294-65-2

This expansive and insightful volume brings together a range of humanities scholars to support teaching past and present representations of the French Revolution from a cultural studies perspective. The twenty-seven essays cover topics ranging from race, slavery, and colonialism to history painting, material culture, military history, and more. Despite this breadth, the essays share the common goal of making the French Revolution and its “reverberations” accessible to instructors. The editors have thoughtfully grouped the essays into thematic sections dealing with the French Revolution’s historical contexts, rhetoric and rights, literary, visual, and media representations of the French Revolution, and understandings of the French Revolution in comparative and global contexts. The volume’s final section includes a wealth of teaching resources that include chronologies, lists of films, artworks, major battles contributed by the authors, as well as the editors’ choice of “must reads.”  

A common theme among the essays concerns the use of primary source material in the undergraduate classroom. Many authors describe performances, creative projects, research, and in-class activities that incorporate different cultural artefacts from the revolutionary era. Giulia Pacini uses revolutionary faïences from the 1790s as a fascinating vehicle for testing the limits of interpretation, since the slogans and symbols decorating such earthenware sometimes bore equivocal or indecipherable meanings. Amy E. Wright explains how ephemera including coins, anthems, medals, and costumes enable students to grasp how French Revolutionary political culture was refashioned in the Spanish-speaking Americas. Amaya Martin and José A. Martin-Pereda’s overview of a teaching module on the optical telegraph, used during the French Revolution, allows students to examine technology and communication as well as their limitations during the eighteenth century. Revolutionary visual culture carries equally rich possibilities for student-led research and creative activities, as essays by Beth S. Wright and others underscore. Katherine Astbury’s piece on the Waddesdon Manor Collection of Prints highlights an impressive array of workshops and projects that stimulate student-led research. Similarly, Erin A. Myers explains how digital archives and databases help students research and contextualize the revolutionary festivals or sans-culottides featured in Hugo's Quatrevingt-treize. Dominica Chang draws on media studies to give students a vocabulary for analyzing gender and sexuality in a range of representations of Marie-Antoinette, les tricoteuses, and other women. Performance is another tool for making the past come alive. Logan J. Connors shares valuable advice on how dramas, comedies, and other theatrical genres from the 1790s can be adapted into survey courses as well as practicums in which students produce short scenes at the end of the semester.

Several authors in the collection adopt comparative approaches when teaching the French Revolution. Reflecting broader scholarly efforts to understand the transnational, international, or global dimensions of the French Revolution, many essays question the notion that the French Revolution served as a model for other revolutionary struggles for emancipation and sovereignty. Marlene L. Daut offers crucial insight on teaching the Haitian Revolution as a world-historical event while remaining attentive to the specificities of colonialism and slavery. Daut’s essay shows how Haitian-produced literary sources and digital databases enable students to consider the Haitian Revolution in the context of the “everyday trauma of enslaved life” and “everyday slave resistance” (268), rather than as a product of European Enlightenment epistemology. Turning to Reconstruction-era New Orleans, Jennifer Gipson analyzes Camille Naudin's 1867 poem, the “Marseillaise noire,” published in the Creole newspaper, La tribune de la Nouvelle-Orléans, exposing how the poem imagines a racially egalitarian future. Rosa Mucignat and Sanja Perovic outline a team-taught course that eschews traditional linear and chronological approaches and instead considers the experience of the Revolution as its own present. English translations of French, Italian, German, and Greek works allow students to compare revolutionary keywords (rights, citizenship, etc.) while resisting the “diffusion model” of the French Revolution. Ourida Mostefai examines the literature of revolutionary exile in order to shift away from Francocentric models while examining still-urgent questions about displacement and belonging. Pratima Prasad’s essay on Claire de Duras’s Ourika offers historicized models to teach the novel, describing how a “triangulated reading,” alongside Aphra Behn and Abbé Grégoire, enables students to productively grapple with the contradiction between French revolutionary principles and its expansionist goals of empire. 

The volume usefully highlights several different educational contexts in which instructors operate. Whether discussing community colleges, statewide universities, or other settings, several authors provide advice adapted to the needs of specific student populations. Habiba Boumlik and Robin Kietlinski outline an engaging collaboration between a beginning French language course and a World History course: students completed assignments in their respective courses before coming together for a joint discussion on what they had learned about French revolutionary history and iconography. Matthew Lau shares ways to engage community college students’ exceptionally diverse knowledge bases through analyses of Toussaint Louverture, Danton, and other political leaders depicted in plays by Edouard Glissant and Georg Büchner. In the context of ESL classrooms, Jeffrey Champlin discusses how excerpts from Rousseau and other thinkers can help bilingual and ESL students engage with the language of rights through creative writing exercises. French language instructors at the advanced level will note Séverine Rebourcet’s discussion of hip-hop artists Médine and Kerry James as a means of engaging with the French Republican model and its shortcomings, especially considering current debates in France over laïcité. Melanie Conroy’s essay uses the visual culture of 1790s France to historically contextualize Charlie Hebdo’s political satire and caricature, leading students to more nuanced discussions about race, religion, and political violence. 

This overview of selected essays should make it clear that Teaching Representations of the French Revolution is a vibrant and thought-provoking addition to the MLA Options for Teaching Series. As editors, Julia Douthwaite Viglione, Antoinette Sol, and Catriona Seth have made an important contribution that will no doubt prove invaluable to all those teaching about the French Revolution and its representations in literary and cultural studies, colonial and post-colonial studies, art history, media studies, and other related fields. 

Annelle Curulla
Scripps College