Beliaeva Solomon on Belenky and O'Neil-Henry (2020)

Popular Literature from Nineteenth-Century France. Belenky, Masha, and Anne O’Neil-Henry, editors. Modern Language Association of America, 2020, pp. xxxiv + 262, ISBN 978-1603294935 (critical edition), and pp. xxxix + 248, ISBN 9781603294966 (English translation)

Recent scholarship on print culture, the periodical press, and book history has drawn renewed attention to popular literature. Belenky and O’Neil-Henry's “Popular Literature from Nineteenth-Century France,” brings together a range of literary texts from the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a time marked by significant developments in the literary marketplace and, correspondingly, the emergence of new reading publics and practices.

Published in the MLA Texts and Translations series, this annotated anthology offers an engaging point of access to the “rich and diverse popular literature that was so riveting to nineteenth-century readers,” (xiii) in both the French original and in English translation. The editors’ introduction, common to both volumes, provides a concise overview of some of the period’s defining cultural shifts, including the increase in literacy rates, the rise of the periodical press, and the transformation of the literary marketplace through innovations in print technology. Belenky and O’Neil-Henry argue convincingly for the importance of popular literature despite its presumed lack of “literary value,” and, somewhat more implicitly, for the value of ephemeral literary forms, which evince more intimate details of everyday life than many canonical works of fiction, but which are, precisely for this reason, generally perceived as less accessible to contemporary readers (xiv).

Organized chronologically, the anthology begins with three selections from the landmark literary compendium, Paris ou Le livre des Cent-et-un. Published in multiple volumes between 1831 and 1834, this collection is central to Walter Benjamin’s influential conception of “panoramic literature,” a term coined to describe texts that decode or render intelligible aspects of urban and social life. The first excerpted work is, appropriately, that collection’s introductory piece, “Asmodée” by Jules Janin, a preeminent literary critic of the time, whose current relative obscurity makes him precisely the sort of figure this volume seeks to illuminate. The next two selections, Gustave d’Outrepont's “Le gamin de Paris,” and Eugénie Foa’s “La Femme à la mode et la femme élégante en 1833,” address historically situated social types and exemplify the critical potential of these short sketches.

The next item in the anthology is the longest: a complete vaudeville play, Le fils d’un agent de change, written in collaboration by Eugène Scribe and Henri Dupin, a piece that is “emblematic of the popular theatrical works of the mid nineteenth century” (52). This is followed by an excerpt from Delphine de Girardin’s long-running weekly column in her husband Emile de Girardin’s paper La Presse, which attracted an unprecedented readership through its remarkably low subscription prices, enabled by the inclusion of advertisements. A short story by Paul de Kock (“Un bal de Grisettes”) is another fitting selection, as de Kock was one of the period’s most popular and prolific fiction writers (and one whose critical reappraisal owes much to O’Neil-Henry’s scholarship).

Next are two excerpts from another collective compendium foundational to Benjamin’s “panoramic literature”, Les Français peints par eux-mêmes. Balzac’s “La Femme comme il faut” reflects the porosity between the canon and the “low” or ephemeral genres against which it is commonly articulated, while Auguste de Lacroix’s “Le Flâneur” offers a representative example of the kind of subject matter privileged in popular literature. These short, typological sketches are aptly juxtaposed with a series of works explicitly partaking in the genre of the physiologie: excerpts from Louis Huart’s “Physiologie du flâneur” and “Physiologie de la Grisette” and Henry Monnier’s “Physiologie du bourgeois”. These latter selections are particularly welcome, given increased scholarly attention to physiologies in recent years, for instance, in works by Martina Lauster, Nathalie Preiss, and Valérie Stienon, emphasizing the genre’s parodic and critical dimensions rather than its ostensible function of providing “tools for classifying and understanding social and cultural codes” (xxiv).

The critical apparatus is overall very effective in providing additional context and insights without being overwhelming or disruptive to the reading experience. Each selection is preceded by a brief introduction providing essential biographical, bibliographical, and contextual information. Footnotes clarify references, explain wordplay, and, in the case of the English edition, provide insight into the translation (notes from the original text are marked with an asterisk). Many of the selections include original illustrations, which, as Belenky and O’Neil-Henry note, were not only essential to the popular appeal of these works, but, in their very juxtaposition with the text, made possible by recent developments in woodblock printing, are representative of a new text-image dynamic. The organization of the volumes is clear and efficient, although, it might have been helpful to include the date of each work in the section headings and the table of contents.

The inclusion of both French and English translations in separate volumes is particularly useful for readers with varying levels of language proficiency, making the edition accessible to a wide audience and particularly well-suited for use in a classroom setting. The translations are, as Belenky and O’Neil-Henry explain, motivated by a desire to maintain balance between rendering the original texts legible and idiomatic to modern readers while preserving each author’s style and the “specificity of the time and place in which they were written” (xxxvii). To this end, preserving wit and irony is a formidable challenge, and one at which they succeed, making appropriate use of untranslated words and phrases aided by footnotes and in-text “invisible footnotes” (xxxix). If it is impossible to reproduce the precise effects these works might have had on their original audiences, Belenky and O’Neil-Henry certainly provide the critical apparatus necessary to conjure these effects and appreciate their embeddedness in wider social and cultural systems.

As a thoughtfully curated, faithfully translated, and thoroughly annotated selection, Popular Literature from Nineteenth-Century France warrants inclusion in any undergraduate or graduate course on French or comparative nineteenth-century literature and culture, and especially those with particular focus on print media history and popular culture.