Powers on Frigerio (2021)

Frigerio, Vittorio. Nous nous reverrons aux barricades : les feuilletons des journaux de Proudhon (1848–1850). Bibliothèque Stendhalienne et Romantique, UGA Éditions, 2021, pp. 227, ISBN 978–2–37747–232–1 

In this relatively brief but dense monograph, Vittorio Frigerio considers the crucial role that literature played in Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s political strategy during the Second Republic by analyzing one of the roman-feuilletons that appeared in his daily paper, Le Peuple (184750). This serial novel, Le Mont Saint-Michel, written by A.C. Blouet in 1849, follows the adventures of a Republican revolutionary who becomes a hero in the failed uprising of June 1832 (often referred to simply as the Saint-Merry). By situating this novel within its political, literary, and media context, Frigerio provides insight into the paradoxical attitude that Proudhon held towards literature and a more nuanced understanding of the complicated relationship between literature and revolution in mid-nineteenth-century France. The author approaches this somewhat unwieldy topic in three stages: first, he provides information about Proudhon and the literary and media landscape at the time of Le Mont Saint-Michel’s publication; next, he compares Blouet’s depictions of the Saint-Merry with other accounts of the event; and, finally, Frigerio extrapolates from the above analyses what we might call a Proudhonian literary theory.

First, Frigerio sets up the central paradox of his study: why does Proudhon, who makes no secret of his disdain for modern literature, publish a roman-feuilleton in his political newspaper? Best known for his scathing essay Qu’est-ce que la propriété (1840), where he argued that labor was the only legitimate source of wealth, Proudhon emerged in 1848 as an advocate for concrete economic reforms providing immediate assistance to workers. He promoted these ideas in Le Représentant du Peuple (later renamed Le Peuple), and it was also here that he wrote an article titled “Qu’est-ce que la révolution doit à la littérature?” answering his own question with a categorical “rien!” Proudhon had no patience for the elaborate displays of Republican patriotismsuch as the planting of liberty treesthat proliferated during the heady days immediately following the February revolution of 1848; he associated these frivolous acts with claims made by Romantic authors like Alexandre Dumas that their literary efforts had somehow ushered in a new political age.

However, as Frigerio demonstrates brilliantly, Proudhon understood that the key to attracting readers (and, it was assumed, political supporters) was through the inclusion of a roman-feuilleton. He was not blind to the success that serials like Eugène Sue’s Le Juif Errant (184445) had enjoyed, and, in a move that Frigerio calls utilitarian, Proudhon published an article in October 1849 titled “Introduction au feuilleton” where he enlisted literary authors to participate in “une lutte ouverte” to improve society (32). Literary narratives, he wrote, are often able to instruct readers more effectively than political tracts or exposés because they are amusing and engaging, but these stories have to be tightly controlled so that the message is not lost on the reader.

Secondly, Frigerio shows how Le Mont Saint-Michel carries out this moralizing and pedagogical mission and therefore acts as an “exemplary” novel for Proudhon’s literary theory (61). Here, he examines the novel’s central event, the Saint-Merry, and compares how this would-be revolution is represented in several different historical and literary documents, with a particular focus on M. Rey-Dussueil’s Le Cloître Saint-Méry (1832), a letter written by the insurrectionist Charles Jeanne (1833), Louis Blanc’s historical account in Histoire de Dix Ans (184144), Dumas’s Mes Mémoires (185256), and of course Victor Hugo’s fictionalization of the events in Les Misérables (1862). Citing Hayden White’s theory of emplotment, Frigerio contends that these authors construct their narratives according to their particular “positionnement esthétique et idéologique” and that comparing them allows us to see what those positions are (98). Frigerio discovers several important points about Le Mont Saint-Michel that mark it as unique, the most significant being that, while it resembles Rey-Dussueil’s romantic novel in that it may be read according to the “grille explicative” of the historical novel, Blouet’s roman-feuilleton takes a much more engaged stance. Charging his protagonist with “la tâche […] de renverser” the social power structure “pour faire triompher la justice,” Blouet models his hero on the social vigilante of Sue’s successful serial novels, calling his readers to take action (69).

Finally, Frigerio builds on these analyses to provide a critical reading of Blouet’s text and sheds light on Proudhon’s theory of literature. As a historical novel, Le Mont Saint-Michel could attract a wide readership, but its central eventthe Saint-Merryhad been largely forgotten in the wake of 1848. By reimagining an event that was at once quite recent and yet faded in national memory, concludes Frigerio, Blouet recasts the uprising in a way that he believes will make possible a new revolution that is not an imitation but rather its logical continuation, “à la fois identique et nouvelle” (141). The fact that Proudhon included the roman-feuilleton in the pages of Le Peuplewhere fictional pieces were few and far betweenallows Frigerio to conclude that Proudhon saw good literature as “véhicule de la vérité et source d’éducation, capable d’élever le lecteur vers des sommets idéaux où éthique, morale, et politique se retrouvent et se joignent” (170). If Proudhon was ruthless in his attacks of novelists, in particular Dumas and Hugo, it was not because he despised literature altogether, but because he didn’t like what they were doing with literature. Blouet’s roman-feuilleton offered a counter example of the possibilities of literature as a moralizing and socializing force.

Frigerio’s work will be of interest to historians, philosophers, and literary scholars of nineteenth-century France, in particular, to those who work at the intersections of these disciplines. The best parts of the monograph are the originality of the subject (Proudhon as a literary theorist), the depth of knowledge that Frigerio demonstrates (see meticulous footnotes and the nine-page bibliography), and the breadth of research performed on the largely ignored Peuple. However, the most impressive aspect of the book is Frigerio’s weaving together of separate moving pieces in order to construct a complex and yet understandable reading of a fairly unknown work of literature. Despite the plural “feuilletons” in the monograph’s title, Frigerio’s focus is clearly directed on Le Mont Saint-Michel, but he situates it so completely and expansively that the reader gains a much broader understanding of Proudhon and of literature’s role in the political, cultural, and social discourse of mid-nineteenth-century France.