Park on Baker (2022)

Baker, Alan R. H. The Personality of Paris: Landscape and Society in the Long-Nineteenth Century. Bloomsbury Academic, 2022, pp. xvi + 225, ISBN: 978-1-350252-64-6

Can a city, with all of its complexity and moving parts, have a definable personality? If so, where would one look to identify this character? To interrogate these questions, Alan Baker turns to that most charismatic of cities, Parisalternately labeled the “capital of the nineteenth century,” “capital of modernity,” or even “capital of the world.” Inserting itself into a formidable body of scholarship, The Personality of Paris: Landscape and Society in the Long-Nineteenth Century does not profess to uncover new archival material or hitherto overlooked narratives. Rather, its purported novelty lies in the unifying theme of a “geographical personality,” defined as “the relationship between land and society through time” (2). This central concept remains somewhat elusive throughout the book, which nevertheless provides a useful overview of the developments and features characterizing modern Paris.

The Personality of Paris comprises nine concise chapters, each addressing a particular aspect of the capital’s “personality” between 1789 and 1914. The first chapter begins with the Paris Basin’s geography and its earliest settlers, charting the gradual growth that led to the city’s tripartite division into université, cité, and ville. In describing the various urban embellishments and improvements of the early modern era, from the places royales to the new bridges connecting the Right and Left Banks, Baker stresses the “multiple nuclei” (18) of growth that set the stage for later developments. The second chapter focuses on the inhabitants of Paris, with an emphasis on migration patterns that made the capital a cultural melting pot on the one hand, and created distinct, regionally inflected quartiers on the other. In discussing the social and hygienic pressures that this demographic explosion exerted on the urban environment, Baker highlights 1848 as a critical moment when the split between town versus country (or Paris versus the provinces) sharpened.

The next three chapters examine the physical features and transformations that came to define modern Paris. Chapter three provides brief surveys of some of the capital’s notable monuments, from the column of the Place Vendôme to the Joan of Arc statue in the Place des Pyramides, and ends with a discussion of the ways in which political ideology and collective memory could be contested through these landmarks and even street names. Chapter four covers the familiar narrative of late nineteenth-century Haussmannization, presenting a largely favorable assessment of this urban renewal process while acknowledging critiques about the ensuing gentrification and spatial monotony. Chapter five centers on a handful of architectural icons in the Parisian cityscape, analyzing the debates surrounding their construction and the meanings they could convey. These examples include the Panthéon, Opéra Garnier, and the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, but Baker gives special attention to the Eiffel Tower as particularly symbolic of Paris in its capacity to assume diverse interpretations.

The following three chapters delve into the pleasures and curiosities that the nineteenth-century metropolis had to offer. Chapter six describes each of the World’s Fairs hosted by Paris between 1855 and 1900, and how they projected a cosmopolitan, spectacular image of the city to the world. Chapter seven examines the everyday distractions available to residents and tourists, from gastronomic delights and the “democratized luxury” (131) of department stores, to dance halls, brothels, and cinemas. Chapter eight then considers the outlets to nature and landscape accessible to Parisians in this urbanizing age, whether the new green spaces incorporated into the city during the Second Empire or the popular tourist spots of Fontainebleau and Barbizon made possible by rail travel.

The final chapter references Louis Chevalier’s indictment of Paris’s “assassination” in the twentieth century to reassess the damages inflicted on the capital due to revolutions, wars, and politics. For the most part, Baker presents a similarly negative evaluation of efforts to modernize Paris after 1945, arguing that the “horrors” of “hubristic architecture” (178)such as the Centre Pompidou, the Louvre pyramid, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (site François-Mitterrand)have irrevocably changed the personality of Paris, which he sees as having crystallized in the course of the nineteenth century.

This last point leads the reader back to the main conceit as well as the main frustration of the book, that of a city’s personality. Baker uses the term fairly loosely, often as a synonym for appearance or feature. He writes at various points that Haussmann was “instrumental in influencing the physiognomythe personalityof Paris” (81); that the scale and scope of the city’s architectural icons “added both complexity and uniqueness to its personality” (100); that haute cuisine and haute couture were “character-forming aspect[s] of the cultured personality of Paris” (126). Considering that numerous studies of nineteenth-century Paris address its physical and spatial qualities alongside its social and cultural dimensions, it is unclear what the particular term “personality” adds to the existing discourse. Given its anthropomorphic connotations, perhaps a closer analysis of literary and cultural representations could have helped the author more fully theorize this concept. If cities can have personalities, global comparisons, even briefly, would have been a useful way to specify distinctions and differences.

As the author acknowledges, most of the research in this book is based on secondary sources and scholars of nineteenth-century France will not find much that is new or unfamiliar. The Personality of Paris aims to be expansive in scope within a compact format, and as a result, parts of Baker’s analysis feel curtailed. For example, readers would need to look to Zeynep Çelik to better understand the troubling legacy of colonial displays at the World’s Fairs, to Erin-Marie Legacey on changing approaches to spaces for the dead in Paris, and to Esther da Costa Meyer for a comprehensive interrogation of Haussmannization and its spatial and social ramifications.

Its restraint ultimately makes this book a useful compendium for teaching and a valuable resource for undergraduates. The epilogue compellingly summarizes the complexities and tensions of Parisian history by describing the series of dualities at its heartnatives versus newcomers, clericalism versus secularism, workers versus the bourgeoisie, male versus female, day versus night, past versus future. These are themes that apply to the study of the long nineteenth century more generally, and The Personality of Paris vividly illuminates particular instances of these larger narratives.

Sun-Young Park
George Mason University