Closer Readings Commentary

Debates over the State of Reading Seem Unsettled Today? Look to Late Nineteenth Century Newspapers to Find Out How Much, or How Little, Things Have Changed.

In France and Germany in the latter half of the nineteenth century, newspapers—printed matter in general, in fact—underwent dramatic and dynamic changes. For newspapers, readership had increased greatly, and the feuilleton (pronounced, fuh-ya-tawn)—a section often starting at the bottom of the front page and continuing on the back, offering lively reportage, criticism, or serialized novels—attracted a diversity of readers who came to rely on these “little sheets of paper” as a mirror held up to society that reflected and refashioned its tastes, opinions, and quirks.

“The Art of Thinking in Other People’s Heads,” an online article by Alex Stern in Humanities magazine, notes, “Around the middle of the nineteenth century in France, printing technology and political conditions paved the way for the affordable daily newspaper, the world’s first mass medium.” As with today’s boom in social media, not everyone was a champion of the feuilleton, some claiming that the highly paid writers distorted reality and commodified urban life.

French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote for the feuilleton section of Parisian newspapers, providing perspective from the vantage of a flâneur (pronounced, flah-nure), or one who strolls along city streets at their own pace, making observations. “These were literary sketches of urban life,” wrote Stern for Humanities magazine, “that attempted to isolate and reflect upon the fragmentation of experience in the city.”

Along with French novelist and poet Victor Hugo, Baudelaire conceived of the “heroic book” as the higher form of printed matter. A book for these two poets had an architectural structure from which no one element could be removed without destroying the whole.

French Poet Stéphane Mallarmé noted that the writing in the feuilleton—especially the roman-reuilleton, or serialized novel—could come close to what he and others late in the nineteenth century derisively referred to as “industrial literature,” or works that created so much milieu-setting detail that they hardly left any room to the imagination of the reader. He also felt, ultimately, in comparison with the true or “heroic” book, that a newspaper was a “scrap” or a “rag.” In spite of this, Mallarmé thought that newspapers had the potential to release more creative energy in the reader than industrial literature did, noting that a newspaper reader could jump from page one to the feuilleton on the back page like an “electrical charge”—a prescient observation indeed, considering our own era’s  dynamic developments in reading on the Internet.

Suggested Activity

Have students in third- and fourth-year French classes compare the layout and content of the front page of an American newspaper with that of a French daily. They can look at current papers, or using Chronicling America, find historic newspapers to compare. Then ask students to write a paragraph on both the similarities and differences between French and American newspapers. While tracking the same story in both newspapers, ask students to note differences in coverage.