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Mar 19 , 4:07 PM
Blogging in the Nineteenth Century
by Marcy Wheeler

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We bloggers sometimes assume that there is nothing like a blog—never has been, never will be. If you mean, are there narratives that use digital technology to construct networked commentary, then you might be right. But there have been short, personal, associative narratives in the past—and some of them have had important effects on politics, as this site suggests blogs do.

I’d like to do a series of posts about one of these—the feuilleton—in an effort to provide some insight on why the blog might do the things it does.

Unfortunately, talking about the feuilleton is going to require a short history lesson, because few Americans have ever heard of the feuilleton, and even fewer people have puzzled through it as a media practice. So please bear with me. I’ll slog through a quick overview today, and then move onto more interesting things (like the language feuilletons use, the relationship they set up with their readers, some of the reason they proved to particularly apt critiques, and so on).

What people understand by the word “feuilleton” really depends on where they’re from. If you talk to a Spanish- or French-speaker, they’ll likely assume you mean a soap opera, a telenovela. Use the term with someone from Central or Eastern Europe, and they’ll likely think you’re referring to a short essay, perhaps one produced as samizdat.

There’s a reason for the confusion. The term feuilleton has been used to refer to a range of things, including a cheap publishing practice, a section of the newspaper, essays that appeared in that section, serial novels that appeared in that section, and finally things (like samizdat or telenovelas) that resemble the narratives that appeared in that newspaper section. I’ll focus here primarily on the essays, the newspaper section, and the practice, but I’ll discuss related things that might shed some light on blogs as well.

The first feuilleton section appeared in 1800 in one of the most popular newspapers in Paris, Le Journal des Débats (so named because it was one of the first newspapers to print parliamentary debates in France). Napoleon had just assumed control as First Counsel, and he was consolidating that control (among other ways) by closely managing his image in the public sphere. Napoleon wasn’t the first person to manipulate a modern public sphere in this way—that might be Cromwell—but boy was the Corsican good at it. As part of this manipulation, Napoleon shut down most of the newspapers in Paris and made it clear that he was prepared to crack down on any of the others that were left. He designated (by listing a bunch of things that you couldn’t complain about, things like him, or the army) a whole range of political issues that papers couldn’t touch.

Anyway, Le Journal des Débats devised a way to continue to critique Napoleon by separating off the bottom third of the page with a thick rule, calling the space under the line the feuilleton, and publishing “non-political” material therein. But the non-political label was just a ruse.

One of the first theater reviews in the feuilleton, for example, covered an opera presenting the life of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The opera had been rewritten to escape censorship during the Revolution, so the reviewer could get away with saying things like, “The Roman Empire was metamorphosed into a Republic, and the dethroned emperor became a republican general.” France, of course, had just made a similar transition (Napoleon wouldn’t crown himself emperor for another couple of years). Just as importantly, by talking about the presentation of the play—“the pomp and magnificence of the spectacle,” “the pomp of a despot,” “magnificence of the spectacle”—the review could call attention to the way that Napoleon was using spectacle to extend his power. Such allusive language, of course, is not unique to the feuilleton. But it is typical of the way that the allusive language permitted within “non-political” areas can resonate politically.

The feuilleton of Les Débats became popular under Napoleon, not least because it was perceived as one of the few places where critique persisted. One commentator called the newspaper, “a journal that seemed almost alone…to prolong a sort of political opposition by its literary critique.” But the feuilleton also became popular because it used really accessible, lively language—which provided stark contrast to the rest of the paper. This latter reason, the language, sustained its popularity, even after Napoleon’s demise. Hiring a good feuilletonist became a way newspapers used to increase circulation. And by the time the French adopted mechanized presses in 1836 and lowered newspaper prices accordingly, every newspaper had a bunch of feuilletonists, while some feuilletonists worked for more than one paper.

These essays were narratively a lot like blogs. They were personal, casual, they directly addressed a community of readers. They frequently resorted to allusions to comment on politics. They stole material shamelessly from other sources. They gossiped. They received minimal attention from editors. Some of the best of them reported on little snippets of life, providing a description of a walk through the streets of a big city or of some character noticed randomly. I know of no Friday cat feuilletons—although there were, effectively, Friday science feuilletons (perhaps not surprisingly, two of the earliest science fiction writers, Jules Verne and Karel Čapek, produced for feuilletons). Feuilletonists (mostly, but not exclusively, men) fought to win recognition from each others and their readers. They tended to provoke responses.

At the same time as the essayists took off, newspapers started to serialize novels in the feuilleton section, mixed right in with the feuilleton essays. The result was quite eclectic. A reader could read a description of a museum piece one day, read the installment of a melodramatic novel the next, then a travelogue of some far away place , then a science review (these usually used the fantastic language of science boosters), then another two installments of the novel, then a gossip column, the novel again, then a book review, then an even more boosterish advertisement for some new technology—hydraulic pump technology or something. The most famous essay-writing feuilletonists from that period are probably Jules Janin and Théophile Gautier; the novelists included George Sand and Eugène Sue (Balzac wrote some of the earliest feuilleton-romans, but moved back to literary journals for most of his production). Alexandre Dumas did both, writing theater reviews and novels. The Count of Monte-Cristo, for example, was first published in feuilleton, in Le Journal des Débats (which was by this time the functional equivalent of today’s Wall Street Journal). It was published over an 11-month period, just below the parliamentary debates and the stock listings. Talk about cognitive dissonance…

The mid-19th Century was a period of maximum influence for the French (much of the world aspired to copy England’s economy and France’s culture). French newspapers traveled the globe by ship and were eagerly read by the elites. In their efforts to found or expand newspapers these elites would do as the French had, use the feuilleton to increase circulation. As a result, many of the areas not colonized by the English acquired the habit of the feuilleton. In some places—Bohemia, for example—the less-censored aspects of the feuilletons provided a vehicle to support nationalist movements. In others—the liberals exiled from Argentina under the Rosas dictatorship—the mobile nature of the feuilleton provided a communal space to people dispersed across the continent. In many places, liberals used the smarmy serial novels as a way to seduce their populace into reading newspapers—and presumably, to acquire liberal ways. Hyperbole or not, one commentator has even argued that, “it is a fact that the Revolution of ’48 is the revolution of the roman-feuilleton.”

The spread of the feuilleton was helped immensely by the fact that there were few effective copyright laws yet. In the mid-19th century , the notion of editing in newspapers consisted mostly of cutting excerpts from other newspapers and pasting them into yours—with varying degrees of attribution. There were no international copyright treaties until late in the 19th century. So copying someone else’s work—particularly a hugely popular novel from France—was a quick and inexpensive way to fill space.

The feuilleton tradition continued in different forms into the 20th century. The essays still appear in newspapers in Europe. Some dissident samizdat versions of these essays became well-known in the US in the 1970s. I know of a novel published in feuilleton as recently as 1984—Tomás Eloy Martínez’ “The Peron Novel.” Certainly, the feuilleton is largely an art of the past. A former roommate of mine once made the adept observation that the closest thing we’ve ever had to a feuilleton essayist in this country was the much-loved Herb Caen, but he has left us now, too.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, I think many of the best aspects of the feuilleton have lived on, in the blog.

(Up next: the relationship between the feuilleton and concrete discourse.)


Permalink
by Marcy Wheeler
Mar 19 , 4:07 PM  Comments (10) , Trackback (3)

Comments

fantastic, McLuhanesque-ily thought-provoking article.

Posted by: goethean at March 19, 2004 04:14 PM

Cool!

Posted by: Robert E at March 19, 2004 04:59 PM

Amazing the stuff you can learn reading blogs. Thank you.

By the way, how do you pronouce "feuilleton" anyway. I took Spanish and the closes I can come up with is Fey-way-ye-ton.

Posted by: Jake at March 20, 2004 02:19 AM

Blog would be useless if it weren't for the side chatter. Being able to "talk back" to bloggers is what gives them power. The major news media have nearly totally cut themselves off from thoughtful conversation. I remember when Time magazine allowed ONLY letters of one or two sentences to be published or read.

Now everyone does this. I remember when the NYT used to have long letters. I have been published in the letters section in the far past more than once. Today, even when they publish my ridiculously short bon mot letters, they still cut them down to maximum, five sentences!

Even if I were Oscar Wilde, spitting out only bon mots is a difficult art.

Worse, 90% of the letters printed today are stereotypical letters. A machine might as well grind them out.

So if you want real debate and real feed back, you have to visit the universe of the bloggers where the side chatter is actually read by the blogger and the blogger responds.

Posted by: Elaine Supkis at March 20, 2004 10:50 AM

I agree entirely about the feedback loop.

That's one thing the feuilleton were pretty famous for, at times. Whether through letters or direct reportage, the feuilletons would publish the voices (and language) of people who would otherwise never make it into the newspaper.

Oh, and as far as pronunciation, I'm no good at phonetics, but it'd be something like "feuy-e-tau." In Spanish, it's folletín.

Posted by: Marcy Wheeler at March 20, 2004 11:03 AM

Marcy, this is what is best about the net. Unlike in the dim, dark past, I had converstations with reporters but once they finished the story, you couldn't talk to them unless you kidnapped them or something like in a Steven King gothic story...

Today, I exchange e-mails with more than one author or reporter regularily. When something happens, frequently. But chatting on the blogs now surpasses this since e-mail is badly compromised by spammers and people you don't want to talk to privately.

Chatting openly like this, with a "room full" of other people listening in or joining in, moves things forward much better and it keeps the conversation in the public realm, which in turn, inspires further analysis and writing. Thanks for joining in!

Posted by: Elaine Supkis at March 20, 2004 11:49 AM

Closer to home, the elder Forbes in his "fact and comment" column had the blogger's style down cold.

Posted by: Stirling Newberry at March 20, 2004 06:56 PM

The first blog.

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