- For the People by the People? Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris: A Hypothesis in the Sociology of Literature
For a work often cited but seldom actually read nowadays, Eugène Sue's Les Mystères de Paris continues to hold a peculiar place in the history of popular culture. Initially published in serial form in Le Journal des Débats between June 1842 and October 1843, the novel quickly generated a mass craving among its readers in France and around the world to know the latest adventures of Rodolphe, the prince of Gérolstein, the virginal prostitute Fleur-de-Marie, the evil Maître d'Ecole, the "good" and "bad" working-class families Morel and Martial, and a host of other variously virtuous or vicious characters. The novel was unquestionably a huge financial success, with bound editions and cheaper livraisons coming out on the heels of the feuilleton and even concurrently with it. It's hard to argue that Les Mystères de Paris was anything but a blockbuster. But who were its readers? Were they mainly those affluent enough to subscribe to the Journal des Débats or to be able to afford it in subsequent editions? Or was the novel read, as it was widely claimed until relatively recently, by "toute la France" – the "peuple" and the bourgeoisie alike? And if it's true that Les Mystères de Paris found a heavy readership among the poor and working classes, to what extent did these readers, many of whom were reputed to have corresponded with Sue, influence his thinking about poverty, labor, and systemic social violence? Could Sue's working-class readers be said to have collaborated with him, to some degree, on his representation of poor and working-class characters? Might we rightly consider Les Mystères de Paris, then, as a collective work, a pioneering event in the creation of a modern popular culture?
Working from a theoretical perspective broadly informed by historical research on [End Page 203] literacy, readership, and print media, Christopher Prendergast's provocative little book sets out to answer these and other questions pertaining to the phenomenon that was and is Les Mystères de Paris. The hypothesis up for verification is that of Louis Chevalier, who maintains in his groundbreaking Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses (1984) that the letters Sue received from his working-class correspondants made a profound impact on him and the novel, an impact that can be measured by examining the correlation between the correspondence and turns of the plot. What Prendergast calls "the Chevalier hypothesis" is actually a collective work in its own right, as numerous observers, critics, and biographers, from Sue's contemporaries to such recent theorists as Umberto Eco, have accepted and perpetuated the notion that Les Mystères de Paris was truly a work for the people, by the people. Riding on this assertion are not only arcane questions of literary and historical interest but also important sociological claims concerning the nature of cultural agency, and specifically literary agency (Eco, for instance, goes so far as to attribute the Revolution of 1848 to the influence of Sue's novel).
Prendergast demolishes the specific claims of Chevalier's hypothesis with energy and gusto. Beginning with a witty critique of the novel itself, he queries Sue's explicit and implicit ideological allegiances within its pages and finds there's little to support the notion of Sue as the voice of "the people." He turns next to examine the archive of Sue's correspondence, only to confirm that the letters present themselves overwhelmingly as the work of middle-class letter-writers (as Rudolph Schenda and Brynja Svane had maintained previously), and moreover, that the letters don't correlate in the least with the plot's timing.
The most interesting of Prendergast's chapters is the penultimate one, devoted to the novel's reception in the working-class press. Because...