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  • Vivre la ville: Les classes populaires à Paris (1ère moité du XIXe siècle)
  • Donald Reid
Vivre la ville: Les classes populaires à Paris (1ère moité du XIXe siècle). By Barrie M. Ratcliffe and Christine Piette (Paris: La Boutique de l'histoire, 2007. 584p. 34 euros).

In Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris During the First half of the Nineteenth Century (1958), Louis Chevalier argued that massive emigration to Paris in the nineteenth century created a city which could not absorb the new arrivals: overcrowded squalor nurtured a world of marginal figures engaged in a [End Page 844] range of anti-social behaviors. He drew on the works of novelists, as well as on contemporary social observers of the period, to support this contention. The impact of Chevalier's work extended beyond academic circles. In Panégyrique (1989), Situationist Guy Debord writes of his admiration for Chevalier's work and borrowed the term "dangerous classes" from him to describe those whom he frequented in Paris in the early 1950s, when his thought was taking shape (and Chevalier was researching Laboring Classes).

Many social scientists have walked on the wild side, novel in hand. Friedrich Engels wrote that he "learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together."Acentury later, Chevalier opined that "there is more sociological intelligence in a chapter of Balzac than in a compilation of American [sociological] works." (64n53) But what and how did he learn from novels? In History and Criticism, Dominick LaCapra criticizes Chevalier for his "restricted documentary use of novels." Chevalier believed that his knowledge of the demography of the era in which the novels were written allowed him to reveal the social unconscious the writers were conveying. They were "passive" transmitters of a deep anxiety about an undifferentiated "laboring and dangerous classes" in the society in which and for which they were writing. In the introduction to The Assassination of Paris (1977), Chevalier recognized that his vision of the early nineteenth-century Paris informed his interpretation of the Paris in which he lived in the 1950s. But he too may have been a passive transmitter of the concerns of many Parisians of his day, faced with creation of new neighborhoods of immigrants from North Africa, a phenomenon he relates with the novelist's eye in books written after Laboring Classes.

In Vivre la ville, Barrie Ratcliffe and Christine Piette put novels and nineteenth century social accounts aside in order to analyze the serial documentation Chevalier believed could not reveal the demos. They believe it can, and they make their case well. The documentation compiled by the city and the state that they use is at once alienating in its establishment of the primacy of the relationship between the polity and the individual, and revealing of social relationships in its insistent demand for information. Though the documentation concerning the first half of the nineteenth century suffered significant damage in the fires at the time of the suppression of the Paris Commune, Ratcliffe and Piette are able to analyze creatively and sensitively a diversity of sources, including contemporary photographs, showing both what they can reveal and what they cannot show. Their interest is in the one-third of the population of early to mid-nineteenth-century Paris who were indigent and the one-third of the population that lived with the fear that indigence was around the corner.

Ratcliffe and Piette argue that the immigration and growth of Paris during the first half of the nineteenth century was a continuation of earlier trends and did not produce a large population of anomic lumpenproletarians. They show that Chevalier's data were inaccurate at a number of points and that later scholars have repeated his errors. Behaviors that Chevalier presents as evidence of social breakdown, they interpret differently. Cohabitation was not evidence of asocial or countercultural behavior, but primarily the consequence of the cost and difficulty of acquiring the documentation from their community of origin that the state required of immigrants to the city who sought to marry. If the people of Paris were on the whole not regular churchgoers, neither were they anticlerical; [End Page 845] 90...


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