- Murder in Parisian Streets: Manufacturing Crime and Justice in the Popular Press, 1830–1900
Thomas Cragin's book on the popularity of canards—widely circulated, oft-illustrated French broad-sheets, generally covering sensational news such as murder and crime—is eloquent on the relation between form and content in 19th-century mass visual culture. The only study of its kind available in English to date, Cragin offers a comprehensive history of the production, circulation, consumption and meaning of this single prominent type of French popular entertainment in Paris between 1830–1900.1 This time span and local parameter are deliberately adopted, roughly bracketing by several decades on each end the major transformations of French society, especially of the mass press, between c. 1860 and 1880. The book's main achievement lies in its rigorous focus on this one medium over the span of some seventy years, allowing its author—in counterpoint to both much scholarly wisdom and popular intuition—to focus on the continuities, and not the changes, that marked mass popular taste in the age of modernization. Cragin's study sets out to rationalize and contextualize these continuities, with their classed ideological implications, understood as forces emblematizing lower-class resistance to modern cultural change and the forces of the modern at large. His primary goal is to prove that the canards' durable popular appeal, and the persistence of their appearance and message, are related directly, if inversely and negatively, to the processes of massive social renewal in whose midst they functioned more as culture's anchor than sail. ("Here I demonstrate the French people's resistance to affordable modern alternatives to the canards, and in a larger sense their resistance to cultural change, a veritable cultural counterrevolution," 25.)
Cragin looks at his topic from all the right angles, and the new source material he has amassed is impressive, to say the least. The early chapters (of part I) chronicle the durability of the canards' form: their [End Page 151] production and circulation, from their authors, illustrators, publishers, printers and street vendors, to its brushes with censorship and the law. His most surprising finds concern the fact that the printed press in this case had deep ties to older forms of oral culture, and that many of the news-sheets were sung when sold in the Parisian streets. Part II considers the longevity of the canards' meanings, and investigates their often rigid stereotypes of the criminal, the victim, and the executive and judicial orders in a culture of changing attitudes (popular, legal, scientific) of criminality. The author broaches these topics with frequent and convincing reference to their gendered and classed implications, devoting whole sections to the female criminal for instance, or to the signs of the canards' appeal to its main lower class audience. Cragin also places the canards' sensationalism in relation to broader 19th-century reading and publishing practices and underscores the medium's continued allure despite a rapid growth in literacy.
Despite the text's expert historical and contextual analysis, the book has flaws, some minor, others more serious. The minor ones concern mostly its introduction (which reads a little too much like a dissertation's state of the field laundry list), and its conclusion (mostly filled with repetitions from earlier chapters rather than a clear summary of the book's conceptual implications). My first objection is an art historian's, and concerns more than just the bad quality of the image reproductions (one would have wished for a little color, to see whether and how the canards were colored, and on what kind of paper they were printed). At times the juxtapositions Cragin proposes—often between two canards with roughly the same topic, one dating to the earlier part of his period and the other to the later—do not fully underline the continuities he sees at work there. Rather, they indicate the fundamental shifts the representation of murder underwent over time. Compare, for instance, the two canards illustrated on pages 58 and 59: the 1830s image is a bit...