- Paul de Kock and the Marketplace of Culture
By the early July Monarchy, Paul de Kock’s name had been a fixture of the Parisian literary scene for over a decade, thanks to his inexhaustible production of vaudevilles, novels, songs and occasional writings on Paris. The author who self-published his first novel, L’Enfant de ma femme in 1811, wrote consistently until his death in 1871, composing “de façon industrielle ensuite un roman en un mois chaque année” (Thérenty 668). Though known as the favored novelist of grisettes and cuisinières, he occupied “une figure particulière dans le champ littéraire: celle de l’écrivain bourgeois” (Fougère 8). If de Kock was the July Monarchy’s bourgeois writer par excellence, his name itself, by the 1830s, carried a specific connotation: “Paul de Kock,” signified “bad” literature, a sort of Bourdieusian marker of poor taste. As Benoît Denis indicates, it “acquiert la valeur synonymique de ‘mauvais style’” (45). So prevalent was “de Kock” as a critically-charged sign that Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet in 1851, “‘J’ai peur de tomber dans le Paul de Kock’” (Denis 45) and in 1852, “‘Ce que j’écris présentement risque d’être du Paul de Kock si je n’y mets une forme profondément littéraire’” (Fougère 9). The use of “Paul de Kock” as a brand name for “bad” literature was so engrained in early-July Monarchy culture that on October 11, 1835, Le Charivari entitled the unrelated compte-rendu of a comical legal case a “Scène à la Paul de Kock.”
While no reputable author wished to “faire du Paul de Kock,” the same name also connoted market success, for, as his biographer Eugène de Mirecourt wrote, “le jour où l’on mettait en vente un roman de Paul de Kock, il y avait une véritable émeute en librairie.” (33) The author thus occupied the dual positions of commercial success and critical failure that Valérie Stiénon characterizes as a “succès initial de diffusion … proche d’une certaine forme de consécration” and a “délégitimation d’une esthétique dépréciée pour sa facilité et sa grivoiserie” (51). De Kock was taken to task by critics for his [End Page 97] work’s bawdiness, for his “tableaux licencieux,” as one 1841 reviewer claimed (Revue 2). The legacy of his work, as twentieth-century critic Legrand-Chabrier noted at the 51st anniversary of de Kock’s death, is as “‘endiablé, excessif et lassant, pris à doses trop fortes, et tout le long d’une lente combinaison de petits faits vulgaires’” (Fougère 16). Yet despite a seemingly unanimous perception of immorality, the excesses in de Kock’s novels are consistently punished; characters who (mostly) uphold bourgeois values in their widely-accepted forms are rewarded.
This article uses literary reading and reception history to expose complexities that both nineteenth-century and contemporary received ideas about de Kock overlook. First I examine novelistic “scènes à la Paul de Kock” from one of the author’s better-known novels, Mon Voisin Raymond (1823): comic scenes of excess followed by moral reprimand. By studying this novel as representative of de Kock’s oeuvre, I show that the author deploys humorous narratives of debauchery and moral castigation to appeal to his readers while simultaneously reassuring them of the values of the bourgeois classes who both populated and read his works. Raymond stages a dynamic interaction between excess and restraint that nuances stereotypes about this author of mass-cultural “grossness and immorality” (Bowan 300). Secondly, I chart the reception of Paul de Kock in the widely-read Journal des débats, “[l]’un … des plus importants organes de la presse classique” (Therenty 705), as well as in La France littéraire, Le Monde dramatique, L’Indépendant and Revue des deux mondes, to discover when “Paul de Kock” began to signify “Paul de Kock.” Reviews of his first publications through the heyday of his career in the July Monarchy indicate that while “Paul de Kock” does come to embody an anxiety over the influx of popular literature in...