- A Sentimental Education for the Working Man: The Mexico City Penny Press, 1900–1910 by Robert Buffington
In the last ten years, scholars have examined with renewed interest the social and artistic milieu of the “Porfiriato” era (1876–1911), when liberal dictator Porfirio Díaz occupied the Mexican presidency. Historians have long equated the Porfiriato with modernization, urbanization, and capitalist expansion. Only more recently have scholars begun examining the era’s relatively unknown cultural production. Robert Buffington’s A Sentimental Education for the Working Man: The Mexico City Penny Press, 1900–1910 is a welcome addition to a growing number of volumes devoted to uncovering this side of Porfirian life.
Buffington’s study is best situated alongside Pablo Piccato’s work on the public sphere in nineteenth-century Mexico, as well as William Beezley’s investigations of popular culture. The volume also shares a political vantage point with Robert Irwin’s work on masculinity in Mexico; both researchers trouble monolithic notions of Mexican masculinity as they interrogate what Octavio Paz (among countless others) have signaled as the malaise par excellence of Mexican men: machismo. Specifically, Buffington’s new text aims to “reconstruc[t] the complex, shifting, and contradictory ideas about manhood, especially working-class masculinity” (6), claiming that “penny press editors and contributors offered up a sentimental education for workers” (6). In order to substantiate this thesis, Buffington provides close readings of satiric penny press newspapers written for workers during, roughly, the second half of the Porfiriato (1900–1910).
Although A Sentimental Education suffers from Buffington’s somewhat facile distinction between the working class and the bourgeoisie—distinctions that belie the Porfiriato’s petit bourgeoisie, its coteries of tanda-attending nighthawks, and other advenedizos (parvenus)—he adeptly balances gender theories, detailed literary analysis, and his formidable knowledge of the Porfiriato. The text will be of great interest to cultural historians of Mexico as well as literary critics. All told, Buffington’s book tasks academics to more closely study those everyday Mexican citizens whose lives did not jive with Díaz’s ironclad modernizing project.
In chapter one, “Working-Class Heroes”, Buffington employs Williams’ notions of a “structure of feelings” and Gramsci’s theory of a “war of position” in order to show how the penny press “transformed official liberal icons like Hidalgo and Juárez into working-class heroes” (49). Here, Buffington [End Page 103] masterfully analyzes various newspaper illustrations, proving how their spatial organization ultimately bolsters their gestalt meaning: stated differently, illustrators aimed to harmonize the form and (political) function of their art. Thus hegemonic figures are normally represented on an image’s left side, while society’s downtrodden are found on the right side. This chapter may be the text’s most lasting contribution, as it provides future scholars with an interpretative toolkit for comprehending newspaper illustrations.
In chapter two, “One True Juárez”, Buffington proposes that as part of the penny press’s ongoing war of position, editors did not attack Díaz directly but rather, “preferred to exalt [former president Benito] Juárez and let the implicit contrast between the two men speak for itself” (69). This proves a difficult argument to make, seeing that the Porfirian elite also lionized Juárez, but in order to legitimate Díaz. Admittedly, opposition journalists did forward Juárez as a foil to Díaz’s dictatorship: yet Juárez’s appellation as “working-class” is not wholly convincing. Indeed, the chapter’s thesis, while provocative, would have benefited from specific textual examples of Juárez represented as a working-class hero. A closer study of Porfirian-era newspapers and speeches, I believe, would suggest that Juárez was understood as a romantic hero, a common man who transcended the everyday thanks to his elevated spirit. What Buffington fails to note is that, time and time again, Porfirians of diverse social statuses pointed up the simple, gentle, but firm “carácter” of Juárez, the onetime Zapotec shepherd from the bucolic...