- The Demographic Imagination and the Nineteenth-Century City: Paris, London, New York by Nicholas Daly
The statistics of urban population growth in the nineteenth century—a period in which the number of Londoners more than quadrupled and the number of Parisians more than quintupled—are now familiar to both historians and critics. But what would living through this demographic transformation have felt like? Where might we look to understand the experience of being one of those millions? Nicholas Daly’s The Demographic Imagination and the Nineteenth-Century City begins to address some of these questions by examining the “polymodal narratives and images of mass humanity” (1) across three major nineteenth-century metropolises: London, Paris, and New York. Daly succeeds in this ambitious undertaking, providing a manageable and readable “series of case studies” (15) rather than a comprehensive chronological survey. He contends that the “demographic imagination” might be tracked as an aesthetic, cultural, and sensory function of the period’s “unprecedented population explosion” (5) and that even in works bearing no direct evidence of or references to this phenomenon, the city’s vast population was nonetheless present in indirect form, in spectral manifestations, in the structure of theatrical representation, or in the proliferation of commercial posters or animal bodies.
The Demographic Imagination brings the everyday culture of urban streets, shops, and spectacles to life, and it often evokes, quite powerfully and persuasively, the “demographic” quality of that culture—the consciousness of a “population explosion.” In his first chapter, for example, on volcanic spectacles, Daly demonstrates how the pyrotechnic display once orchestrated by and for aristocrats in the eighteenth century became a mass-marketed event in the nineteenth. Although considered in earlier periods “a convenient symbol of the prince’s puissance, by the 1830s, it was aligned with the people” (35) and often carried a revolutionary, transformative significance. Daly devotes several pages to an analysis of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), but the chapter’s real focus is the period’s fascination with Vesuvian representations and re-enactments more generally—a fascination that he renders in vivid detail through accounts of live events at pleasure gardens such as Ranelagh, magic-lantern shows, and paintings. Such an approach, which spans genres, media, and urban locales, characterizes the other chapters, too, where Daly expands his inquiry to include the manifold “texts” available to nineteenth-century urbanites. Chapter 4 describes the proliferation of urban print—advertisements, broadsheets, newspapers, “the metonymic symbols of that overcrowded and anonymous urban life” (109). But in other chapters, the demographic dimension feels more elusive. Chapter 2, for instance, examines the way in which Eugène Sue’s portrayal of the city in Les Mystères [End Page 202] de Paris as a space of crime, detection, and intrigue inspired multiple adaptations and reinterpretations set not only in Paris but in London and New York. Daly’s own detective work in tracing this intricate textual and theatrical history makes for a compelling story. But this chapter, like chapter 3, which includes a striking description of the urban wastelands produced by railway construction, seems to tell us more about the dynamic, ever-malleable, and rapidly evolving culture of urban self-representation than about the population explosion that underlay it.
Daly’s book thus evokes not only a demographic sensibility in nineteenth-century urban culture but also—and I would suggest, more vividly and consistently—its aural, visual, olfactory, and sartorial dimensions. In spite of its title, the book seems to situate itself less readily in conversation with other critical and historical work on nineteenth-century populations (John Plotz’s The Crowd, Audrey Jaffe’s The Affective Life of the Average Man, and, more recently, James Vernon’s Distant Strangers come to mind) than with studies that have traced the overwhelming sensory experience of the city—its trends, tastes, sounds, and spectacles—a field given shape by scholars such as Alain Corbin, David Henkin, Lynda Nead, and John Picker. To this conversation, Daly makes a valuable contribution...