- A Sentimental Education for the Working Man: The Mexico City Penny Press, 1900–1910 by Robert M. Buffington
Robert M. Buffington
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015
ix + 294pp., $99.95 (cloth); $26.95 (paper)
Robert M. Buffington's compelling study makes a contribution that extends well beyond what a reader might initially expect from a tightly focused study of satiric newspapers and broadsides produced in Mexico City for working-class (and other) audiences between 1900 and 1910. Methodologically, Buffington provides a master class in close reading. He skillfully contextualizes what were in some cases ephemeral texts, tracing, for example, the carefully traversed line between straightforward veneration of the "immortal" Benito Juárez (the kind of thing that one would expect from newspapermen steeped in the traditions of popular liberalism), on one hand, and Porfirian censors' awareness that evocations of Juárez could also be criticisms of the dictator on the other. More importantly, Buffington offers richly layered analyses of the cultural politics at work in texts and images that a less sophisticated historian might dismiss as simply comic sketches. The overall effect is stunning. Buffington succeeds in recasting the political world of urban Mexico on the eve of revolution. Many readers will come away with a changed understanding of what late-Porfirian Mexico City was like and how people who were not wealthy might have responded to the events of 1910.
Buffington is deeply respectful of the people he writes about, both in the book's main chapters and in its surprising, smart epilogue about working-class forms of present-day satire performed on a popular Spanish-language radio show broadcast in the southwestern United States for Mexican immigrant listeners. His chapter on "street talk" newspaper columns in the early twentieth century is especially fine. Writers and editors intent on infusing their work with the flavor of working-class life used vernacular language in ways that produced a deep sense of recognition in their readers. Buffington shows us how much skill that took. He carefully unpacks the allusions and wordplay that early twentieth-century readers or listeners (these columns were read aloud in homes, bars, parks, and workplaces) would have understood. Because part of what comedic working-class language did was to create funny characters that one could make fun of rather than models meant to be emulated, Buffington's discussion of the way writers produced "street talk" recognizable to working-class people—especially through the use of innuendo and double meanings—demonstrates that the penny press did not condescend to its readers. Rather, the writers and editors who produced such columns "foregrounded the absurdity of bourgeois solutions to working class problems" and presented their readers with "a way of being in the modern world that was every bit as complicated and contradictory as their day-to-day lives" (5).
Admirers of José Guadalupe Posada's art will benefit from how Buffington contextualizes the many images Posada produced for the penny press, as will scholars looking to learn how to mine visual images for meaning. Very occasionally, Buffington [End Page 95] overdoes things. Some readers may find themselves skipping over his dissections of visual compositions that require attention to the tension between vertical and horizontal axes, supplementary images, and the placement of a particular element to the left or right of another. On balance, however, the work Buffington does to analyze the cultural politics of the images that fueled working-class audiences' engagement with the penny press is persuasive. Nonspecialists may also find that the work he does with images of Hidalgo and Juárez allows them an entry into the way historians of Mexico have been rethinking the cultural legacies left by nineteenth-century liberalism. This is true of Buffington's discussion of textual representations as well. It's a testament to his light touch that by paying attention to the way penny-press writers narrated nationalist stories of nineteenth-century Mexican history, the author sparks readers' interest in the battle of Churubusco (1847), for example, or the writings of Vicente Riva Palacio (1832–96).
One of the book...