Introduction

Hello, everybody. My name is Macs Smith and in two days I will be leaving for Paris for my summer research. I admit that when I was planning this research trip, I assumed that a week between the end of my finals and my departure would be more than enough time. One week of sitting at home, torturing myself with all the things I could be doing in France, telling my family stories about my spring semester to make it seem more interesting than it was… All of that would make one week feel like five, and five weeks seemed like a reasonable amount of time to leave myself to prepare. My current state of panicked anxiety suggests that maybe I was not entirely correct in my assumptions. I am reminded in retrospect of the first time I left for Paris: August of 2008, to spend my sophomore year abroad at Columbia’s program at the Sorbonne. After the longest summer of my life, working double shifts six days a week at a restaurant in DC to fund my Paris trip and counting the days down to my departure starting at 100, I finally got to the last week of waiting and felt my stomach fall into my feet. I was terrified and thought maybe I shouldn’t go.

I should have realized that no matter how slowly one goes or how long one prepares, certain things will always feel like they’re happening too fast. And frankly, I’ll be horrified if I ever wake up the day before a flight to Paris without feeling numb all over.

Louvre

I’ve been in love with the city for longer than I can remember, which is to say that I feel I’ve always been in love with it (you wouldn’t ask me when I started loving my parents, would you?). Which is why I’ve decided to do my Honors Thesis on the reconstruction of Paris effected by Baron Haussmann under the reign of Napoleon III. In 1852, when Napoleon III declared himself the emperor, Paris was besieged by almost constant popular revolts. If you’ve ever been to Paris, essentially nothing’s changed but now the people on strike march with signs instead of burning down palaces. Whenever the government attempted to quell the revolts the people would disappear into the labyrinthine medieval neighborhoods that still made up the majority of the city and the police would be helpless. Napoleon III decided to tear down the old neighborhoods and carve long, wide boulevards throughout the city so that the military could have easy access to anywhere in the city. He appointed the Baron Haussmann, the prefect of Paris, to the job, and over the course of the next twenty years the city was transformed into the aesthetically unified, modern, metropolitan capital of the world it is today.

While there are plenty of books describing this moment in Paris’s history in terms of its architectural importance or its historical effects, few if any have attempted to describe the shock to the French imagination. I plan on doing exactly that, by studying the literature that accompanied the Second Empire. Literature is not just about telling stories or crafting pretty sentences, after all. It is also a way of encoding ideology. It is a way for a society to take account of itself and decide how it would like itself and the world to be seen. Style, structure, and plot devices are historical; the Da Vinci Code could not have been written in any other time and, likewise, Madame Bovary could have only come out of the world of 1857. By looking at French literature across the period of the reconstruction (Balzac, Flaubert, Baudelaire, and bits of Zola) I plan on analyzing how experiences like the public space and the relation to the past were affected by the vast changes in French society and also hopefully drawing some conclusions about why realism ceased to be a viable vehicle for French literature shortly after the reconstruction was complete. What changed between 1852 and 1870 in the way France imagined itself?

To that effect, I’ll be reading the aforementioned authors, visiting the Archives Nationales for their newspaper archives, going to the Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris (Historical Library of the City of Paris), and spending lots of time in the research wing of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

I am so happy to be going back to Paris. The year I spent there felt like the shortest of my life. After a week, the days started to lapse into the recesses of my long-term memory where they stood alongside the blurred and patchwork recollections of my childhood with nothing in between to testify to the fifteen-year interval, and they never stopped. I left Paris thinking I had been there a week and wondering when in my past I had seen so much of it. When I look back and realize that it hasn’t even been a year since then, I am in disbelief. Now if I can just disbelieve that I am leaving on Thursday, I might get through a night’s sleep…

Comments

  1. bdnorris says:

    Macs,

    This sounds like a terrific project—is there any way you could tell us which Balzac, Flaubert, and Baudelaire works you’ll be reading?

    Also, a more general question: how do you see the shift from Realism in France in relation to Western literature as a whole? As you say, “Realism ceased to be a viable vehicle for French literature,” so I’m fascinated by the historical and cultural factors that distinguish the French shift from Realism in relation to other countries’ similar shift.

    I look forward to updates on your work!