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5 The Terrible Years
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À tous ceux qui, victimes de l'injustice sociale, prirent les armes contre un monde mal fait et formèrent, sous le drapeau de la Commune, la grande fédération des douleurs,
je dédie ce livre.

To all those who, victims of social injustice, took up arms against a poorly made world and formed, under the flag of the Commune, the great federation of suffering,
I dedicate this book.

If for Victor Hugo 1871 was an intellectual challenge, for Jules Vallès the Terrible Year, and most particularly, the extraordinary two months of the Commune, was the high point of his life, the year when, as he tells it in the autobiographical novel L'Insurgé (1886), he "had


his day."[17] Born in 1832 and therefore still in school in the provinces during the Revolution of 1848, Vallès was prevented from manifesting his opposition to Louis-Napoléon's coup d'état of December 1851 by his father, who had him forcibly interned in an insane asylum. During the Second Empire, Vallès lived a more or less precarious existence as an opposition journalist. In 1870, after the fall of the empire, the socialist Vallès actively opposed the newly proclaimed Government of National Defense and, in the newspaper that he founded in February 1871, stridently refused the armistice that the government had concluded with the Prussians. Elected to the Paris Commune in March, Vallès was from then on, arguably, the most vocal of its leaders, particularly for the immensely popular journal that spoke for the Commune, Le Cri du peuple. Barely escaping the appalling repression of the Commune in May 1871, he spent months hiding in Paris and in the provinces and then fled first to Belgium and then to London, where he spent most of the next nine years. Condemned to death in absentia by a military tribunal in July 1872 for his participation in the Commune, Vallès could not return to France until July 1880 when, after many years, several tries, and much debate, the Assemblèe Nationale finally voted full amnesty for all of the Communards. The day after he received a telegram announcing the news, Vallès left for Paris, so that he arrived in Paris in time for the first official celebration of 14 July as the national holiday.

Like Hugo, though in a very different mode, Vallès was what he himself called, in one of the neologisms that make his work a linguistic delight, a "parisianizing Parisian" ("Parisien parisiennant", 2:1394). There are other parallels with Hugo. Both men died the same year, 1885, Hugo at a great age (he was born in 1802), Vallès a full generation younger. More than the accident of their contemporaneous deaths connects Hugo and Vallès. Most important, for both writers, revolution was a guiding principle of their lives and their work; and, again for both, revolution meant the Paris that Vallès called "this classic land of rebellion" (2:1394). Finally, both engaged the Terrible Year in texts that are all the more significant for the very different conceptions of literature, of politics, and of Paris that they dramatize. There is a temptation to take the two as polar opposites: Hugo the living republican legend, glorified during his lifetime; Vallès, the down-and-out and invariably fractious journalist who managed to get himself in trouble with every kind of authority, a rebel by


Plate 16. 
Portrait of Jules Vallès by Gustave Courbet (1860). Eleven years after 
his portrait of the young but already well-known Vallès, Courbet joined 
the opposition journalist in the Commune. Vallès spent a decade in
 exile after the bloody repression of the Commune in May 1871, and 
Courbet spent six months in prison for his complicity in the destruction 
of the Vendôme Column during the last days of the Commune. 
(Photograph courtesy of Giraudon / Art Resource, N.Y., from the 
original held by the Musée Carnavalet, Paris.)


nature even more than by ideological conviction. As he proudly insisted of himself, "I am a rebel. And a rebel I remain" (2:91).

The funerals of Vallès and Hugo reinforce the contrast. Hugo's state funeral in June 1885 was a majestic ceremony that is inevitably invoked, then as now, as the tribute paid to the powers of great literature. Hugo himself would have appreciated the dramatic contrasts of the event. Following a lying-in-state for a night under the Arc de Triomphe, where the poet-patriarch was attended by an honor guard of young poets, Hugo was borne to his final resting place in the hearse reserved for the poor as he himself had directed for the final performance of a life structured by drama. The government respected the letter if not the spirit of his wishes. The hearse of the poor was attended by the National Guard and paraded down the ChampsElysées before crowds of two million or more. The poet was buried in the Panthéon, the Church of Sainte-Geneviève that the First Republic had transformed into a secular burial ground to honor great men of the republican age and that the Third Republic reinstituted for Victor Hugo. With a vast diffusion in the popular press, Hugo's funeral was one of those rites of passage by which French literary culture celebrates itself and proclaims its existence to French society at large.[18] Indeed, for the drama and exaltation of the moment, there is no better account than that given by Maurice Barrès in his novel of 1897, Les Déracinés, in a chapter aptly entitled "The Social Virtue of a Corpse."

Vallès' death in February of the same year was a very different affair, although it too gave rise to a demonstration. It was manifestly sectarian as Hugo's was not, a demonstration of the solidarity of those who had fought with Vallès in what he called in the dedication to L'Insurgé "the great federation of sorrows" (2:875). According to Le Cri du peuple, the journal that Vallès had founded two years before, some sixty thousand Parisians followed this hearse of the poor, with perhaps two hundred thousand to three hundred thousand spectators lining the streets along the way. Vallès was buried, not in the Panthéon, but in Père-Lachaise, the cemetery located in the northeastern working-class section of Paris and closely associated with the memory of the Commune. On the edge of this cemetery, in front of the Mur des Fédérés (Wall of the Communards), an infamous massacre of Communards had taken place. Père-Lachaise was a fitting resting place for Vallès. It was the cemetery of his idol Balzac as well as the


site of the executions, and it would eventually be the cemetery for a number of notable Communards and socialists (including Karl Marx's daughter Laura Lafargue and her husband, Paul, founder of the French Workers Party).

Politics directed Vallès' life, although, curiously enough, he was not much more of a politician than Hugo. He embraced his notoriety as a political journalist and scorned the very notion of the man of letters who placed himself beyond the everyday and the political. He did not undertake his great Jacques Vingtras trilogy until his exile in London, and L'Insurgé, the final volume, did not appear in full until after his death in 1885. Still, his politics, and the literary works that went with them, did not fit in with the practice of the Revolution that the Third Republic worked so diligently to establish. The figurative as well as literal "pantheonization" of Hugo bespoke the insecurity of the regime and the political necessity of fixing on a symbol of unity within a republican tradition above suspicion. At the same time, the Third Republic sought to distance itself from the First and Second Republics while still declaring itself the nominal successor. Republicans of the 1870s were haunted by the tumultuous politics and the ultimate failures of the First and the Second Republics, each of which ended in a coup d'état by a Bonaparte. The nascent and still shaky Third Republic had to claim and to disclaim the Revolution simultaneously. It had to convince France (and the world) that, while fulfilling the promise of the Revolution, it was not itself a revolutionary regime.[19]

In its search for unimpeachable heroes, the Third Republic looked for figures connected to but not directly involved in the Revolution. Like the First Republic it turned to Voltaire. As the First Republic staged a great ceremony for the transfer of Voltaire's body to the Panthéon in 1794, so the Third Republic almost immediately turned the boulevard Prince-Eugene (named after the son of Napoléon III) into the boulevard Voltaire, placed Voltaire's portrait in every town hall in the country, and in 1878 staged a vast centenary celebration of his and Rousseau's deaths. Similarly, Victor Hugo offered a precious asset to the Third Republic by virtue of his simultaneous association with the Revolution and independence from any identifiably revolutionary activity. Like Voltaire, Hugo embodied the Revolution without revolutionaries, an almost legendary event in the past that legitimated the present without constricting it.


With Jules Vallès the contrast could scarcely have been greater. For Vallès, revolution means practice in the present and through the present into the future. Revolution is not an event, it is a state, a phenomenon that can never be assimilated into a society that remained, as the dedication to the novel L'Insurgé proclaimed, "ill-made." All of Vallès' work and this novel in particular declare the Revolution unfinished business. It is hardly surprising that a republic in search of stability should studiously dismiss Vallès' politics of presence or that it should reject the texts sustained by such an understanding. What is perhaps less obvious is why it has taken so long for Vallès to get much of a hearing in our own time, when Hugo no longer offers a viable literary model. Even at the time of his death Hugo was a survivor of an earlier age, his work relegated for the most part to the musty nineteenth century. (Reference is almost invariably made to the flip answer of the young André Gide when asked to name the best poet of the nineteenth century: "Victor Hugo, hélas!") Modern poetry descends from Baudelaire not Hugo; twentieth-century prose looks to many models but not often to the grandiloquence of Hugo. The cultural figure is less easily displaced. Sartre's recollections in Les Mots of his grandfather's cult of Victor Hugo testify to the tenacity of that figure. Today as well, Victor Hugo lives on in textbooks and anthologies as a cultural reference and a nineteenth-century icon.[20]

More than age is in question. Hugo was not simply thirty years older than Vallès. He was a literary giant, the most celebrated of the heroic line of romantics who had decisively shaped the literary field that Vallès entered in the 1850s. After Hugo, after Lamartine and Vigny, after Balzac, no writer would, or could, dominate the literary world as they had. In the 1850s, of the pioneers of the 1820s only Hugo continued to be a vital force. His stature continued to increase at a time when the others of his generation were either dead (Balzac) or in semiretirement (Vigny, Lamartine, Sand).

Despite governments that kept a vigilant eye on every publication, the continuing expansion of journalism made it an ever more powerful determinant of place in the literary field as well as a significant source of income for aspiring writers. The introduction of advertising made it possible to lower subscription rates and paved the way for the serialization of novels to attract readers for the advertisements. The same Émile de Girardin who came up with the idea of coupling advertising and the serial novel in the  830s turns up in L'Insurgé in the


1860s as a quite extraordinary, immensely powerful (and not entirely antipathetic) figure in the world of letters: a cat, in Vallès' extended metaphor, that always lands on his feet and is always on the lookout for prey, "a man all nerves and all claws who has pushed his paws and his muzzle everywhere for the past thirty years" (2:902). Vallès' Girardin comes straight out of Balzac's great novels of journalism. This sense of a society and a literary world of constant struggle does much to explain why Vallès the journalist looks to the royalist Balzac for a model rather than to the revolutionary Hugo.

This journalistic world was largely peripheral to Hugo and his career. Hugo was not a journalist but a man of letters who wrote for reviews and journals only occasionally. Although he founded a journal with his brothers in 1819 (Le Conservateur littéraire ) and another with his son in 1849 (L'Événement ) Hugo placed himself in the nobler species of man of letters. Vallès kept himself firmly in the world of journalism; Hugo burst onto the literary scene at the age of seventeen, when his poetry was awarded a prize by the oldest extant literary academy in France, the Académie des Jeux Floraux. If Hugo offered Vallès and his generation a model of the successful writer—and he assuredly did—it was a model that the younger generation knew it could not possibly emulate.

Nor, in Vallès' very strong view, should it do so. "Just as there is an out-of-date politics, there is a sterile and dangerous art, living off crumbs, sleeping on debris, that has to be relegated to the catacombs" (1:883). The writer, the artist, must write in the present, not the past. They have to have "felt and seen what they want us to feel and see" (1:891). For the true artists who are of their time, and who have been actors in the debate, Vallès coins the term "news-er" ("actualiste"). Perhaps, he says, the word has no future, but at least it has no past; "and I am not for the past" (1:891). Writing in 1857, Vallès contends that the second half of the nineteenth century needs a new politics, and it needs a new poetics, a poetics of prose. Romanticism "tolled the death knell" of poetry (1:9). "A new society, with other emotions, other sentiments, other weapons, . . . has opened the second half of the 19th century; what was beautiful yesterday will be ridiculous tomorrow. You have to move with the times." It was time, Vallès announced with his usual truculence, to give up poetry and to "live in prose" (1:10). If Hugo would not have appreciated being targeted as the "pall bearer" at the funeral of poetry (1:9) and might


not have found Vallès' acerbic style especially congenial, he should have recognized in the combative Vallès of the 1860s the equally contentious Hugo of the 1820s and 1830s, who called for a new literature to fit a new society and boasted of having put a revolutionary's red cap on the fusty dictionary of the Académie française.

That the erstwhile revolutionary romantics had grown fat upon the land needed no more evidence than the performance of Hernani, Hugo's reputedly "revolutionary" play of 1830, when it was specially authorized for the World's Fair in 1867 (performances had been forbidden since Hugo had gone into exile). Vallès was not so faintly disgusted at the spectacle presented by the aging, corpulent romantics and the disciples they had produced: "Either romanticism has aged or, stuffed with fat, it has produced children with rickets" (1:949). Still and all, Vallès had to admit, these skinny second-generation romantics had a spot in the literary world, and he did not. It was incumbent upon Vallès—a "realist," as he identifies himself in the same article—to define success differently. That definition, in the literary world of the Second Empire, would come through journalism, which meant that it would come through politics. And those politics, for Vallès, were ultimately a politics of and for Paris.

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5 The Terrible Years
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