Theses Doctoral

Modernism and Mass Press from Mallarmé to Proust

McGuinness, Max

The rapid expansion of the mass press in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century France, along with the concurrent rise of an information-driven style of journalism known as reportage, coincided with a shift in literary portrayals of the press. Early to mid-nineteenth-century novels of journalism such as Balzac’s Illusions perdues consistently depict the world of journalism in intensely hostile tones, as do many later novels and works of poetry, at times with even greater vitriol. By contrast, from Baudelaire onwards, some French authors including Mallarmé, Apollinaire, and Proust took a more ambivalent approach to the press, pivoting between antipathy and enthusiasm for what became a truly massified and ubiquitous cultural phenomenon during their lifetimes. Their equivocal portrayals of the press in poetry and prose fiction epitomize their broader ambivalence towards modernity itself – a trait that distinguishes these modernist authors from their avant-garde contemporaries, who advocated a radical break with tradition and tended to be more consistently hostile or enthusiastic towards journalism.

The thematic prominence of journalism in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century French literature reflects its ongoing role as what Marie-Ève Thérenty calls “the laboratory of literature,” whereby authors published poetry and prose fiction in the mass press, for which they also wrote opinion columns, criticism, and other forms of journalism that they then frequently recycled in their literary works. Belying the account of literature’s autonomization found in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, who argues that literature and the mass press had grown apart by the end of the nineteenth century, modernist poetry and prose fiction continued to appear in large-circulation, commercially oriented newspapers and magazines into the twentieth century.

From the 1880s onwards, the growth of the mass press was paralleled by the emergence of a wave of little magazines known as petites revues that became the primary literary laboratory of literary modernism. These petites revues had many material links to the mass press. Authors often wrote simultaneously for both newspapers and petites revues. Many of the latter courted publicity in the former, even as they denounced those very same publications as the antithesis of true literature. And petites revues published many pieces of reportage – a style of journalism associated with the mass press. These connections to the mass press left their mark on the literary works published in petites revues, which often draw on newspaper articles and confront topical journalistic subjects. Moreover, several petites revues evolved into major publishing houses, including Éditions Gallimard, whose extensive commercial interactions with the mass press further shaped the works they published as modernist authors themselves became intimately involved in publicizing their books.

Early to mid-nineteenth-century authors consistently avoid confronting their debts to journalism in their literary works. They thunder against the press but cannot live without it. Anti-journalistic thunder underlain by various kinds of dependence on the press remains a dominant feature of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century French literature and cultural criticism. By contrast, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, and Proust as well as Gide and Péguy all allude to the ambiguous position of journalism within their prose poetry, poetry, novels, and essays. These authors at once draw on journalism in their literary works and reflect on the significance of their journalistic borrowings within those works themselves. The self-conscious modernist spirit of their writing thus allows them, unlike their precursors and most of their contemporaries, to finally come to terms with the challenge posed by the mass press to literary creation.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Ladenson, Elisabeth A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 28, 2019