Crime et culture au XIXe siecle.
The question of crime obsessed nineteenth-century French society. This statement is Dominque Kalifa's starting point for Crime et culture au XIXe siecle, a collection of previously published articles that establishes that nineteenth-century crime has also been Kalifa's own professional obsession. The book is the product of careful thought and wide reading in a variety of primary sources (feuilletons, popular novels, broadsheets, police memoirs, and newspapers from both Paris and the provinces). Consequently, it offers a detailed examination of the place of crime in popular culture, as well as the role that culture played in the perception, policing, and punishing of crime.
The fifteen chapters of the book are organized into three thematic parts. Part one explores classic figures of Parisian crime including the young delinquent known popularly as the "apache," the police detective (with special focus on the literary figure of Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert), and the so-called "dangerous classes." Uniting these diverse figures is the Parisian landscape and its role in what Kalifa identifies as the social imaginary--the popular understanding of the topography and criminal composition of vice and delinquency as derived from popular representations of crime. Particularly in the last third of the nineteenth century, as the effects of Hausmannization dramatically altered the social landscape of Paris, Kalifa shows how depictions of crime in "dime" novels, serials, and police memoirs affected both popular and elite appraisals of crime realities and imagined crime.
Part two of the book delves even deeper into the media of mass culture, focusing on the creation, dissemination, and reception of news briefs, crime novels, and serialized novels, primarily during the Third Republic. In part three, Kalifa returns to the social problems engendered by crime and discusses the role of delinquency and insecurity in late nineteenth-century Parisian politics. Including an analysis of the myths and realities of the most frightening of crimes (the nocturnal attack) as well as a detailed discussion of the political debates of mid-level bureaucrats surrounding a perceived crisis of repression, Kalifa deftly weaves popular culture and social concerns into a well-textured depiction of Parisian mentalities and politics.
Despite the title of the book, the focus of Kalifa's research and expertise is on the Third Republic and the final quarter of the nineteenth century. Yet this does not stop the author from ranging broadly from the early nineteenth century to the present in his analysis. In one of the most engaging chapters of the book, for example, Kalifa traces the archeology of the term "apache" as applied to young delinquents during the Belle Epoque. The task takes him from James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans to mid-century French hopes for a new foothold on the American continent in Texas and Mexico, to the growing popularity of the American West in literature and travel accounts that described the Apache as an obstacle to expansion.
Kalifa's final chapter then makes a tentative foray into modern-day France to suggest how nineteenth-century attitudes to and perceptions of crime have filtered down to the present. This is in many ways the most ambitious and the least satisfying of the chapters, though through no fault of the author. The current French preoccupation with immigration and the "politiques de la ville" makes such connections almost inevitable. Certainly readers would be asking many of the same questions Kalifa poses about connections between nineteenth-century culture and present-day attitudes toward crime while reading his chapter on the crisis of repression or the public use of such terms as "social defense." But, of course, crime and culture in modern-day France constitute a topic which cannot be explained in a twenty page chapter at the end of a work on the nineteenth century, and so Kalifa's thought-provoking insights and observations are of necessity suggestive rather than conclusive.
As engaging as the book is, it does leave some larger analytical connections and conclusions unexplored. As a collection of previous papers and articles on varied subjects, the work feels at times disjointed. While part one is a masterful look at the cultural antecedents of such social types as the police inspector and the apache, part two is at times too narrowly focused on cultural forms, to the exclusion of any meaningful discussion of crime. In the introduction, Kalifa suggests that cultural productions render crime comprehensible to a larger public (12). Yet as readers, we are left to reconstruct his line of reasoning ourselves while perusing chapters on such diverse examples as serialized novels, journalistic exposes about prison conditions, and wartime news briefs. To a certain extent, Kalifa relies on the organization of the chapters to suggest larger connections, but we are left wishing for his authorial voice to make them more explicit throughout the work as a whole.
Nevertheless, for an understanding of France's "criminal century," Dominque Kalifa has once more asserted himself as one of the foremost scholars of the subject. The plentiful footnotes and the bibliography of police memoirs, alone, make the work a valuable resource to historians of nineteenth-century France. In addition, this book should not be overlooked by anyone interested in the history of crime outside of France or in the French colonies. Broad enough to suggest avenues for future comparative studies, yet narrow enough to provide a clearer picture of Third Republic France, this work stands as a fine example for how to combine the methodological tools of social and cultural history in meaningful and informative ways.
Allyson J. Delnore
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|Author:||Delnore, Allyson J.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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