The War of 1870 and its Reconstruction by the French Media, or The Cultural History of Europe before the First World War

Tuesday 10 November, 2015
7pm, $0

New York University, Maison Français
16 Washington Mews

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In light of the understandable current fascination with the centenary of the First World War, we might choose to look back at the cultural responses to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to which French and German subjects, citizens and soldiers would have been exposed in the years prior to the Great War. The most popular French fictional evocation of the war was Emile Zola’s La Débâcle (1892), serialized in the press and the most commercially successful of Zola’s novels in his lifetime, but gradually obscured from view in the course of the twentieth century, so particular were the experiences of the new century’s world wars. What this obscuring of 1870 risks, moreover, is a misunderstanding of the origins of the new century’s European project, following the Second World War, which still has at its center the Franco-German relationship. By focussing on a key moment in French cultural memory (the French defense of Bazeilles after their defeat at Sedan in September 1870), we can explore the ways in which Zola’s literary depiction is best understood (and understood by Zola himself) alongside a treasure trove of cultural artefacts which spoke directly to that event: war art, popular song, prints, postcards, theatre, the invention of literary criticism as a university subject in France ... and even the cinema of the 1890s.

Nicholas White is Reader in Modern French Literature at Cambridge University, where he chaired the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages from 2008 until 2011. He is also a Fellow of Emmanuel College. The author of two books, The Family in Crisis in Late Nineteenth-Century French Fiction and French Divorce Fiction from the Revolution to the First World War, he co-edited the journal of the UK Society of Dix-Neuviémistes, Dix-Neuf, from its inception in 2003 until last year. He is now a member of the Peer Review College of the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, the reviews editor on nineteenth-century literature for H-France, and the only British-based representative on the Advisory Board of the North American journal Nineteenth-Century French Studies. In addition to articles and chapters on a wide range of late 19th century authors, he has edited two translations and four volumes of essays, most recently a special double number on Zola for the journal Romanic Review.

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