Lerner on Belenky (2019)

Belenky, Masha. Engine of Modernity: The Omnibus and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Manchester UP, 2019, pp. xii + 183, ISBN: 978-1-5261-3859-0

When it becomes clear that Lucien de Rubempré will have to come up with a small fortune in order to secure his marriage to Clotilde de Grandlieu, Vautrin confidently proposes investing 100,000 francs freshly wrested, with Esther Gobseck’s help, from the Baron de Nucingen, in a new speculative venture: “On vient de lancer les Omnibus, les Parisiens vont se prendre à cette nouveauté-là, dans trois mois nous triplerons nos fonds.” This scene in Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838-1847) takes place in 1828, shortly after entrepreneur Stanislas Baudry launched Paris’s first omnibus line, a feat soon followed by the emergence of half a dozen competing companies whose designated routes crisscrossed the city. Vautrin’s instincts are right on target, of course, and his risk pays off handsomely. By 1843, when Balzac was completing part two of Splendeurs et misères de courtisanes, this new mode of transportation had taken the capital by storm. As Masha Belenky persuasively demonstrates in Engine of Modernity, at mid-century, the omnibus was not just a crucial mode of transportation for many of the city’s denizens; it had also become a veritable cultural topos firmly associated with modernity, along with its thrills, ambiguities, and discontents.

Belenky’s account of the rise of the omnibus takes us on a well-researched and thoroughly engaging tour of the narrative, dramatic, and pictorial forms of cultural production that took ordinary, everyday details of urban life as their focus. Her argument is organized into two parts, the first of which provides an overview of writing featuring these horse-drawn conveyances and the place these texts occupied in popular print culture from the end of the Restoration through the first decades of the Third Republic, while a second part delves more deeply into the specific ways in which these works exploited the omnibus as a privileged site for the working through of pervasive tensions over class and gender. Belenky draws on a wide array of materials, including newspaper articles, literary city guides, short stories, physiologies, vaudevilles, poems, caricature, and paintings to uncover what she rightly sees as a cultural obsession with this new, apparently democratic, form of transportation that seemed from its name alone to invite everyone aboard.

More than just an impressively deep dive into the archives, Engine of Modernity successfully theorizes the omnibus as a transformative commercial enterprise that also served as a key theme and formal element shared by a number of popular literary forms. Beyond its eventual use as a term characterizing collections of disparate texts, what Belenky here calls omnibus literature encompasses a range of popular writing in which this mode of transportation provides an “organizing narrative and structuring principle” (36). From early and relatively unknown works like the satirical Les omnibus. Premier voyage de Vadet la blague de la Place de la Madeleine à la Bastille et retour (1828) to Guy de Maupassant’s “Le père Mongilet” (1885), the chronotope of the omnibus announces writing strategies that highlight multiple voices and perspectives while embracing acceleration and flux as the embodiment of the new. Belenky assembles this disparate set of texts within an original framework that offers a novel perspective on the material and social dynamics that impacted everyday life in nineteenth-century Paris.

As they made their way across the city, omnibuses brought lower and middle class passengers together into an enclosed space for delineated stretches of time, allowing for open encounters that seemed to align with the century’s democratizing impulses. Yet as Belenky points out, this new mode of transportation also recreated existing hierarchies that actively called this democratic potential into question. The second part of her study addresses the social dynamics and moral geographies that these texts traced as they revealed acute anxieties about the blurring of class distinctions and transgressive sexual behavior that might result from the mix of passengersespecially womenthat regularly boarded omnibuses. Many of these narratives police the boundaries between private and public by reproducing the censorious gaze cast on women’s bodies in urban settings. As Belenky makes clear, however, other writers and artists actively contested this distribution of public space. Her readings of images like Mary Cassatt’s En omnibus (1890-91), for example, are especially revelatory of the multiple, equivocal ways in which the omnibus helped writers address questions of class and gender. 

In this sense, Belenky’s analysis is perhaps best situated alongside other recent attempts to expand the usual definitions of formalism to include patterns of sociopolitical experience albeit in an anglophone context including Anna Kornbluh’s The Order of Forms (2019) and Caroline Levine’s Forms (2015). Like these works, Belenky helps us to rethink the relationship between narrative, material, and social structures in modern France. Her analysis shows that public transportation, with its ambivalent reconstruction of hierarchies and social networks, opened up new possibilities for narrative experimentation. The insightful connections Belenky thus establishes between the social forms that the omnibus embodied and the aesthetic forms that embraced and problematized this mode of travel as constitutive of modernity shed much welcome light on an important aspect of the French nineteenth century.

Bettina Lerner
CCNY and The Graduate Center, CUNY