Jules Vallès Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jules Vallès 1832–1885

(Born Louis-Jules Vallez; also wrote under the pseudonyms Asvell, Jean Max, Jean La Rue, and Jacques Vingtras) French novelist and journalist.

The premiere historian of the Paris Commune uprising of 1871, Vallès was assured a controversial place in history when the Commune's experiment with anarchy became a model and inspiration for such theorists and revolutionaries as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. Vallès drew upon his development as a militant journalist and insurrectionist, his difficult childhood, and his reluctantly pursued classical education to write his most widely read work, the largely autobiographic trilogy Jacques Vingtras (1879-1886). Important as an historical document, Jacques Vingtras also remains relevant as a critique of educational practices and of the isolating effects of capitalism and modern bourgeois institutions. Although linguistic playfulness and spontaneity distinguishes Vallès's writing from that of his contemporaries and successors, including Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, and Charles Baudelaire, the militant populism of his works exposed him to persecution, which eventually forced him into literary obscurity. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that scholars began to look past Vallès's political radicalism and to appreciate his qualities as a literary historian and prose stylist.

Biographical Information

Vallès was born Louis-Jules Vallez in the village of Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne, France, on June 11, 1832. Vallès's last name was spelled incorrectly on his birth certificate, but he maintained the error in his adult life to distance himself from his schoolteacher father, Jean-Louis Vallez. Vallès's father descended from and married into a farming family, and pursued a career as a teacher in order to obtain social status. Although Vallès's father remained on the lowest rung of the social ladder in the teaching profession, this occupation afforded Vallès the chance to obtain a classical education, and he excelled in Greek, Latin, and rhetoric. Vallès also became increasingly interested in socialist and revolutionary politics, especially in the wake of the 1848 uprising of students, artisans, and unemployed workers in Paris. He increasingly rejected the values and wishes of his father, particularly his father's insistence that he pass the baccalauréate examinations and enter into an academic career of his own. As Vallès became more politically active, reportedly organizing resistance to Napoleon III's coup d'état in 1851, his father responded by putting him in an asylum in December 1851. Vallès, mobilizing his political contacts, was released from the asylum in March 1852; he then passed the baccalauréate and left for Paris, where he found his degree useless and his financial prospects dim. Vallès participated in the bohemian life of the Left Bank in Paris, attempting law school, tutoring at a boardinghouse, and performing secretarial work for Gustave Planche. During this period, Vallès wrote jingles, dictionary entries, pamphlets, tour guides, and newspaper articles. After his father's death in 1857, Vallès earned his living by contributing to or managing various liberal daily newspapers. That same year, Vallès anonymously published the novel L'Argent. This work represents the author as a man of letters turned stockbroker but deals with this transformation with such irony and sarcasm that Vallès's true opinions about the world of finance are readily apparent.

The death of Henri Murger in 1861 was a critical point in Vallès's life. Murger had written Scènes de la vie de bohèmie—a work sympathetic to the plight of the bohemians—but Vallès considered Murger's work unsuccessful in representing the hardships and pain of bohemian life. After Murger's death, Vallès made it his goal to provide a true picture of the life of the bohemians and his own generation. The first publication of this program was an article entitled "Les Réfractaires," published in Figaro in 1861. This article and various others written between 1857 and 1865 were collected in a fictional work entitled Les Réfractaires (1865). Almost contemporaneous with this work was the Romantic novella Jean Delbenne (1865). Reactionary articles written in 1865 and 1866 appeared in the fictional work entitled La Rue (1866), which described the urban battleground of Paris where the poor and marginal mixed with the more fortunate. Vallès increased his reactionary literary output in the following years by establishing seven short-lived newspapers: La Rue in 1867, Journal de Sainte-Pélagie in 1869 (January), Peuple (February), Réfractaire in 1869 (May), Corsaire (November), Cri du Peuple in 1871 (February), and Drapeau (March).

When Prussia invaded France in 1870, Vallès was a leader of a revolutionary republican party that was defeated in the elections for a new government to negogiate peace. The new, monarchistic government took steps to remove the reactionaries from Paris, and the revolutionary movement fought back, forced the leaders of the official government to flee, and established the Paris Commune. Vallès served on the Commune's education commission and presided over its last meeting on May 21, 1871, when the official French government finally defeated the Communards. Vallès fled to London in exile in October 1871. There he wrote a play entitled La Commune de Paris (1872) and began the trilogy that would relate the social circumstances of his generation leading up to the Paris Commune. The first volume of this trilogy was entitled Jacques Vintras I (later called Jacques Vingtras: L'Enfant). Published through intermediaries, it appeared first in serial form in a Parisian paper in 1878 and then in book form in 1879, with each version being published under a different pen name. After amnesty for the Communards was proclaimed in 1880, Vallès returned to Paris and released additional works that had been written in exile but had not been published: Jacques Vingtras: Le Bachelier (1881) and a collection of portraits of London life entitled La Rue à Londres (1884). During this period, Vallès began his close relationship with Caroline Rémy, known as Sèverine, who served not only as his nurse and secretary in his years of ill health but also as editor, assuring that his works were finished, polished, and published. Vallès died in Paris on February 14, 1885. Sèverine collected, edited, and published the serialized version of Vallès's third and last Jacques Vingtras novel, Jacques Vingtras: L'Insurgé: 1871 (1886).

Major Works

Vallès most significant literary achievement is his semiautobiographical trilogy Jacques Vingtras: L'Enfant, Jacques Vingtras: Le Bachelier, and Jacques Vingtras: L'Insurgé: 1871. Tracing the development of an insurrectionist, the three novels chronicle the life of their eponymous protagonist from childhood (in L'Enfant) through institutional education and young adulthood (Le Bachelier) to his eventual realization as an insurrectionist in the Paris Commune (L'Insurgé). The books faithfully report the conditions of students, workers, and others who would join the movement of the Communards. The first two novels in particular offer powerful condemnations of bourgeois practices of child-rearing and education. Closely mirroring Vallès's own life, the last novel depicts the rise of Vingtras's career as a journalist, his involvement with the Paris Commune, and his hope for the future after escaping the fall of the Commune. More autobiographical writing appears in Vallès's documentation of his experiences in La Rue à Londres, written in London after the fall of the Commune. This work reveals Vallès's great love and appreciation for his native Paris (although his comparisons between Paris and London are sometimes misinformed), and is also marked by the same attention to sensory detail that distinguishes the Jacques Vingtras trilogy.

Critical Reception

Vallsè's radical politics overshadowed his literary talents until well into the twentieth century. Upon Vallès's death, influential critic Ferdinand Brunetière began Vallès's obituary reluctantly, remarking, "I shall speak of a disagreeable man." Recent critics, however, have worked toward a "recuperation of Vallesian poetics." Robin Orr Bodkin (1992), for example, argues that lifting Vallès from his undeserved obscurity will demonstrate "how his contribution points directly to the textual innovations of Nathalie Sarraute, Céline, Raymond Queneau, and Samuel Becket among others, if not to postmodern textual presentation in general." Nonetheless, most critics have considered his most important contribution to be his documentation of events surrounding the Paris Commune. Gerhard Fischer (1981) calls Vallès's mostly unknown drama La Commune de Paris "an outstanding documentary work [which] directly describes the struggles and sufferings of the people of Paris." Moreover, to some critics, Vallès's depiction of the hopes and disappointments of the working classes offers a model for modern power relations. Charles Stivale (1992) suggests that Vallès's careful narration of the forces at play during a critical political moment reveals a foundation for hope, and "forcefully introduces the possibility of resistance and the necessity of history."