During the 19th century a famous satirical quatrain was published, mockingly wondering whether the word feuilleton came from the verb feuilleter, to flick through, or vice versa.
The genre had already changed by that date, and feuilleton had come to mean any sort of pamphlet, although it usually denoted an adventure novel, and was an abbreviation of roman-feuilleton, which was in turn an expanded form of the original feuilleton. The term’s meaning changed again in the 20th century in continental Europe, as it became appropriated to define episodic forms in film and television.
In France, the genre was invented by the Journal de l’Empire (Journal of the empire), which in 1814 became the Journal des Débats (Journal of debates). The early newspapers were simply folded single sheets, printed on both sides, so offering readers four printed pages. The front page was reserved for such matters of public importance as discussions in the Chamber; but on the frequent occasions when there was neither news of sufficient interest to hand, nor anything much to report from current political rhetoric, the editor of the Journal des Débats took to tucking the Abbé Geoffrey’s pieces of theater criticism under a horizontal rule at the bottom of the front page. This slot was thereafter known, throughout the 19th century, as the “ground floor.”
The first feuilletons were, therefore, columns of drama criticism, a subject of riveting interest in a Paris of some 630,000 people in 1815: although almost half this number were literate, in the early part of the century it was the stage that was the principal public forum for the imaginative exploration of social and political attitudes—hence the prominence given to commentary about the stage, even if it appeared only on the “ground floor.” It was an important time for developments in dramatic form: by 1830 neoclassical declamatory drama was being challenged and replaced in the legitimate theater by the
Romantic movement’s downmarket tragedies in verse; and the boulevard theaters performed the (even) less literate cultural functions that were more than simple entertainment.
The feuilleton evolved as the “ground floor” enlarged its scope beyond drama criticism to include a gazette of events in the worlds of society, the arts, and politics. Sainte- Beuve’s Lundis (Mondays) first appeared as feuilletons in a series of newspapers, as he changed his affiliations from the liberal Le Constitutionnel (The constitutional) to the official government organ, Le Moniteur Universel (The universal monitor), and then to the opposition newspaper, Le Temps (The times). Balzac had already used the term feuilleton for the 1830 newspaper Feuilleton des Journaux Politiques (Feuilleton of political journals), which he coedited with Victor Varaigne and Émile de Guardin. And, on 1 July 1836, Armand Dutacq issued Le Siècle (The century) and Girardin brought out La Presse at a subscription price of 40 francs, exactly half of what the established newspapers were charging, thereby launching the French popular press.
Novelists had never before written novels as feuilletons, for serialization; when they did, they were led inevitably to introduce cliff-hanging breaks in increasingly episodic narratives, full of incredible adventures, and empty of all but the shallowest psychology.
Eventually the adventure novels began to appear on their own in weekly or monthly fascicles; these too were known as feuilletons. In the meantime, and until the law curbed the new development by putting a tax on advertising, competition for the best authors of feuilletons became fierce, and the prices they commanded were huge. In response there was an outcry led by Sainte-Beuve against the “industrial” output of literature (and Girardin, fighting what was in effect a battle for the new press, killed Armand Carrel, defending the old style, in a duel).
Balzac was the first French author to publish a novel in a newspaper: La Vieille Fille (The old maid) appeared in 12 installments of La Presse during October and November 1836, and Le Père Goriot (Old Man Goriot), although it originally had six parts, was written to appear in four installments. Even Flaubert’s Madame Bovary first appeared serialized in the Revue de Paris. The great masters of the genre, after Balzac himself, were Frederic Soulié, Alexandre Dumas père, George Sand, and above all Eugène Sue, whose Mystères de Paris (The mysteries of Paris), tracing the relationship between moral values and the social realities of urban life in the capital, was serialized by the Journal des Débats from June 1842 to October 1843. Its success was phenomenal: the newspaper’s circulation doubled from 5000 to 10,000, a much greater percentage increase than Balzac had achieved in other journals. Véron saved Le Constitutionnel by outbidding Girardin’s La Presse and paying a famously large 100,000-franc fee for Sue’s Le Juif errant (The wandering Jew) serialization, from June 1844 to July 1845, which raised the newspaper’s circulation from 3600 to 25,000 by 1846.
After this heyday of the roman-feuilleton, its decline was relatively slow; but the “ground floor” lost all importance after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), which few of the largecirculation French newspapers survived.
The feuilleton also flourished in Germany. It is sometimes associated with Christoph Martin Wieland, cofounder of Der Teutsche Merkur (The German Mercury) in 1773, and who edited the newspaper until 1800, after which it declined under K.A.Böttiger. The newspaper ceased publication in 1810. However, the definitive work of Wilmont Haacke, the threevolume Handbuch des Feuilletons (1950–53), regards the feuilleton as simply that aspect of the early newspapers dealing with cultural issues and events, and traces the form proper back to 1740 in France. Its precursor, though, he sees in the German liberal journal known as the Vossische Zeitung (Voss’ newspaper), published from 1683 (formally titled the Berliner Priviligierte Zeitung [The privileged Berliner newspaper] from 1721), which itself had a forerunner in an untitled news sheet of the early 17th century. The German phrase “unterm Strich,” corresponding to the “ground floor” of the French newspapers, has been traced back to the Nürnberger Correspondenten (Nuremberg correspondent) of 1831. Of modern German writers of feuilletons, the best known is Karl Kraus (1874–1936), founding editor of the Viennese satirical journal Die Fackel (1899–1936; The torch).
Klassiker des Feuilletons, edited by Hans Bender, Stuttgart: Reclam, 1965
Wiener Meister-Feuilletons: Von Kürnberger bis Hofmannsthal, edited by Jörg Mauthe, Vienna: Wiener Verlag, 1946
Angenot, Marc, “La Littérature populaire française au dix-neuvième siècle,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 9, no. 3 (1981):307–33
Atkinson, Nora, Eugène Sue et le roman-feuilleton (dissertation), Paris: University of Paris, 1929
Bianchi, Angela, La luce a gas e il feuilleton: Due invenzioni dell’ Ottocento, Naples: Liguori, 1988
Chollet, Roland, “Balzac et le ‘feuilleton littéraire’,” L’Année Balzacienne 5 (1985):71– 106
Eckstein, Ernst, Beiträge zur Geschichte des Feuilletons, Leipzig: Hartknoch, 2 vols., 1876
Gislason, Donald Garth, Castil Blaze, “De l’opéra en France” and the Feuilletons of the “Journal des Débats” (dissertation), Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1992.
Haacke, Wilmont, Feuilletonkunde: Das Feuilleton als literarische und journalistische Gattung, Leipzig: Hiersmann, 1943
Haacke, Wilmont, Julius Rodenburg und die Deutsche Rundschau: Eine Studie zur Publizistik des deutschen Liberalismus (1870–1918), Heidelberg: Vowinckel, 1950
Haacke, Wilmont, Handbuch des Feuilletons, Emsdetten: Lechte, 3 vols., 1950–53
Hallig, Christian, Das Feuilleton der Dresdener Tagespresse von 1864 bis 1880, Borna- Leipzig: Noske, 1933
Jakoby, Ruth, Das Feuilleton des Journal des Débats von 1814 bis 1830, Tübingen: Narr, 1988
Meunier, Ernst, Die Entwicklung des Feuilletons der grossen Presse, Nuremberg: Hilz, 1914
Newby, David Ralph, The Ideology of the Rotnan-Feuilleton in the French Petite Presse, 1875–1885 (dissertation), Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1993
Oscarsson, Ingemar, “Le Feuilleton dans la presse française dans les années 1790 et au début du 196 siècle,” Dix-Huitiéme Siècle 25 (1993):433–56
Peterson, Gunther, Feuilleton und öffentliche Meinung: Zur Theorie einer
Literaturgattung im Kontext mit ihrem Resonanzfeld, Wiesbaden: Flieger, 1992
Picard, Michel, “Pouvoirs du feuilleton, ou D’Artagnan anonyme,” Littérature (May 1983):55–76
Queffelec, Lise, Le Roman-Feuilleton français au XIXe siècle, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1989
Stanitzek, Georg, “Talkshow—Essay—Feuilleton—Philologie,” Weimarer Beiträge 38, no. 4 (1991):506–28
Wildhagen, Andreas, Das politische Feuilleton Ferdinand Kürnbergers: Themen und Technik einer literarischen Kleinform im Zeitalter des deutschen Liberalismus in Österreich, Frankfurton-Main: Lang, 1985
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