in Engine of modernity


This book is about new forms of sociability that emerged in the nineteenth century. It is in large measure to intellectual sociability that it owes its existence. Many colleagues and friends generously contributed to shaping the ideas at the core of this project.

I am grateful to my home institution, the George Washington University and especially to the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences for providing generous funding that made the research and writing of this book possible. I am particularly thankful to deans Eric Arnesen, Yongwu Rong and Ben Vinson III, for their unflagging support for this project over the years. A GW-NHC summer residential fellowship at the National Humanities Center, a magical place that offered much needed physical and mental space for thinking and writing, allowed me to complete the manuscript.

Much of the research for this book was conducted in the graceful reading room of the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris, and I would like to express my deep appreciation of this magnificent space steeped in history, and of its staff and librarians, especially Séverine Montigny and Bérangère de l’Epine for their invaluable help in tracking down obscure omnibus materials, and Yves Chagniot for his help in the reading room. I also want to thank the staff of Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Bibliothèque Fournay and Bibliothèque nationale de France, as well as Gerard Leyris and Vinh Nguyen at the Cabinet des arts graphiques of the Musée Carnavalet, Delphine Meyssard at the Médiatèque RATP and, last but not least, the staff of Bibliothèque de la Maison de Balzac, where a much needed copy of Le Charivari was found at the eleventh hour.

I am thankful to The Den, the Politics and Prose coffee shop, where many a page of this book was written, for providing a warm and hospitable place to work.

I am grateful for invitations to present my work at various symposia: feedback from colleagues sometimes inspired me to explore new directions. In particular, I thank Sarah Kennel for inviting me to give a talk at a symposium on Charles Marville at the National Gallery of Art, and to Carsten Meiner for his gracious invitation to participate in a symposium on Literary History and Topology at the University of Copenhagen.

My sincere gratitude is due to Andrew Smith and Anna Barton, the series editors for Interventions: Rethinking the Nineteenth Century at Manchester University Press, and to Matthew Frost, for their enthusiasm for this project and for shepherding the book through the evaluation process with incomparable grace. I am grateful to Jennifer Solheim, whose expert editing made this book so much more readable.

Many friends and colleagues generously read portions of the manuscript, shared their own work and insights with me and encouraged me along the way. I thank Leah Chang for first suggesting that I could write an entire book on the omnibus and for her insightful comments on early versions of the manuscript. Many thanks to the members of the Washington DC Modern French reading group, who created a warm and encouraging scholarly community and provided valuable feedback on portions of this book: Elise Lipkovitz, Katrin Schultheiss, Kathryn Kleppinger, Chelsea Stieber and Erin Twohig.

My warmest thanks are due to fellow dix-neuvièmistes on both sides of the Atlantic and especially to the participants in the annual Nineteenth-Century French Studies Colloquium, who over the years offered valuable insights and ideas which helped make this book better: Aimee Boutin, Heidi Brevik-Zender, Andrea Goulet, Mary Hunter, Cheryl Krueger, Cathy Nesci, Bill Paulson, Pratima Prasad, Willa Silverman, Kasia Stempniak, Peggy Waller, Alex Wettlaufer, Nick White and many others. Many friends and colleagues shared their omnibus finds with me over the years, and for that I am especially grateful to Elisabeth Emery, Michael Garval and Chapman Wing.

I am very thankful to Janet Beizer for her support over the years and for generous comments on the manuscript. I also offer thanks to Jessica Tanner for her insightful and supportive comments on Chapter 4. Lisa Leff is a dear friend who offered perceptive advice, invaluable feedback on the manuscript and moral support along the way. I thank Lynn Westwater for her friendship, for sharing ‘library writing dates’ with me and for her thoughtful comments on parts of the manuscript. Anne O’Neil-Henry shared her deep knowledge of nineteenth-century popular culture with me, and I am so grateful to her for her perceptive readings of numerous drafts of this book, as well as her collaboration and friendship.

‘Writing Four’ writing group provided much needed structure and motivation at a crucial moment. I could not have written this book without the critical acumen and moral support of its members, whose own brilliant work continues to be an inspiration. I thank Marni Kessler for her insightful comments and suggestions, for teaching me so much about nineteenth-century visual culture and for nudging me to sharpen my prose. Lise Schreier’s astute criticisms helped make this book better. Susan Hiner, a dear friend for the past two decades, read numerous drafts of the book, offered wise council and warm encouragement and has been there for me in countless ways.

Two unforgettable research trips in the company of Rachel Mesch serve as bookends to this project: the first one in 2010, as I was beginning to dive into omnibus literature, and the second one in 2018, as I was putting finishing touches on the manuscript. I am infinitely grateful to her for sharing Paris library adventures with me, for reading countless versions of the manuscript, talking me through many a writing crisis and helping me sharpen my thinking about the material and ideas in this book. Above all, I am grateful for many years of friendship.

I also wish to thank friends and colleagues in Washington, DC, New York, Paris and elsewhere who nourished and sustained me in so many ways: Vered and Nathan Guttman, Margaret Talbot and Arthur Allen, Masha and Robert Levy, Gwyn Isaac and Christian Widmer, Nadya and Tim Bartol, Holly Dugan, Meg Bortin, Carolyn Betensky, Susanna Lee, the Leff family, Gayle Wald, Marina van Zuylen, Johanna Bockman and Andrew Zimmerman.

I offer my warmest thanks to my wonderful family for their unwavering love and support that made the writing of this book possible and even pleasurable: Norma and Stanley Skolnik, Yelena Raben and Bill Hurst, Masha Makovoz and Vadim, Liz and Isaak Goldin and Ira Makovoz. My parents, Nina Raben and Mark Belenky, have been my most stalwart supporters and fans, amazing interlocutors on topics academic and otherwise, incomparable travel companions and a source of unending admiration. My children, Tosha and Sonia, patiently listened to endless omnibus tales, cheerfully accompanied me on research trips and offered good humour, love and a healthy dose of sanity in an otherwise hectic academic life. I offer my deepest thanks to Jonathan Skolnik for his love, his insightful comments on the manuscript, for sharing the vicissitudes of academia with me, for picking up slack on the home front and for making me laugh.

I could not have written this book without the steadfast encouragement of Priscilla Ferguson, who passed away as I was writing these acknowledgements. A brilliant scholar, generous teacher, wise and kind mentor and dear friend, her groundbreaking work on the literature of Paris paved the way for this study, which I hope is in some small measure an homage, however modest, to her innumerable contribution to French studies. Her mark is on every page of this book.

Earlier portions of some chapters derived in part from the following articles: ‘From transit to transitoire: omnibus and modernity’, which appeared in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, 35:2 (2007) and ‘Transitory tales: writing the omnibus in nineteenth-century Paris’, Dix-Neuf, 16:3 (2012). I am grateful to the editors for permission to use this material.

Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from French are my own.

Engine of modernity

The omnibus and urban culture in nineteenth-century Paris


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