Engine of Modernity: The Omnibus and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris examines the connection between public transportation and popular culture in nineteenth-century Paris through a focus on the omnibus - a horse-drawn vehicle for mass urban transport which enabled contact across lines of class and gender. A major advancement in urban locomotion, the omnibus generated innovations in social practices by compelling passengers of diverse backgrounds to interact within the vehicle’s close confines. Although the omnibus itself did not actually have an engine, its arrival on the streets of Paris and in the pages of popular literature acted as a motor for a fundamental cultural shift in how people thought about the city, its social life, and its artistic representations. At the intersection of literary criticism and cultural history, Engine of Modernity argues that for nineteenth-century French writers and artists, the omnibus was much more than a mode of transportation. It became a metaphor through which to explore evolving social dynamics of class and gender, meditate on the meaning of progress and change, and reflect on one’s own literary and artistic practices.
This chapter examines specific textual strategies and patterns of representation that make up the common repertoire of the omnibus literature. The corpus examined is an eclectic group of texts that includes works of panoramic literature, conduct manuals, city guides, literary guidebooks, and popular songs. Despite their generic differences, these texts share thematic patterns and features that were developed and recycled across a broad range of works of popular literature spanning the nineteenth century. This chapter also introduces several recurring social types associated with omnibus literature, such as ‘the omnibus flâneur’ (an omniscient first-person narrator-passenger) and characters associated with omnibus labor such as the conductor and the driver, all of which figure in numerous works of popular literature. By analyzing these features of omnibus literature, this chapter brings to the fore some of the central themes of nineteenth-century urban modernity: urban alienation, legibility of urban space, social mobility, anxiety about new technologies and new modes of labor.
Omnibus literature and popular culture in nineteenth-century Paris
This chapter introduces the genre of omnibus literature and places it in the broader cultural context of literary and print culture of the 1830s-50s, the period when popular print culture emerges in France. Omnibus literature comprises works that not only take on this vehicle as a subject or a setting, but also use it as an organizing principle and are characterized by shared formal features, such as episodic narrative, collaborative authorship, and multi-genre texts. The omnibus was thus an “engine of modernity” both as an urban and social innovation, and because it generated innovative modes of writing. Thus, chapter 1 establishes specific ways in which omnibuses provided a literary model for works of popular literature such as Edouard Gourdon’s Physiologie de l’omnibus (1842), Louis Huart’s ‘Les Voitures publiques’ from Nouveau Tableau de Paris au XIXe siècle (1834), Paris-en-omnibus (1856), and the vaudeville play Un omnibus ou la revue en voiture (1828), among others. The narrative form of omnibus literature mirrors the vehicle’s capacity to capture the multiplicity of urban experiences.
This chapter focuses on representations of female passengers and the ways that popular literature and visual culture grappled with gendered perceptions of public spaces. The omnibus was among the few public sites where men and women could legitimately share close quarters without violating rules of propriety. Yet in many documents the omnibus was portrayed as a site of female sexual transgression. The narrow interior of the omnibus encapsulated the tensions and ambiguities surrounding women who were out and about in the city. From young bourgeois maidens flirting with their seatmates to kitchen cooks holding baskets with suggestively spilling produce; from prostitutes soliciting clients to adulteresses giving assignations to lovers; from pregnant women delivering babies to wet nurses exposing their voluminous bosoms, representations of female passengers highlight a profound unease about the collapse of boundaries between public and private spheres, and about women’s newly found visibility and freedom of urban locomotion. In this chapter I offer an analysis of a mythology that linked female omnibus passengers with transgressive sexual behavior in texts by well-known authors like Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant as well as lesser-known writers such as Gourdon and Delors, in addition to works of visual culture.
This chapter considers the omnibus as a central urban site where class relations and class identity were articulated, debated, and contested. Contemporary writers noted that the name omnibus was particularly well-suited to a mode of public transport that was by law open to everyone regardless of class, rank, or social standing. In theory, this vehicle embodied democratic promise, class equality, and French Republican values. Yet a careful analysis of contemporary documents shows that the omnibus was a much more ambivalent class signifier than heretofore believed. While some works hailed it as a symbol of progress and democratic potential, a space in which social distinctions became irrelevant, and all passengers were treated equally, others bemoaned that the omnibus fell short as a vehicle of equality. Finally, some documents reveal a profound anxiety about class mixing aboard the omnibus, which for many symbolized the upending of existing social hierarchies. The omnibus was thus a locus for engaging with both class aspirations and class anxieties. Some urban observers perceived social mobility as a promise, while others saw it as a dangerous challenge to the social order.
The Introduction articulates the book’s main argument about the integral connection between the omnibus and nineteenth-century popular culture, and the privileged place that representations of the omnibus played in the articulation of urban modernity across a wide corpus. The introduction also sketches the history of public transport in nineteenth-century Paris, essential background for the chapters that follow.