The Populist Romance: A Study of Michelet's Le Peuple
and Selected Novels of Hugo, Zola, James, and Galdós

David Allen McMurrey, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin, 1980

Supervising Professor: Richard B. Grant

The romantic view of the common people becomes particularly important in 19th century literature and society with the rise of democracy and popular revolution. While many works toward the middle and late 19th century contain portrayals of the workers and the poor, a few develop or continue a tradition called here the populist romance. This literary populist tradition is analyzed in terms of the following: a sociological dimension—what makes the people socially, morally, and even spiritually better than other social groups; a historical dimension—what leadership role the people will play in history; and a psychological dimension—what leads an individual, usually an individual alien to the people, to see the plebian class in this romantic light and what are the characteristics of this type, called here the romantic populist. This analysis of the populist romance and its elements is developed out of the study of Jules Michelet's Le Peuple, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, several novels from Emile Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart (specifically, Le Ventre de Paris, L'Assommoir, and Germinal), Henry James's The Princess Casamassima, and Benito Pérez Galdós's La Revolución de Julio. The works of Michelet and Hugo mentioned represent two generally similar romantic projections of the populist idea. Out of a collection of ideas resembling the tradition of the "noble savage," Michelet views the peuple as superior: because of their poverty, because of their distance from bourgeois and aristocratic corruptions, and more importantly because of their revolutionary historic destiny, they are less dominated by reason, less materialistic, more in touch with the heart and natural instincts, more sociable and communal in spirit compared to the upper classes. As representatives of what is best in humanity, in Michelet's view, the peuple is the natural, collective leader of the romantic revolutionary process which will overcome oppression, scarcity, and class prejudice, not by violent class struggle but rather by a kind of massive spiritual awakening in which all members of society will lay down their hostilities and enter into a harmonious, edenic new society. This system of ideas, both its sociological and historical aspects, is, however, the product of the unique social and psychological situation of the romantic populist, who is by definition alien to the common people. Out of his guilt over the hard life of the poor, his discontentment with life in his own social milieu, and simple boredom and hunger for the unusual and the exotic, the romantic populist projects his needs and anxieties upon the working-class world and imaginatively creates his own vision of "the people." His subsequent journey to the people is thus his attempt to assuage his guilt and to find regeneration in the plebian world. With certain differences between them, the works of Zola and James mentioned here constitute a realist or ironic rejection of the main elements of the populist romance and a comic, sometimes bitter satire upon the character type of the romantic populist. For these writers, "the people" are no better, and for James, no different, from the other social classes. Both novelists view the romantic populist as woefully, in some cases comically, out of touch with plebian social reality, and popular revolution as dangerous and destructive. Galdós's historical novel, however, attempts to go beyond this rejection, without returning to a naive romanticism, and to renew the tradition of the populist romance. In La Revolución the pueblo becomes the locus of meaning and value in an otherwise absurd, world because of its heroic, Sisyphean struggle to end its subjugation and to improve Spain, despite certain and repeated failure. This late novel of Galdós, with its modernist aura, illustrates the irrepressibility of the populist romance in the 20th century in spite of its repeated ironic dismissal.