A Master of Society: Eugene Sue and the Power of Representation

By Judith Lyon-Caen

The myth of the public intellectual or l’écrivain engagé who derives political power from his literary authority gained enormous traction in the nineteenth century. The case of Eugène Sue allows us to take a closer look at this figure. Indeed the author of Mystères de Paris saw literature as a “poetic representation” of the working classes which would make up for their lack of political representation. After his election to the Assemblée in 1850, Sue was a silent representative of the working classes, unable to speak in public. His socialist supporters began to doubt his candidacy and what increasingly appeared to be an élection romantique deprived of any real political significance. Sue’s disappointing political career allows us to address both the origin and nature of writers’ participation in the public debates of 1848, and also to consider writers apart from their glorious image as “the romanticist Magi”. Sue’s case also reveals that, as early as the mid-1840s, the meaning of writers’ involvement in politics was bitterly debated by Socialists.


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