Reading and French Masculinity at the Fin de Siècle
Principal Investigator: François Proulx, Assistant Professor of French
Grant Program: Fellowships for University Teachers
"Today we are often told that teenagers spend too much time on their smartphones, playing video games, or watching television. But in the late nineteenth century, before the advent of film or radio, it was print media—especially fiction—that adolescents turned to for information, escapism and entertainment. Social commentators then wondered (as they do now about newer media): what effect did this massive consumption of print have on young people’s development? In France, that question became linked to broader anxieties about perceived national decline, in the wake of military defeat against Prussia (1870) and social trends like falling birthrates. Many observers reached a startling conclusion: French male adolescents were reading too much, and their overconsumption of literature made them sexually deviant and less economically productive. While historians have often studied nineteenth-century debates about women readers in France and elsewhere, this NEH-funded project is the first to examine why young male readers came to be described as a social problem. It investigates how a significant number of writers responded: by writing novels that, paradoxically, warned adolescent readers about the dangers of reading."