Afterlives of the Paris Commune: J. Michelle Coghlan on Sensational Internationalism

By J. Michelle Coghlan

Edinburgh University Press published J. Michelle Coghlan’s Sensational Internationalism: The Paris Commune and the Remapping of American Memory in the Long Nineteenth Century this past October 2016. We asked Coghlan to reflect on the origins of this project, as well as the process of writing a book on a moment too often considered a failure.

Sensational Internationalism (Edinburgh UP, October 2016) recovers the now largely forgotten story of the Paris Commune’s spectacular afterlife as specter and spectacle in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century American culture. In putting 1871—and, more particularly, the Paris Commune’s “audacious internationalism”—back on the map of American literary and cultural studies, this book contributes to the conversation begun by the seminal work of Michael Rogin and Larry J. Reynolds to recover the influence of the European uprisings of 1848 on the literary imagination of writers like Emerson and Melville and the literary history of the American Renaissance. Likewise, it builds on more recent work to trace what Anna Brickhouse has termed the lingering “Franco-Africanist shadow” on American literary and cultural history in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. But Sensational Internationalism offers another angle on that story of distant uprisings resounding at home: namely, how a foreign revolution came back to life as a domestic commodity, and why for decades another nation’s memory came to feel so much our own. Chronicling the Commune’s returns across a surprisingly vast and visually striking archive of periodical poems and illustrations, panoramic spectacles, children’s adventure fiction, popular and canonical novels, political pamphlets, avant-garde theater productions, and radical pulp, my book argues that the Commune became, for writers and readers across virtually all classes and political persuasions, a critical locus for re-occupying both radical and mainstream memory of revolution and empire, a key site for negotiating post-bellum gender trouble and regional reconciliation, and a vital terrain for rethinking Paris—and what it meant to be an American there—in U.S. fiction and culture.

A wise friend in grad school once told me that we never really stumble on our projects. Instead, they are forever bound up with the questions we couldn’t get away from if we tried. So like every origin story, this one has at least two beginnings.

In the most direct sense, my book sprang from a single moment in a novel by Henry James, read for a class that I was fortunate to take in my first year of graduate school. In The Ambassadors, James sends his middle-aged hero, Lambert Strether, back to Paris to rescue his soon-to-be stepson from the voluptuous clutches of “the City of Light.” While there, however, it is Strether himself who is dazzled and conquered by it. But on his first day of sightseeing, he stops at the Tuileries gardens and has an equivocal encounter with an unequivocally absent landmark—a tourist-sight that isn’t there. In that empty space before which he stands transfixed, the Tuileries Palace once stood. But the Palace was burned in 1871 during the Paris Commune’s fiery demise, and for fully a decade afterwards, only ruins stood in its stead. Even these have gone by the time of Strether’s visit, so his “historical sense” is awakened in the novel not by the sight of the Palace or its ruins but rather by their resounding absence.

Engraving of the Palais des Tuileries on fire.
Lithographie de Léon Sabatier et Albert Adam pour Paris et ses ruines publié en 1873 – Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris.

Strether’s encounter with the Commune’s aftermath written very literally into the landscape influenced my sense that a novel’s spatial imagination always bears further scrutiny. It also sparked an ongoing interest in the photography of Paris in ruin. That summer, the interest sent me to Parisian archives, and back again the following July to pursue my research further. This early archival work solidified my fascination with the way the Commune shaped Paris and, in particular, Americans’ experience of it, while at home a serendipitous stumble on a series of American adventure fictions of the Commune helped me realize that my interest in the American afterlife of the Commune on this side of the Atlantic was as keen as my investment in the American preoccupation with Paris’ scarred landscape—indeed, that the two were largely inseparable from one another.

But a more circuitous genealogy of my own unrelenting return to the site of the Commune could be traced from another, altogether different trajectory of memory. In this account, my book began to brew from a sight caught many years before from the backseat of a car. My father and I were driving back from Valparaíso—our first trip to Chile together and one of his first returns home since leaving it in the fall of 1973. In a sidelong glance I saw a name spray-painted across a shantytown wall: Allende. For years to come, that sight stayed with me. It forced me to grapple with what it meant, after twenty years of dictatorship under Pinochet, for someone to reach back to that name, and also what it meant for me—as a Chilean-American—that the first democratically elected Socialist in Latin America, Salvador Allende, would be toppled in a brutal military coup backed by the United States (Nixon famously sought to “save Chile” from its own democratic process). In the writing of that name, I read a kind of hope, almost messianic, perhaps misplaced, in this figure then twenty-two years dead, and a dream of a world that the U.S. frankly wasn’t prepared to see happen. No doubt much of my own preoccupation with the Commune lies, then, in its parallels with Allende’s Chile, the mad optimism and aching loss of a moment that dared to be and, in doing so, was utterly crushed. No doubt my interest in the Paris Commune’s American afterlife is bound up in the fact so many Americans were so very invested in seeing the Commune’s suppression, even as they were so oddly preoccupied with returning again and again to the scene of it—because we were grappling, maybe are still grappling, with what it means to be the great harbinger of democracy, but also, quite often, to be less than enthusiastic about democracy abroad in practice. It is, in other words, that great investment in democracy, and the move to crush it in when it suits our purposes, that most haunted me at 16, and certainly still haunts me now.

But there was, of course, another side to both these stories, a side signaled by the talismanic force of that spray painted name: a way of finding not nostalgia and more than hope—indeed, something altogether more insurgent and more sustaining—in a past that could have been remembered simply as a defeat. Or as W.E.B. DuBois pointed out in his seminal re-reading of Reconstruction, there can be something unexpectedly vital in moments otherwise regarded as failures. In also chronicling that other story, my book builds on recent work in American Studies to expand the global dimensions of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century U.S. radicalisms by taking seriously the way the Commune’s sensational presence in print, visual, and performance culture offered pre-Popular Front radicals a foundational blueprint for action and touchstone for internationalist feeling.

J. Michelle Coghlan is lecturer of 19th-Century American Literature and Culture at the University of Manchester. You can email her at or tweet her @JMCoghlan.

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