So hangs it, dubious, fateful, in the sultry days of July. It is the passionate printed advice of M. Marat, to abstain, of all things, from violence. Nevertheless the hungry poor are already burning Town Barriers, where Tribute on eatables is levied; getting clamorous for food.
—Thomas Carlyle, History of the French Revolution
The old saw that “an army marches on its belly” was blunted on July 14, 1789, as a half-starved, bibulous mob overran the walls of the Bastille, the Bourbon kings’ infamous political prison-turned-armory. Leaders of the rabble were more excited about hoarding gunpowder and fusils than about liberating the prison’s seven remaining, apparently apolitical inmates. Over the next two centuries, La Fête Nationale (or simply “le quatorze Juillet”) has metastasized from a Gallic celebration of freedom to a worldwide excuse for holding a multiday anarchic party, ideally with decent wine and minimal casualties.
Modern tradition begain in 1880, two years after the June feast that Monet captured in his painting of the Rue Montorgueil (above). For a century, Paris civic leaders have insisted that the annual military parade down the Champs d’Élysée is the oldest and most populous of its kind in Europe, a claim the Belgians have yet to dispute. Besides the march itself, denizens of France’s capital can enjoy the Patrouille de France, a grandly choreographed fighter-jet extravaganza and an opportunity for France’s superior air force to show up the Italians’ airborne colors from the Festa della Repubblica, held each June.
But France’s ministry of culture is also responsible for establishing fêtes in such far-flung cities as Budapest, Hungary; Auckland, New Zealand; and Franschhoek, South Africa. Most major American cities offer some version of a Bastille Day tradition. Baltimore and New Orleans boast impressive parades and extravagant outdoor drinking. Citizens of Milwaukee are especially lucky on this score: beginning in 1982, the city has celebrated le quatorze for four days straight. (American renditions of Bastille Day have a pleasant confusion about them; Milwaukee hypes its parade down Kilbourn Avenue by dangling beads before us: “… Thousands of beads will make all Francophiles in attendance think they’re in Nawlins!” What day is it again?)
Those less stirred by beer and beads still have books, and we happen to think that the quatorze is an important day to catch up on your francophilia. Herewith, our (slightly belated) required reading for Bastille Day:
1. William Wordsworth, The Prelude.
…it was a reservoir of guilt
And ignorance, filled up from age to age,
That could no longer hold its loathsome charge,
But burst and spread in deluge through the land.
(Book X, 436–39)
A proponent of freedom who loathed Robespierre, Wordsworth was also a total deadbeat expat who knocked up his French mistress, got antsy about the reign of terror, and hastened home to the Lake District leaving his French family with a pittance. Now that we’ve gotten the ugly stuff out of the way, know that the Prelude is very beautiful, and that book X is rich with considered ambivalence toward revolutionary programs. A delightful poet! A total heel!
2. A fifteen days’ tour to Paris; … By an English gentleman of veracity, just returned. To which is added, by another hand, a faithful description of every part of that once dreadful engine of despotism, the Bastille: … written originally in French, by one who was many years a miserable inhabitant.
A raucously verbose twofer, in which an anonymous Englishman and a “miserable” Frenchmen offer two very different accounts of the Revolution’s early days. (Good luck finding this one outside of facsimiles and microfiches in university libraries.)
3. Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History.
Carlyle’s history bubbles over with brilliance. He attends to the suffering of individuals with the baleful earnestness of James Agee, during a period when the very notion of the individual (as in all revolutions) becomes politically perilous:
Masses indeed: and yet, singular to say, if, with an effort of imagination, thou follow them, over broad France, into their clay hovels, into their garrets and hutches, the masses consist all of units. Every unit of whom has his own heart and sorrows; stands covered there with his own skin, and if you prick him, he will bleed. (Book I)
The palpable pulse in Carlyle’s tome, suitable indeed for such a bloody subject, makes the volume a gripper, as do the peculiar circumstances in which Carlyle was forced to compose and then reconstruct his opus. From an uncredited “Note on the Author” in the first Modern Library edition of Carlyle (1934):
His ghastly experience with the manuscript of The French Revolution was in itself enough to embitter his outlook on life. Having finished the first volume of his work, he entrusted the only copy of the manuscript to J.S. Mill for comment and annotation. By an accident, it was burned. Carlyle thereupon set to work and rewrote the entire history, achieving what he described as a book that came ‘direct and flamingly from the heart.’
There is something maddeningly humorous in this deadpan passage; any student working under deadline, or any professor waiting for an essay to reach his mailbox, can find heartbreaking hilarity in the matter-of-fact “By an accident, it was burned”—not only because it sounds like so much “dog ate my thesis” but because it’s the sort of thing that actually happens in both scholarship and history. In this sense, Carlyle’s final manuscript, the one we read today, was itself an act of resurrection in more ways than one: an historical reclamation, and a neat bit of literary necromancy.
(N.b.: Never lend a book to J. S. Mill.)
4. Jeremy D. Popkin, A Short History of the French Revolution.
Much like Carlyle, but roughly eight times shorter. Recommended for those who distrust large objects and/or Victorian prose.
5. Dickens on France, edited by John Edmonson (2006).
Edmonson describes Dickens’s “early affection for France and an instinctive affinity with French life and culture.” Dickens visited France over twenty times, six of which were lengthy sojourns. Dickens often joked that he was more French than English, which would explain why Hard Times is such a bummer. Dickens on France comprises extracts from Little Dorrit, Pictures from Italy, Somebody’s Luggage, Dombey & Son, and, of course, A Tale of Two Cities, which might seem like promising Bastille Day reading but really we’d prefer if you read it on Idaho Human Rights Day (January 21).
6. Héloïse Bocher, Démolir la Bastille : l’édification d’un lieu de mémoire.
Bocher, a scholar at the Institut d’Histoire de la Révolution française, tells the fascinating tale of the thousand workers who spent “two long years” pulling down the walls and tours of this “symbol of the old régime, of its biased justice and its arbitrary practices.” Once the Bastille was gone, Bocher argues, the ground on which it stood became consecrated to “Parisian sociability,” a “place of memory” on which the New France could forge an identity. Bocher’s volume is also in French, but the paperback is very discreet and fits nicely inside the larger books on this list. Démolir: enjoy without scaring your xenophobe friends!
7. George Plimpton.
You know who used to throw a kick-ass Bastille Day party? None other than the founding editor of this very magazine. In George Being George, an oral history edited by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., Felix Grucci Jr. recounts the origin of Plimpton’s pyrotechnical enthusiasms:
Our family came to know George when he used to drive out to the Hamptons during the summers in the early 1960s and stopped off at my father’s fireworks factory in Bellport … Eventually it grew to the point where George—this was when he lived in Wainscott—would have us to his Bastille Day party, and we brought a little fireworks show, a little one, just a tiny backyard fireworks show … But over the years it became a mammoth firework show in the potato fields behind his house. So much so that the municipality said to George, “You can’t do this anymore.”
By the late seventies, Plimpton had made peace with various municipal authorities, and the city of New York named him “honorary fire commissioner” (which is like asking Snoop Dogg to helm D.A.R.E.) In 1979, People Magazine filed a lively report about Plimpton’s Bastille parties after Plimpton became the first American to win first place at the Monte Carlo International Fireworks Festival:
At George Plimpton’s Bastille Day fireworks blast in July an errant comet cracker came whizzing out of the fog, dive-bombed guests like Candice Bergen, Norman Mailer and William Paley and sent two celebrants to the hospital emergency room.
… the best thing about the site, at least on the day before the Fourth of July, is that you can go there, click on a photograph of Plimpton dressed in what looks like a parody of a sea captain’s uniform, and hear the sound of fireworks going boom, boom, boom. Go do it, right now. It’s weirdly addictive.
We’ll give you five minutes to get it out of your system.
[une pause café]
8. Anna Letitia Barbauld, “Lines to Samuel Rogers in Wales on the Eve of Bastille Day, 1791.”
Think, when woods of brownest shades
Open bright to sunny glades;
Such the gloom, and such the light,
Of Freedom’s noon, and Slavery’s night. (13–16)
9. Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad.
“That first night on French soil was a stirring one … The spirit of the country was upon us.” These lines ring hollow, like the Bastille armory emptied of its treasures. Twain’s general misanthropy extends with special vigor to the French, whose sense of humor Twain finds wanting: “I had always thought that Frenchmen were ready to laugh at anything,” he writes, defeated. From this we can deduce that Huckleberry Finn did not sell well enough in France to mollify the gentleman from West Hartford.
10. Guillaume Apollinaire, Calligrammes.
Apollin- aire, qui
a écrit des poèmes qui
ont fait des desseins
(un espèce de libération typographique)
[Translation: “You should read the Calligrammes of Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote poems that painted pictures (a sort of typographical liberation).” Ed. note: we believe the calligramme above is meant to represent the Eiffel Tower, though to us it looks like a dying Christmas tree.]
Read and celebrate with moderation! As Crane Brinton wrote in Anatomy of a Revolution, “three days is a long time to be angry, or drunk, or both.”
Ted Scheinman is a doctoral candidate and culture reporter based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His essays, reporting, and criticism have appeared in Slate, the Oxford American, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. Follow him on twitter at @Ted_Scheinman.