Romanticism in the Gutter_NASSR 2010_Kirstyn Leuner by 5Wyc9c19


									Kirstyn Leuner
Ph.D. Candidate, Univ. of Colorado, Boulder
Abstract for “Romantic Mediations” NASSR Conference

                            Romantic Imagination in the Gutter:
      Töpffer’s Histoire de Mr. Vieux Bois, the Picturesque, and the History of Comics

Genevan artist, essayist, and schoolteacher Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) completed his first
graphic story, Histoire de Mr. Vieux Bois, in 1827, and arguably invented the pictorial narrative
genre of comics. Vieux Bois satirizes William Gilpin’s notion of the picturesque and parodies
Radcliffean gothic novels in a manner that recalls Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Töpffer’s
histoire en estampe (picture story) also proffers a new literary medium that changes pre-
established notions of text and image in the Romantic period, and suggests a reexamination of
the Romantic imagination and its relationship to genre.
        This paper argues that the long comics tradition that Töpffer helps initiate has roots in the
Romantic period and its conception of the imagination as that which mediates between the text
and its meaning. My research builds upon the scholarly work of David Kunzle, Thierry
Groensteen, Benoît Peeters, and Philippe Willems’ writing on Töpffer’s place in the Romantic
literary canon. As a study dedicated to Töpffer’s earliest histoire en estampe and its implications
for Romanticism, this paper will begin to provide the close critical analysis that his work merits,
and that previous examinations of his corpus have yet to undertake.
        Vieux Bois employs elements of the picturesque to critique that very same artistic
discipline. The plot follows the male protagonist, Mr. Vieux Bois, as he pursues an elusive yet
exhaustingly passive female called “l’objet aimé” (the beloved object) through a gauntlet of
improbable events and obstacles—such as attempted murders, escapes, imprisonment by monks,
botched suicides, and near drownings—in order to defeat her rival suitor and marry her. The
story of Vieux Bois’ quest for l’objet aimé lampoons the traveler’s quest for the picturesque
object—which Gilpin personifies as a female and that captivated writers’ imaginations and filled
tourists’ sketch pads and journals in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
        However thoroughly Töpffer mocks the picturesque with his tale, his graphic style
consciously relies upon Gilpin’s principles. The Genevan author drew panels with intentionally
ragged frames, wrote accompanying text in free-hand, privileged roughness and spontaneity over
meticulous detail, and invented a printing method that retained this vital sketchiness. He even
opened the 1837 version of Vieux Bois with a panel shaped like a Claude mirror. Moreover, like
Gilpin, Töpffer intentionally left blank spaces on the page to force his readers to do imaginative
work in order to create meaning. His first work demonstrated the primacy and usefulness of
Gilpin’s picturesque principles to such an extent that Töpffer continued to use this style to
compose the rest of his seven picture novels until the end of his career. The mediating absences
in Vieux Bois—the lack of a complete textual or pictorial narrative, the want for detail, and the
bodies that literally leap out of their frames—ask the imagination to work on the page in ways
that no other Romantic text had before.

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