A first version of this essay was given as a lecture in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague on August 31, 2006. The University of Pennsylvania Press is planning to publish Les Bohémiens in an English translation by Vivian Folkenflik.

Bohemianism belongs to the Belle Époque. Puccini set it to music and fixed it firmly in late-nineteenth-century Paris. But La Bohème, first performed in 1896, looked back to an earlier era, the pre-Haussmann Paris of Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, first published in 1848. Murger drew on themes that echoed from the Paris of Balzac’s Illusions perdues (first part published in 1837), and Balzac’s imagination stretched back to the ancien régime, where it all began. But how did it begin? The earliest Bohemians inhabited a rich cultural landscape, which has never been explored.

In the eighteenth century, the term Bohémiens generally referred to the inhabitants of Bohemia or, by extension, to Gypsies (Romany), but it had begun to acquire a figurative meaning, which denoted drifters who lived by their wits.1 Many pretended to be men of letters.2 In fact, by 1789, France had developed an enormous population of indigent authors—672 poets alone, according to one contemporary estimate.3 Most of them lived down and out in Paris, surviving as best they could by hackwork and scraps of patronage. Although they crossed paths with grisettes like Manon Lescaut, there was nothing romantic or operatic about their lives. They lived like Rameau’s nephew, not Rameau. Their world was bounded by Grub Street.

Of course, Grub Street, both as an expression and as a milieu, refers to London. The street itself, which ran through the miserable, crime-infested ward of Cripplegate, had attracted hack writers since Elizabethan times. By the eighteenth century, the hacks had moved to other addresses, but Grub Street had become an important milieu in the literary imagination, and it was celebrated in many works of literature—not merely the Grub-Street Journal but masterpieces like The Dunciad by Alexander Pope and The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay.

Did something comparable exist in Paris? Certainly: Paris had an even larger population of scribblers, but they were scattered in garrets throughout the city, not in any distinct neighborhood, and they never dramatized or satirized their lot in works that captured the imagination of posterity.4 True, Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau, Voltaire’s Pauvre Diable, and parts of Rousseau’s Confessions evoked the life of Grub Street, Paris, and Paris’s Scriblerian culture permeates less-known works such as Mercier’s Tableau de Paris.5 Yet not before Balzac and Murger did any writer bring La Bohème to life—no one, that is, except the forgotten author of a lost masterpiece.

I must admit, however, that I may be succumbing here to hyperbole. Having found the book, Les Bohémiens, a two-volume novel published in 1790, I want to believe it is a masterpiece. A sounder assessment would rank it as an extraordinary novel, written with wit and brio, but more important for its picture of literary life under the ancien régime than for its excellence as a work of art.

I also must confess to a case of biographical enthusiasm. Having pieced together the life of its author, I find him one of the most interesting characters I have ever encountered in the archives. Anne Gédéon Lafitte, marquis de Pelleport, was, according to everyone who met him, a scoundrel, a reprobate, a rogue, a thoroughly bad hat. He charmed and seduced wherever he went, and left a trail of misery behind him. He lived miserably himself, because he was disowned by his family and relied on his wits and his pen to escape from destitution. He was an adventurer who spent most of his life on the road. His itinerary led along the routes that connected Grub Street, Paris, with Grub Street, London, and his novel provides a picaresque account of them. So whether or not it qualifies as great literature, it deserves to be studied as a guidebook to a world that lies off the beaten track of sociocultural history.

Grub Street, Paris, had many exits. They led to Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and other cities with Grub Street cultures of their own. When Parisian writers found their careers blocked, they took to the road and sought their fortune wherever they could exploit the fascination with all things French. The largest colony of expatriates existed in London. It included an extraordinary collection of rogues—priests who had run off with girls from their parish, clerks who had escaped with the cash box of their employers, officers who had deserted their regiments after running up gambling debts that they could not pay. Secret agents from the Paris police investigated this milieu in London and produced reports on thirty-nine expatriates—an extraordinary rogues’ gallery, which probably underrepresents their total population. The French refugees picked up tricks from the British press, but they also perfected a genre of their own: the libelle, or libel, a scandalous account of private life among the great figures of the court and capital.


Libels no longer occupy an important place on the literary scene. We don’t need them, because we have tabloid newspapers. But before 1789, the French had virtually no newspapers at all—that is, no papers with news in them, news as we know it now: uncensored stories about politics and public figures. To learn about current events they had to pick up gossip in cafés, consult clandestine manuscript newsletters, or read libels. Libels came in many varieties, everything from pamphlets and chroniques scandaleuses to histories and biographies composed of scandalous anecdotes. In some earlier research, I did a statistical study of literary demand, based on orders for books by booksellers scattered everywhere in France. After reading 50,000 letters, I calculated the number of copies ordered for 720 books that circulated in the highly developed underground trade—that is, outside the censorship and the control of the monopolistic booksellers’ guild. They included many works by Voltaire and Rousseau—in fact, the entire Enlightenment. But of the top fifteen best sellers, five were libels, and more libels appeared everywhere else throughout the retrospective best-seller list. I concluded that a huge literature of libel had permeated French society on the eve of the Revolution, yet virtually all of those books and their authors have now been forgotten. A vast sector of literary history remained to be explored, and the best place to begin seemed to be London.

Most of the French libelers in London had received their basic training as hack writers in the literary underground of Paris and crossed the Channel in order to escape the Bastille. After their arrival, they cobbled together a living by teaching, translating, and providing copy for the English presses that tried to satisfy the demand for illegal literature in France. Thanks to information supplied by contacts in Paris and Versailles, they churned out books and pamphlets that slandered everyone at the top of French society, including the king and his mistresses and ministers. Their works circulated throughout the clandestine book trade in France and sold openly in London, above all in a bookshop in St. James Street operated by a Genevan expatriate named Boissière.6

Of course, libels had existed since antiquity. They proliferated during the Renaissance, thanks to sharp-witted writers like Pietro Aretino. But they looked unusually threatening to the authorities in France during the two decades before the Revolution. By destroying the power of the parlements in 1771, the Maupeou ministry touched off the greatest political crisis since the Fronde of 1648. Calm returned with the accession of Louis XVI in May 1774, but ministerial intrigues and scandals climaxed by the Diamond Necklace Affair of 1785 brought public opinion back to a boil on the eve of the Revolution. Throughout this period, government officials learned to be wary of the power of public opinion—not because they expected anyone to storm the Bastille but because well-placed slander could damage relations within the delicate system of protection and clientage at the heart of politics in Versailles.

A great deal of the slander came from London. One of the first and most notorious libelles, Le Gazetier cuirassé (The Iron-Plated Gazetteer, 1771), was written by the leading libeler in the colony of expatriates, Charles Théveneau de Morande. It took Chancellor Maupeou as its main target and sullied reputations throughout the court and capital with such effect that when Morande announced a sequel, an attack on Mme du Barry entitled Mémoires secrets d’une femme publique (Secret Memoirs of a Call Girl), the government resorted to extreme measures. At first it attempted to kidnap or assassinate him. When that plot failed, it decided to buy him off. It sent France’s greatest expert in intrigues, Beaumarchais, to negotiate; and after a series of baroque subplots worthy of Figaro, Morande agreed to suppress the entire edition for the princely sum of 32,000 livres and an annuity of 4,800 livres. The other libelers soon followed his example. Instead of merely writing to satisfy the demand in France for scandalous literature, the expatriates transformed the manufacture of libels into a blackmail industry. Morande retired from the field, taking up an even more lucrative career as a spy for the French government, which gave him an opportunity to denounce his former colleagues.

Morande’s main successor was Pelleport, an equally unscrupulous but far more talented writer. Using the bookseller Boissière as a middleman, he invited the French government to bid on a series of libels, which he promised to destroy if the price were right. They included Les Passe-temps d’Antoinette, an account of the Queen’s sex life; Les Amours du visir de Vergennes, a similar attack on the foreign minister; and Les Petits Soupers et les nuits de l’Hôtel Bouillon, revelations about orgies conducted by the princesse de Bouillon and her servants with her sometime partner, the marquis de Castries, France’s naval minister during the American war.


The French authorities negotiated through a secret agent from the Paris police named Receveur, who disguised himself, not very convincingly, as an Alsatian baron. The bidding got up to 3,600 livres, the equivalent of ten years’ wages for an unskilled laborer. But Pelleport held out for 4,200 livres. Receveur was not authorized to go that high; so he finally returned to Paris, confounded by his inability to cope with the tricks of the libelers (they led him on a merry chase through pubs and bookshops) and the customs of the English (they spoke an impossible language and had strange notions such as habeas corpus, trial by jury, and freedom of the press).

Pelleport then proceeded to market Les Petits Soupers and followed it up with a far more damaging work, Le Diable dans un bénitier (The Devil in the Holy Water), a libel about the mission to suppress libels. While avoiding names and compromising information, Pelleport celebrated the expatriate writers as champions of liberty and mocked Receveur and his superiors as agents of despotism who had attempted to establish a secret branch of the Parisian police in London. The cast of villains included the lieutenant general of police in Paris, the most powerful ministers in Versailles, and their main undercover agent in London: Morande.

Morande triumphed in the end, however, because, with the help of the French ambassador, he designed a trap to lure Pelleport to Boulogne-sur-Mer, where Pelleport hoped to speculate on a clandestine publishing scheme. As soon as he set foot in Boulogne, Pelleport was arrested and whisked off to the Bastille. On July 12, 1784, a day after he was locked up, the police also imprisoned his close friend Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, the future leader of the Girondists during the French Revolution. Brissot had joined the expatriates in London, where he attempted to found a philosophic club, or Licée, but the police suspected him of collaborating with Pelleport.

Brissot remained in the Bastille for four months, Pelleport for four years, an unusually long term. He was released on October 3, 1788, only because new ministers had come into power with new concerns—above all, the preparation of the Estates General. While Brissot went on to become one of the leaders of the French Revolution, Pelleport disappeared into obscurity. He has remained there ever since and so has his novel. No scholar has devoted even a minor article to Les Bohémiens—with one exception. In the Bulletin du bibliophile of 1851, Paul Lacroix, an authority on eighteenth-century French literature, wrote a brief notice about Les Bohémiens, which he described as follows:

Here is an admirable and an abominable book. Thanks to its wit and its verve, to the prodigious talent one is astonished to find deployed in it, it deserves a place next to the novels of Voltaire and Diderot. But it also deserves a place next to the infamous works of the marquis de Sade…. Once this remarkable work has attracted the attention of connoisseurs, it will certainly be sought after avidly.

But by then nearly every copy had vanished. I have been able to locate only six of them, in six different countries. Les Bohémiens is a major work of literature that has been completely lost to literary history.

Pelleport wrote it in the Bastille. The archives of the Bastille prove that he was provided with a pen, ink, and paper; and they include some information about his behavior in prison. He requested books, including works by Voltaire and Raynal, an essay on Prussian military tactics, and a treatise on the harpsichord. The police confiscated some of the letters that he wrote from his cell. One, addressed to a friend named Lambert, indicates that he had made an attempt to escape: “I threw the rope out each time that you came, but apparently it did not reach all the way to the ground….” Another shows that he had contemplated suicide: “I have not yet decided… whether I will put a quick end to my life.” And a third, which included some poetry, compares prisoners in the Bastille to “unfortunate Indians and miserable African slaves…. It is better to dance to the noise of your chains than to chew in vain on the ties that bind you.”

Most of the forty-two cells in the Bastille were empty during those four years, but Pelleport had some interesting neighbors, including two writers. One, Jean-Claude Fini, also incarcerated for libeling in London, knew Pelleport well and described him as a “swindler,” a “monster,” and

a disciple of Diagoras [the atheistic philosopher from the fifth century BC], who, when you ask him about the primary cause that rules the universe, replies with an ironic smile and makes the sign of a zero, which he calls his profession of faith.

The other writer was also a marquis, whose time in the Bastille coincided almost exactly with Pelleport’s, and who also was scribbling away in his cell: the marquis de Sade.

Two marquis from the ancient feudal nobility writing libertine novels at the same time in the same prison: it puts Pelleport’s case in a certain perspective. Although they occupied separate cells, prisoners in the Bastille had contact with one another—in the prison yard, where they often took walks, or in the chapel, where they sometimes left notes for one another. Some of them played together at cards, chess, and even billiards in 1788. I have no proof that Sade and Pelleport ever met, but I think it very likely. I find a Sadean strain in Les Bohémiens—but with a difference: Pelleport’s novel is far better written than Les 120 Journées de Sodome.

Les Bohémiens is an erotic adventure story, a bildungsroman, a picaresque tale, a libertine treatise, an anticlerical tract, a collection of philosophical essays, and an autobiography, all at once. Because it is also a roman à clef, one needs to know something about Pelleport’s life and circumstances to appreciate it. A police report, which dates from some time before his arrest in 1784, provides information about his origins:

He is the son of a gentleman [in the household of Monsieur, the king’s brother]. He was expelled from two regiments in which he served, Beauce and Isle-de-France in India, and was imprisoned four or five times at the request of his family for dishonorable atrocities. He spent two years wandering through Switzerland, where he got married and got to know Brissot de Warville. He was a student at the École militaire, not the best one it ever turned out.

Some additional material culled from other sources fills out the picture. According to a summary of Pelleport’s dossier in the archives of the Bastille, he was born in Stenay, a small town near Verdun. When he moved to Switzerland in the late 1770s, he married a chambermaid to the wife of Pierre-Alexandre DuPeyrou, Rousseau’s protector in Neuchâtel. They settled in the Jura mountain town of Le Locle, where she bore him at least two children and he found employment as a tutor in the household of a local manufacturer. By 1783, Pelleport had abandoned his family in order to seek his fortune in London. That led to libeling and the four years in the Bastille.

When at last he was freed, Pelleport joined his relatives in Stenay, then returned to Paris just in time to witness his former captors being lynched by the crowd on July 14. He tried to save de Losme, the major of the Bastille who had treated him kindly, but the crowd turned on him and he barely escaped with his life. That exposure to street violence may have deterred Pelleport from throwing in his lot with the revolutionaries. He disappeared from view after July 14, and when he produced something for the press during the next few months, it was a bizarre, anonymous novel that had no relevance to the great events of 1789.7

No direct relevance. But Les Bohémiens has an antihero, none other than Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who appears in the first chapter as its main protagonist: “Bissot” (the “sot” suggesting stupidity), a harebrained, flea-bitten philosopher. After being mocked throughout the text for his dogmatic absurdities, he reappears at the end as a bone-headed old-clothes dealer in London named “Bissoto de Guerreville” (a pun on Brissot’s full name, Brissot de Warville). Having drafted the text during his long stay in the Bastille, Pelleport may have published it in 1790 in order to undercut Brissot’s growing power as editor of Le Patriote français and champion of the left.

But there is no reason to suspect that Pelleport had any sympathies with the right. The novel had no overtly political message, and it condemned many of the injustices in pre-1789 France. Pelleport probably published it for the same reasons that move other authors—in order to see it in print and to make some money. But why did he harbor so much hostility toward Brissot? While being interrogated in the Bastille, Brissot tried to clear his name and persuade the police to release him, by informing them of Pelleport’s activities as a libeler. Pelleport’s sense that he had been betrayed probably explains the circumstances and even some of the passion behind Les Bohémiens.

Pelleport’s Bohemians do not yet have an “ism” attached to them, but they are not simply gypsies or vagabonds, as in the earlier usage of the word. Pelleport plays on that association, because he describes them as a troupe of drifters who wander across northern France, living off the land—for the most part by stealing chickens from peasants. Along the way they pick up Bissot, who fits right in, because the Bohemians are marginal men of letters, the very same Grub Street characters who had collaborated with Pelleport and Brissot among the French expatriates in London.

Instead of appearing in a relatively favorable light, as in The Devil in the Holy Water, they now are pictured as a pack of rogues. They deliver endless philosophic harangues, one more absurd than the other, bawl and brawl like schoolchildren, and pause only to gobble up whatever they can poach from the barnyards along their route. Pelleport disguises their names and even changes the disguises, so the characters reappear under different pseudonyms as the scene shifts and the narrator leads the reader through a succession of extravagant episodes.

The narrator also interrupts the action by stepping out of the story and addressing the reader directly, sometimes with comments on the action, sometimes with digressions, sometimes even with a dialogue in which reader and narrator match wits, disagree, quarrel, and make up. The digressions account for more than half the text. They are essays on all sorts of subjects, whatever suits the narrator’s fancy—travel, military tactics, poverty, women, and especially the hard lot of authors. The principal author is the narrator himself, an anonymous voice in the first-person singular. His last digression turns into a full-fledged autobiography, which gives him an opportunity to insert himself into the action under a disguise of his own—he is a wandering poet just released from the Bastille—and to bring the book to an end, though hardly to closure, by joining the Bohemians for a meal in his favorite tavern in Stenay, the town where he was born.

Full of lively prose, parody, dialogue, double entendre, humor, irreligion, social commentary, outrageous incidents, and obscene acts (but no vulgar language), Les Bohémiens is a tour de force. In style and tone it evokes Don Quixote, which Pelleport cites as a main source of inspiration. But it also bears comparison with Jacques le fataliste (which Pelleport could not have read because it was not published until 1796), Candide, Gil Blas, Le Compère Matthieu, and Tristram Shandy. When Pelleport suspends his satire of contemporary philosophers and reveals his own allegiance, he pays tribute to a thinker whose ideas might seem to be incompatible with the libertine tone of the book: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Thou who dared to desire equality reestablished on earth, virtuous citizen of despicable Geneva, thou who dared unveil to men the secret of their tyrants, receive the incense that I shall burn on your altar, and from the vault of heaven, guide my steps and my sentiments.

A paraphrase of Rousseau’s declamation against property in the Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité follows this confession of faith, but then it is followed by more ribaldry and social satire. The narrator’s Rousseauism turns out to be strangely Rabelaisian, miles apart from the gushy enthusiasm of Bissot. Bissot, however, like all the other philosophers, proclaims elevated principles and lives by stealing livestock from peasants. The narrator contrasts this hypocrisy unfavorably with the anti-philosophy of the donkey who carries the baggage of the troupe: riénisme (“nothingism”), as he calls it, which consists of rejecting all systems of thought while satisfying one’s appetite.8 The pursuit of pleasure, unimpeded by social constraints, stands out amid all the pontificating as the only value worth pursuing.

In that respect, despite their pretentiousness and hypocrisy, the Bohemians represent something positive. Their president describes them as “a troupe of persons who lack neither appetite nor gaiety” when he introduces them to Bissot. They devote themselves to

free and delightful liberty…. This it is that has brought us together from every corner of Europe. We are its priests, and its cult can be reduced to the principle of not impeding others.9

The Bohemians share an attitude rather than a philosophy. They take a stance toward the world that already looks like bohemianism.

Sex is a vital part of it—literally, because Pelleport describes sexual desire as a vitalistic force that courses through nature, something comparable to electricity, friction, fire, and phlogiston. He releases this force in the most Sadean episode of the novel, a nighttime encounter between the Bohemians and a band of monks, who enter the narrative as if from some libidinal underworld. Ostensibly on a pilgrimage, they wander through the countryside just as the Bohemians do, plundering from peasants. At first the Bohemians take them to be satanic creatures celebrating a witches’ sabbath but soon realize that they are fellow spirits intent on debauchery. The two troupes join forces and settle down for a feast around a fire. They guzzle and gorge themselves into a stupor, wake up, and start to copulate—in twos and threes, then as heaps of bodies piled up and linked together in nearly all the combinations celebrated in the libertine literature of the eighteenth century, Sade included.

The polymorphous perversion degenerates into a brawl. Fists fly, noses splatter, blood flows everywhere along with muck and fluids discharged from numerous orifices. The donkey leaps into the fray, braying and flailing about deliriously. It is a Dionysian donnybrook, worthy of the best punch-ups described by Rabelais and Cervantes.10 As dawn appears, the rioters stop for breakfast. They enjoy another hearty meal together, then go their separate ways. A good time was had by all.

Les Bohémiens is also, among other things, a book about literature, literature understood broadly as a system of money, power, and prestige. Speaking through his narrator, Pelleport views the system from the perspective of Grub Street. To his regret, he explains, he has no powerful connections and therefore cannot find a patron. So he must try to live from his pen. In one of his many asides to the reader, he asks:

Have you ever been printed alive [tout vif]), my dear reader? Under pressure from your baker and your tavern-keeper, have you pounded the pavement, in shoes without soles, to the shops where rag-and-bone men, merchants who deal in writing, flog the thoughts of the wretches who are reduced by misfortune to making a living by dreaming?

Then he turns on the reader and accuses him (not her, judging from the context) of living in luxury, thanks to dubious maneuvers within some business or bureaucracy, while the poor author starves. Very well, then, reader, he says: let me tell you what it is like to live as an author who lacks independent resources. You walk into the office of an important publisher, Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, clutching your portfolio. Would Monsieur be interested in some verse about a recently deceased great man or perhaps a novel in two volumes (that is, Les Bohémiens)? It won’t sell, Panckoucke replies, and waves you to the door: he can’t find time to talk with the likes of you; he has to catch up on his correspondence.

So you drag your manuscripts to a publisher of the second rank, Nicholas- Augustin Delalain. His daughter greets you politely in the bookshop; but when she learns you are an author, not a customer, she turns you over to her mother, in order to spare papa from wasting his time. Maman won’t even look at the poems: she has already rejected three dozen batches of verse this morning. And when you offer her your “philosophical novel” (again, Les Bohémiens), she falls into a fury and runs you out of the office.11

The only remaining hope is a dealer at the very bottom of the trade, Edme-Marie-Pierre Desauges, a specialist in hackworks and forbidden literature who has already spent two terms in the Bastille. He finds your work excellent, just the thing that he can sell through his contacts in Holland. You return to your garret, overjoyed. Your landlord, baker, and wine supplier agree to extend more credit. You scribble away, adding last touches to your manuscript, until late at night.

When at last you have collapsed in bed, there is a knock at the door. In comes a police inspector accompanied by the dread undercover agent Receveur, the antihero of The Devil in the Holy Water; out you go straight to the Bastille. While you rot in prison, Desauges, who has had your manuscripts copied after denouncing you to the police, prints your book and sells it through the underground. Your hunger verges on starvation; your health gives out; and when at last you are released, you have no choice but to turn yourself in to the poorhouse (Hôtel-Dieu) and die.12 The picture is overdrawn, like one of Hogarth’s caricatures that Pelleport probably saw in London, but every detail, including the names of the booksellers, corresponds to the realities of Grub Street, Paris.

In a similar digression, the narrator picks a quarrel with the reader. I know you are tired of digressions, he says. You want to get back to the narrative. You want action, but I won’t give it to you, because you should learn something about what went into the very book you are holding in your hands. You should acquire some knowledge of the literary marketplace. So here is another digression. Books have plenty of readers but not buyers. The ratio is roughly ten to one. One person may be willing to part with some change for a book, but ten or more borrow it or steal it and pass it around in ever-widening circles: from masters to lackeys, mistresses to chambermaids, parents to children, neighbors to neighbors, and booksellers to subscribers in reading clubs (cabinets littéraires)—all at the expense of the author. The situation is hopeless—unless the king were to deliver an edict that would transform the basic conditions of literature. For example, he could issue a decree with a long preamble about the importance of authors and a series of articles, beginning with the following two:

  1. No book may be loaned, except within families and then only as far in the collateral line as first cousins, subject to a penalty of 500 livres to be paid to the author.
  2. No servants may pass around their masters’ books, subject to a penalty of a year’s wages or, failing that, physical punishment: they will be branded on the left ear with the letters PDL for prêteur de livres [loaner of books] and whipped in front of all the bookshops in the town.

Pending such a measure, Pelleport proposes a temporary solution: price fixing. This same book, the one that you are now reading, must be sold only in a fine binding and at a high price, which is to be maintained for the benefit of its author. The publisher is therefore forbidden to sell it in sheets, boards, or paper coverings. The digression ends with a remark delivered directly at the reader, who is deemed to demand that the author get on with the story:

Your impatience is getting out of hand, but before giving in to you, it was only just that I looked after my own interests. Every man for himself. No, I won’t be a martyr to some ridiculous selflessness and neglect my own business. I do go on a bit about myself, I admit, but what author forgets himself while writing?

In fact, of course, the author has inserted himself in the narrative throughout the book. The digressions reinforce that tendency by showing how the author’s autobiography bears on the condition of literature in general—and how the reader is complicit in perpetuating that condition.

Did readers actually respond in the way called for by the text? Probably not, because the text had so few readers—next to none, judging by the number of copies that have survived and the lack of reviews and references in contemporary sources. The publication of Les Bohémiens was a non-event situated at the heart of the most eventful period of French history. Even if a few copies made it into the hands of readers, they can hardly have provoked much of a reaction. The French in 1790 were creating a brave new world and doing so in deadly earnest. They had no reason to be interested in a satirical account of life in a republic of letters that no longer existed. Pelleport’s novel was out of date before its publication. Pelleport himself was out of tune with his times. While his contemporaries threw themselves passionately into the Revolution, he stood apart and looked upon the world from a perspective that combined disenchantment with derision—or “nothingism.” Yet he deployed a prodigious talent when he evoked the life of Grub Street under the ancien régime. Seen from the twenty-first century, his novel looks extraordinarily modern, and his Bohemians appear as the first full embodiment of bohemianism.

This Issue

April 3, 2008