Eugene Sue : Champion of the Oppressed

Eugene Sue : Champion of the Oppressed

THE PEOPLE JAN-FEB 2004 VOL. 113 NO. 5

EUGENE SUE : Champion of Workers

Eugene Sue was a 19th-century novelist whose best known works are The Mysteries of Paris and The Wandering Jew. Sue considered himself a Socialist, and although Karl Marx regarded him as a sentimentalist and deplored his election to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1850, Marx nonetheless conceded Sue's sincerity, the proletarian quality of his novels and readily acknowledged his great popularity with the working class of Paris.

Sue was born in Paris 200 years ago, on Jan. 20, 1804. Although his understanding of modern socialism was far from perfect, he was unquestionably a great champion of the French working class. His popularity with French workers was established by the two novels mentioned, both of which were serialized in Parisian newspapers before they were printed in book form.

According to a brief biography of Sue that appeared in the Daily People, March 29, 1908, the first of these novels was so popular that "When a Paris newspaper...announced that the author of The Mysteries of Paris was at work on a story for them, the circulation of the paper increased by nine to ten thousand daily. George Sand said she would not miss one installment. That the rest of Paris felt the same way is borne out by the fact that the newspapers often were not sold but rented at ten sous a half hour -- the time required to read the daily installment."

However, it is a lesser known work by Sue -- The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages -- that wins for him an enduring fame.

Although The Mysteries of the People is a work of fiction, it is historically accurate in what it depicts. The 13 stories in 21 volumes that make up the complete work provide their readers with a panoramic overview of social development without parallel. It is by far the best work ever written for giving the working class reader an intimate picture of society as it evolved in France from the days of Gaul, before the Roman conquest, to the middle of the 19th century. It is especially valuable for the picture that it provides of the various phases of feudal society, and the growth of infant capitalism within the feudal womb.

Daniel De Leon, with the assistance of his eldest son, Solon, translated The Mysteries of the People over several years and serialized them in the Daily People. Subsequently, the Socialist Labor Party brought out two editions of the work through its publishing agency, the New York Labor News. The original 21-volume edition and individual titles from the series -- especially The Silver Cross -- were reprinted a number of times. A second edition, complete in three stout volumes, was brought out in 1923. Regrettably, however, Sue's greatest work has long been out of print, and the important project of getting out a new edition has been delayed for many years by a succession of obstacles, chiefly financial.

In spite of his shortcomings as a Socialist, Sue has always been honored by freedom-seeking workers who have some knowledge of his works, and for the same reason he has always been hated by the ruling class and its agents, lay and clerical. Indeed, The Mysteries of the People was condemned by the Court of Paris as "immoral and seditious." A capitalist literary critic once wrote: "His [Sue's] work in this spirit consists of long novels printed in cheap newspapers but winning such a hold on the masses, and so swaying public opinion, that the government actually ought to check or divert his activity." But Sue was too popular with the people of Paris and the government was afraid to silence him.

Daniel De Leon understood Sue's deficiency as a Socialist and as a writer. "Eugene Sue was not a Socialist," he wrote to one correspondent. "Look up Chap. IV. of the Eighteenth Brumaire. Eugene Sue is mentioned there. The connection in which his name occurs shows exactly his shade of radicalism." (Daily People, Jan. 12, 1902)

Two years later, in reply to another correspondent, De Leon explained some of the deficiencies of The Mysteries of the People, but also its strengths and why he had undertaken the monumental task of translating it into English.

"The stories cover the most interesting part of the history of Europe from the invasion of Gaul by Julius Caesar down to and inclusive of the revolution that threw down Louis Philippe in 1848. The ponderousness of the manner in which Sue executed the great work went far to defeat its purposes. The general title conceals the fact that the heavy tomes contain a score of stories. That no doubt kept many from starting to read them. Then also, between story and story, there is a dry chronology that fills up the period between the social epoch covered by the previous story and that covered by the next. All these circumstances played into the hands of the usurpatory institutions upon which Sue meant to turn the light, and it has been comparatively easy for them to choke off the work. The SLP will publish the stories one after another in The People and then in book form, taking each story by itself and dropping the intermediary chronology. There will be no better universal history than that series when completed." (Daily People, March 6, 1904)

The bicentennial of Eugene Sue's birth provides an opportunity to salute this champion of the oppressed and herald of their suffering. "Critics may belittle him," said the Daily People, "and the ruling class may endeavor to keep the workers in ignorance of his writings; but, do what they will, the great truths Eugene Sue wrote will endure."