Originally published 01/15/2013
Charles Walton is Associate Professor of History at Yale University.Before there were blockbuster films, there were blockbuster books. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, published in 1862, was one of them. Thanks to a market-savvy publisher, this monument of French romanticism, which was serialized in ten installments, became an immediate bestseller across Europe and North America. Demand was so great that other authors, notably Gustave Flaubert, postponed the publications of their own books to avoid being outshined. On days when new installments went on sale in Paris, police were called in to stop impatient crowds from storming the bookstores. Some high-minded critics, not unlike those who spurn sensational Hollywood films today, found the hype distasteful. Edwin Percy Whipple, in a review for The Atlantic, referred to “the system of puffing” surrounding the book’s release in terms worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge: it was “the grossest bookselling humbug,” a spectacle “at which Barnum himself would stare amazed.”
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