Word of the Day: Feuilleton

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day, courtesy of Anu Garg of “A.Word.a.Day” at the Wordsmith website, is feuilleton. The noun means “a part of a European newspaper devoted to light literature, fiction, criticism, etc.” or “an item printed in the feuilleton,” according to www.dictionary.com. But Anu Garg expands a bit upon the meaning by adding “A novel published in installments,” or “A short literary piece.” According to www.etymonline.com, the word comes into English in “1845, from French feuilleton (18c.), literally ‘a leaflet (added to a newspaper),’ diminutive of feuille ‘leaf,’ from Latin folium (from PIE root *bhel- (3) ‘to thrive, bloom’).

“Esp. applied in F. to the short story or serial with which newspapers filled up after the fall of Napoleon left them short of war news. This was the beginning of Dumas’ and Eugène Sue’s long novels. [Weekley]

“In reference to writing style, suggestive of showiness and superficiality.”

One of the interesting things about feuilleton is the pronunciation. The IPA transcription of the pronunciation of the word is / ˈfɔɪ ɪ tn /. A phonetic transcription using the English alphabet would look like [ foi-i-tn]. The IPA transcription of the French word from which it comes is / fœyəˈtɔ̃ /, and the English alphabet transcription is [fœyuh-tawn ]. If none of those transcriptions help, you can go to https://www.dictionary.com/browse/feuilleton?s=t and click on the little speaker, and your computer or phone will pronounce the word for you. But please notice that there is no / l / sound in the word at all, and in the IPA transcription, there is no vowel in the third syllable. It makes you wonder what all those extra letters are for.

On this date in 1842, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a letter to his father in which he said, “Dickens has arrived. He is a glorious fellow.” I’m sure you’ve heard of Charles Dickens, the author of A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, and many more novels. But you may be less familiar with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, except perhaps as the author of the highly fictional “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”

Longfellow was born in 1807 in Portland, ME. He attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME, and graduated in 1825. He was offered a position as professor at Bowdoin. Before he took the position, he did a tour of Europe, where he studied French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German. His tour lasted three years. While in Madrid, he met another American author, Washington Irving, who encouraged the young Longfellow to write.

Upon his return, he took up the position at Bowdoin, but within a few years he received a letter inviting him to become a professor at Harvard College (now University). But he retired from Harvard in 1854 in order to focus on his writing.

He was married twice, and both of his wives died. His first wife, Mary, died in the aftermath of a miscarriage when she was 6 months pregnant, His second wife, Frances, died after her dress caught fire, perhaps from hot wax; she was severely burned. After the death of Frances in 1861, he found it very difficult to continue writing, so he turned to translations. He was the first American to translate the Divina Comedia (the Divine Comedy) of Dante Alighieri.

It shouldn’t be a big surprise that he became first an admirer and then a friend of Charles Dickens. Even though he was probably the most popular poet of his time in the USA, he was criticized by others for imitating European forms and even plagiarizing ideas, especially from Tennyson. He was attacked specifically by Edgar Allen Poe. And to some extent the criticism was true: he published, in 1845, an 800-page anthology of the translations of European poetry made by other poets. He was working on translating the poetry of Michelangelo.

So Dickens visited America in 1842, and he and Longfellow became friends. Later that same year, Longfellow visited and stayed with Dickens in London. In 1867, Dickens visited the USA again, and the friendship was renewed. And then, in 1870, Longfellow visited Dickens at Gads Hill Place, prior to Dickens’s death in June of that year. Longfellow had been an admirer of Dickens since his time in Europe in 1836, when Dickens had published The Pickwick Papers.

One thing about Dickens in this matter. The young writer’s first serious publication was called Sketches by Boz, which was a collection of short pieces that Dickens had published in a variety of magazines. He next began to work on The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which was written to be presented in a serial format, in other words, it was published in monthly installments, each costing about a shilling, from March of 1836 to October of 1837. This style of publication became popular, and Dickens published all of his novels serially as well as publishing his own literary magazine, All the Year Round.

The popularity of serial publishing continued into the 20th century. Some novels that were first published serially were Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859), Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1909), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965), and Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). Contemporary serialization of novels continues both in hard copy and on-line: Tom Wolfe published The Bonfire of the Vanities (1984) in Rolling Stone; Margaret Atwood (2012-13) published Positron on-line serially; and Andy Weir published chapters of The Martian on his personal blog. And some writers, like Scott Siglar, have been publishing their novels on-line, serially, in an audio format, like his Galactic Football League series.

So I guess we are seeing a new, computerized version of the leaflets that comprised the feuilleton. Personally, I like it, and I hope it continues.

The picture is a 2008 photo of Gads Hill Place, the home of Charles Dickens where he was visited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow before Dickens’s death in 1870.