Emulating the Elite: Association and the Petit Bourgeois
In 1855 a group of Mulhousien men established a Literary Conference to 'teach reading and public speaking by means of literary, historical and philosophical study and discussion'.1 Meetings occurred on Saturday evenings so as not to interfere with work schedules. Each member prepared one presentation (verbal or written) per term, the best of which were submitted to the assembly. A critical analysis of each presentation followed at the next meeting. Members debated the issue and voted on the initial author's conclusions. Statutes promised that the reading of original prose or verse compositions might occasionally enliven the solemnity of the regular debates.
The atmosphere of the new Literary Conference was determinedly learned. The conference, however, represented a distinctly new twist on the learned society model: no one in Mulhouse was likely to confuse the Literary Conference with the Industrial Society. The didactic aim of the Literary Conference set it apart from more established learned associations like emulation societies. With its carefully regulated format of assigned topics, deadlines for presentations, rebuttals and votes, the atmosphere of the Literary Conference resembled a classroom more than the relaxed scholarly exchange of a learned society. Members of the conference who played truant from meetings even incurred a fine. The schoolroom discipline of the Literary Conference was a far cry from the easy, erudite sociability of the learned society. Men of the Industrial Society assumed that they had mastered the skills that the Literary Conference proposed to teach.
No membership list of the Literary Conference survives, so we can only speculate about the men who participated in the earnest Saturday night debates. They apparently recognized the utility of formal education and felt insecure about their own. Their conference, however, was no____________________