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The Writer of Modern Life

The Writer of Modern Life

Essays on Charles Baudelaire

Walter Benjamin

Edited by Michael W. Jennings
Translated by Howard Eiland, Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, and Harry Zohn

ISBN 9780674022874

Publication date: 11/15/2006

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Walter Benjamin's essays on the great French lyric poet Charles Baudelaire revolutionized not just the way we think about Baudelaire, but our understanding of modernity and modernism as well. In these essays, Benjamin challenges the image of Baudelaire as late-Romantic dreamer, and evokes instead the modern poet caught in a life-or-death struggle with the forces of the urban commodity capitalism that had emerged in Paris around 1850. The Baudelaire who steps forth from these pages is the flâneur who affixes images as he strolls through mercantile Paris, the ragpicker who collects urban detritus only to turn it into poetry, the modern hero willing to be marked by modern life in its contradictions and paradoxes. He is in every instance the modern artist forced to commodify his literary production: "Baudelaire knew how it stood with the poet: as a flâneur he went to the market; to look it over, as he thought, but in reality to find a buyer." Benjamin reveals Baudelaire as a social poet of the very first rank.

The introduction to this volume presents each of Benjamin's essays on Baudelaire in chronological order. The introduction, intended for an undergraduate audience, aims to articulate and analyze the major motifs and problems in these essays, and to reveal the relationship between the essays and Benjamin's other central statements on literature, its criticism, and its relation to the society that produces it.


  • In these essays, written in the 1930s, German critic Benjamin masterfully succeeds in changing our perception of French poet Charles Baudelaire as a late Romantic dreamer. Instead, he shows Baudelaire to be a thoroughly modern writer involved in a life-and-death struggle with that urban commodity, capitalism, which had begun to emerge in Paris in the 1850s. Benjamin portrays Baudelaire as a flaneur--a stroller who roamed the lonely Paris streets lost in the faceless crowd--as well as a lone modern hero searching for a means of selling his poetry. In the urban crowds, all traces of individuality are erased, and Baudelaire's famed "spleen" is actually disgust at that defining aspect of the modern condition. Indeed, in "The Painter of Modern Life," an essay Baudelaire wrote in 1863, he makes several acute observations about his sense of alienation that definitely establish him as a modern writer. Stimulating reading.

    —Bob T. Ivey, Library Journal


  • Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was the author of many works of literary and cultural analysis.
  • Michael W. Jennings is Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages at Princeton University.
  • Howard Eiland is an editor and translator of Benjamin’s writings.
  • Rodney Livingstone is Professor Emeritus in German Studies at the University of Southampton. He is well known as a translator of books by Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, and Max Weber, among others.

Book Details

  • 320 pages
  • 0-7/8 x 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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