Robert M. Buffington. A Sentimental Education for the Working Man: The Mexico City Penny Press, 1900-1910. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 304 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-5882-4; $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-5899-2.
Reviewed by Sarah Foss (University of Indiana)
Published on Jhistory (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe
A Sentimental Education for the Working Man: The Mexico City Penny Press, 1900-1910 provides an insightful look into Mexican social relations and constructions of citizenship in the pivotal first decade of the twentieth century. Using working-class print culture as his evidence, Robert M. Buffington shows how on the brink of the Mexican Revolution, many Mexicans had become disillusioned with Porfirio Díaz’s lengthy rule, termed the Porfiriato. This challenge to authority questioned Diaz’s ties to foreign investors and the projects that they had implemented to modernize Mexico. Through the penny press, working-class men began to position themselves as the true patriots of the nation. Buffington demonstrates how newspapers written by and for the diverse working class juxtaposed this new vision of citizenship with the elite version that had marginalized the working class and had labeled them as detrimental to national progress. The penny press provided what Buffington terms a new “sentimental education” for laboring men, satirizing elite understandings of working-class life while providing a distinct interpretation of Mexican history and a new foundation upon which the nation could be built.
Buffington’s main sources are penny press publications, including periodicals and broadsides. While he uses twenty-seven different periodicals, he heavily relies on three: El Diablito Bromista, El Diablito Rojo, and La Guacamaya. His ability to translate these periodicals despite their constant use of early twentieth-century Mexican slang is remarkable, and he deftly explains the meaning of cultural terms and expressions in a way that is easy for the reader to comprehend. While he is upfront about the lack of information regarding the periodicals’ editors, in the introduction, Buffington provides a succinct and excellent demographic analysis of Mexico City’s diverse working class. This gives a clear portrayal of the press’s audience and the means of dissemination and consumption of the newspapers. His wide use of theory, visual interpretation, and textual analysis is brilliant, not only providing convincing evidence of his main arguments but also establishing a model for other scholars of print culture to utilize.
The book’s five chapters can be divided into two main interventions that Buffington makes regarding working-class politics. Extant literature argues that by the twentieth century, a working-class political consciousness had emerged; while Buffington certainly agrees, he also asserts that this literature fails to explain why the penny press held such an appeal for working men. His work fills this void, and his overarching argument claims that the penny press, through satirizing all aspects of working-class life, reconfigured Mexican social relations and particularly the role of the working classes as the critical foundation of the nation.
In the first three chapters, Buffington analyzes how editors of the penny press inverted Mexican elites’ popular liberalism to create what he terms “liberal populism.” As he explains, presenting working-class males as “the people” was a “radical departure from bourgeois notions of political subjectivity predicated on the ‘inalienable’ rights and duties of individual subjects/citizens” (p. 137). Through this act, the penny press presented a more inclusive and democratic nation, where working-class Mexicans were the true portrayals of the patriotic citizen. While the elites’ liberalism also emphasized such values as patriotism, citizens’ rights and responsibilities, and love for national heroes, they found the working classes lacking these characteristics. In contrast, Buffington’s analysis of various political cartoons in the penny press demonstrates that in the editors’ eyes, it was actually the Mexican elite who were failing in their patriotic duties. The elite only worked to further their own wealth and interests, even at the expense of the nation’s well-being. The working classes, for the editors, were the true patriots.
At the same time, the diverse newspapers and editors involved in the penny press did not always agree on the appropriate behaviors for working-class men to adopt. For example, two of the main newspapers that Buffington analyzes in this book disagreed about the appropriate means to celebrate national holidays and the amount of state surveillance necessary to control the boisterous working classes during these celebrations. Using the example of the annual Grito, an event that celebrated Mexican independence, Buffington teases out the different perspectives that various publications adopted. On the one hand, El Diablito Rojo advocated for modest celebration but recommended that the police maintain a public presence and that bars be closed to control any potential scandal. La Guacamaya, on the other hand, presented the behaviors that El Diablito Rojo’s editor feared, such as public drunkenness and loitering, as “genuine patriotic expressions” and thus evidence of the working man’s inherent patriotic nature that under no circumstances should be thwarted (pp. 122-123). Through Buffington’s comparative analysis of the penny press, he is able to explore the competing and contradictory versions of the “sentimental education” that the penny press aimed to provide. On a broader scale, these debates also represent the many alternate citizenship models and nation-building projects at play in early twentieth-century Mexico.
Chapters 4 and 5 present Buffington’s second intervention, and in this section he argues that this liberal populism was “decidedly masculine” (p. 137). Building on Ernesto Laclau’s ideas on populism, Buffington strives to explain how this configuration of liberal populism affected the Mexican working class, and he argues that it fundamentally reshaped understandings and expressions of masculinity. Here Buffington explores how male subjectivities were informed by the civilizing programs of the elite and how their ideas on romantic relationships with women were challenged through the penny press. Instead of presenting men as inherently machista or as violent, criminal, and deeply dysfunctional beings, Buffington shows that the penny press actually centered the working-class man and his heterosexual relationships as the foundation of the nation. Simultaneously, the penny press presented elite males as oppressors whose judgmental attitudes only served to hinder true patriotism. Despite their differences, what the penny press demanded were not more elite projects aimed at reforming and civilizing the working man but rather a revolutionary inversion of the social order that recognized the working man as the ideal Mexican citizen.
The shortcomings of A Sentimental Education for the Working Man are few but important to note, particularly for those wishing to assign this book for course reading. First, the text presumes a basic understanding of Mexican history, as little or brief contextual description is provided. For example, Buffington discusses the significance that two working-class heroes, Miguel Hidalgo and Benito Juárez, had for this alternative model of citizenship that the penny press propagated, yet only after his analysis of the sources does he provide context to situate these two men into their place and time in Mexican history. Similarly, only a brief explanation of the Porfiriato is given in the introduction. For a reader who is already familiar with Mexican history, this succinct section provides a sufficient recollection of the historical context for the book; however, a reader unfamiliar with Mexican history and politics will be left with many questions and will not have sufficient context to explain the significance of later arguments. Second, the choices made regarding the book’s organization seem questionable. One of the more significant of these is Buffington’s decision to leave his explanation of “popular liberalism” and “liberal populism,” two terms that he uses throughout the first three chapters, for the conclusion of the third chapter. Perhaps he hoped that the evidence would guide the reader to understand this argument without an outright definition of his terms and their underlying theoretical implications, but his claims would have been stronger with a bit more clarity upfront on the terminology. Finally, the choice to focus on a current Mexican American radio program in Denver, Colorado, in the conclusion is surprising after such an excellent work. While his intention to place the early twentieth-century penny press into a genealogy of working-class sentiments and masculinity is clear, perhaps a discussion of the influence that this penny press had for the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910, for example, would have made for a stronger conclusion.
Despite these minor critiques, A Sentimental Education for the Working Man is a beautifully researched and written book that makes convincing and powerful claims for Mexican historiography. This text is useful for a wide audience, including scholars studying journalism and print culture, Latin America, labor history, modern masculinity, and political culture, as Buffington engages in a variety of methodologies and theoretical frameworks to present his arguments. At the same time, the readability of the text, particularly the first three chapters, make it an appropriate selection for an upper-level undergraduate class. For historians of all fields, this book serves as an excellent model for how to read and analyze a variety of print sources, particularly the visual image. Buffington skillfully weaves multiple theoretical approaches, a mastery of Mexican historiography, and a careful and reliable interpretation of primary sources to produce a phenomenal book that is a must read for any scholar of journalism or Latin American history.
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Sarah Foss. Review of Buffington, Robert M., A Sentimental Education for the Working Man: The Mexico City Penny Press, 1900-1910.
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