Robert Darnton’s short book George Washington’s False Teeth is a collection of his recent essays, some of which will be familiar to readers of The New York Review, where they first appeared. The book presents a good sample of Darnton’s latest thinking on matters that have engaged him throughout his career, a career that has focused almost exclusively on eighteenth-century France. As with his other work, his prose here is exceptionally clear and evocative.
The eighteenth century fascinates Darnton, the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of European History at Princeton. It fascinates him mostly, he says, for its strangeness, which is why he gave his book such an odd title. By 1789, at the time of his inauguration as president, Washington had only one tooth left in his mouth, a lower left bicuspid. The best dentists in the country could do little for him. He had a large collection of false teeth, made of everything from animal tusks to human teeth, but, despite all the popular myths, never of wood. Yet Washington was not alone in suffering from tooth problems. Louis XIV’s doctors broke his jaw trying to extract his rotten molars. The age had bad teeth, and most of Washington’s contemporaries, Darnton writes, “probably worried more about the pain in their gums than about the new constitution in 1787. But they were an odd lot,” he adds, “if seen up close.”
We Americans, Darnton suggests, fight against that oddness. Americans do not like to think of the eighteenth century as distant and strange. We want the Founders to be familiar to us, and in times of peril, such as the present, we tend to evoke their authority. We continually seek to open a direct line to the eighteenth century in order to tap into their wisdom. “Yet,” Darnton correctly points out, “they lived in a different world from ours.” In his essays he wants to recapture some of that difference. “Visit the eighteenth century,” he says, “and you will return with your head spinning, for it is endlessly surprising, inexhaustibly interesting, irresistibly strange.”
With this collection of essays as an “unconventional guide to the eighteenth century,” Darnton intends to lead us into some of “the most curious, out-of-the-way corners” of the age. But he doesn’t want the corners to be so out-of-the-way that we don’t care about investigating them. Although Darnton is well aware of the problem of anachronistically collapsing the distance between the past and the present, he nevertheless believes that his essays have contemporary relevance, that they can provide historical perspective on current questions, such as: “Does the adoption of the euro challenge notions about the identity of Europe? Has the Internet created a new information society? Can the obsession with the private lives of public figures expose fault lines in political culture?” By projecting such questions against the background of the eighteenth century, he hopes the reader will see them in a new light while at the same time enjoying a fresh view of the century.
So Darnton in his introduction mitigates some of the strangeness of the eighteenth century. “My argument is not that the eighteenth century was strange in itself—Washington did not think it odd to be deprived of twenty-first-century dentistry—but rather that it is strange to us.” But not so strange, says Darnton, that we can’t get to know it. He wants us to be able to interrogate the past, to put the right questions to the relevant sources, and to translate the answers into an idiom that can be understood by us today.
All this self-reflective musing in his introduction is typical of Darnton’s approach to history. Unlike most historians, who like to claim distance from their subjects, but like most students of anthropology (a discipline with which he feels close kinship), Darnton often writes, as he does in many of these essays, in the first person singular. It is part of his willingness to admit a degree of subjectivity in his work.
Most of Darnton’s best writing over a career spanning more than three decades has appeared in the form of essays or short sketches. In presenting his findings he has always favored the brief essay. “Sketching in history,” he wrote in 1982, “provides a way of catching men in motion, of holding subjects up to unfamiliar light and examining their complexities from different angles.” The sketch or the essay, as he wrote in a later collection, “gives the historian an opportunity to take risks, to confront important subjects, and to ask big questions without feeling compelled to prove a case.” Taking risks, tackling important subjects, and asking big questions have marked Darnton’s approach to the past. I know of no other living historian writing in English who has used the essay as the major vehicle to present his historical thinking more effectively than Darnton.
Although many of the essays do take us into out-of-the-way corners and explore the subjects that Darnton has spent his career writing about—modes of communication peculiar to the French Enlightenment—several of the essays actually pursue some of the large issues of the century: the Enlightenment, Rousseau, the pursuit of happiness, the French craze for America. In his work, Darnton hasn’t usually concentrated on such broad issues. The title essay itself, “George Washington’s False Teeth,” for example, one historian of the eighteenth century, Renato Pasta, has said, is “Darnton’s only attempt so far to produce a general statement on the Enlightenment.” In this essay, Darnton self-consciously abandons his role as a historian and becomes an advocate, vigorously defending the Enlightenment against its critics, particularly John Gray and other postmodern writers. These critics have held the Enlightenment responsible for much of what they don’t like about the current world, especially for Western hegemony and imperialism and its stereotyping of non-Western “others.” A number of modern intellectuals such as Jacob Talmon have even claimed that the Enlightenment led to twentieth-century totalitarianism and fascism. Others have deplored its excessive reliance on reason, which left modern society helpless against the forces of irrationality. These critics are saying that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment is outdated and inadequate to deal with contemporary problems.
Darnton believes that such critics have inflated the Enlightenment, identifying it with nearly everything subsumed under the name of Western civilization. To rebut them, Darnton de- flates his definition of the Enlightenment, greatly reducing it to what he regards as its proper proportions. Instead of being identified with all of eighteenth-century Western culture, Darnton’s Enlightenment becomes “a concrete historical phenomenon, which can be located in time and pinned down in space: Paris in the early eighteenth century.” Darnton’s Enlightenment turns out to be a rather restricted affair. It was led by an engaged elite of philosophes who were “a new social type, known to us today as the intellectual.” They were in fact “a new force in history, men of letters acting in concert and with considerable autonomy to push through a program.” Of course, Darnton admits, there were enlightened thinkers and philosophers scattered all over the Western world, even as far away as America. But Paris was the center. “That is where the movement came together and defined itself as a cause.”
Although Darnton sees his version of the Enlightenment as arising out of a deep crisis of confidence in traditional values during the last years of the reign of Louis XIV, who died in 1715, he concedes that during the second half of the eighteenth century it spread and became diffused throughout the Western world. Indeed,
it produced a set of values that remained alive through the centuries that followed and that set some societies apart from others…modern vs. medieval, bourgeois vs. aristocratic, liberal vs. traditional, capitalist vs. feudal.
Although we in the postmodern world are apt to think that such distinctions are no longer meaningful and that the Enlightenment is dead, Darnton ends his essay with a bit of spirited sermonizing about the continuing relevance of Enlightenment values in our own time—values such as individual liberty, equality, democracy, cosmopolitanism, and the well-being of ordinary people. He would like us to be less cynical about these concepts and more respectful of the Enlightenment traditions we have inherited. By remembering that the problems Washington had with his teeth have been solved by modern dentistry, Darnton writes that we might even come to “appreciate the modest, incremental gains of pleasure over pain or progress with a lowercase p” that we have achieved since the eighteenth century.
Darnton picks up this theme of the incremental gains of pleasure in the essay “The Pursuit of Happiness: Voltaire and Jefferson.” Both men set happiness not in the afterlife but in the here and now. Voltaire believed in a public conception of happiness, that happiness lies in the cultivation of our gardens. Jefferson believed in a more private and individualistic idea of happiness, as something pursued, as the struggle to get ahead. This became the American dream, says Darnton, and it is as much alive today as it was throughout the rest of American history. We are apt to take for granted the pleasure and happiness of our own time, he says, and forget just how pain-filled the eighteenth century was.
Darnton brings in rotting teeth once again, in order to highlight “the sheer pain in jaws everywhere in the early modern world.” Dentistry may not seem to be a particularly noble calling, he writes, “but it has weighed heavier than many professions in the hedonistic calculus we have inherited from Epicurus and Jeremy Bentham.” Modern dentistry is just one of the many improvements in medicine and technology, Darnton suggests, that the Enlightenment contributed to the sum of human happiness. He ends this little piece with more sermonizing, in this case with a jeremiad against Americans’ present-day predilection for the individual pursuit of happiness at the expense of the general welfare.
In another essay that deals with a major subject Darnton lays out the radical implications of the revelation that Rousseau experienced in 1749, when on his route to Vincennes he saw an announcement for an essay contest on the question “Has the revival of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification of morals?” Rousseau had a moment of insight that led to his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, and, according to Darnton, this perception “would run through all of Rousseau’s subsequent writing: Culture corrupts and absolutist culture corrupts absolutely.” Voltaire had equated the Enlightenment with culture, with politeness and civilization—good manners, refined taste, and sophisticated sociability—and had seen culture as the crucial progressive force in society. Rousseau accepted Voltaire’s view of culture as the force that holds society together, but he viewed it negatively rather than positively—as the source of corruption rather than enlightenment. To become free, said Rousseau, the oppressed would have to turn against their culture and destroy the system of civilization and polite manners that had held them down. Although Darnton’s essay is not original in emphasizing the “postmodern” concepts of Rousseau’s belief that culture, language, and symbols are all forms of social power, it is still very impressive, for all its brevity.