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 …