Roving thoughts and provocations

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How the FBI Turned Me On to Rare Books

On July 10, the historian Natalie Zemon Davis was one of several people awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. At the award ceremony, the medal winners were asked to reflect on a “turning point” in their lives, and Davis discussed the support of her husband, Chandler Davis, who courageously sought to challenge the constitutionality of the House Committee on Un-American Activities before the Supreme Court in 1959. (The Court refused to take the case.) After the ceremony, however, Davis found she had a further answer to the question put to her. What follows is that answer.


Natalie Zemon Davis; drawing by David Levine

My passion for history has been life-long: an unending fascination with the past and its meanings for us in our own time. Within that frame, I’ve had several turnings as I tried to give voice to people often ignored in the great historical narratives. Let me take as an example an event that seemed at first like a downturn.

The year was 1952. I had spent six months in France doing the first research for my PhD thesis on “Protestantism and the Printing Workers of Lyon.” I was trying to explore the Reformation from the vantage point of artisans, rather than just that of the theologians like Luther and Calvin and the great princes. To find evidence about working people, many of whom are illiterate, you have to go to archives: to government lists, and church records, to criminal prosecutions and marriage contracts. I came back to Ann Arbor with packets of three-by-five cards filled with the names of Protestant pressmen and typesetters and other artisans—people who were finding ways to disguise Protestant tracts so they could get by the eyes of the Inquisitors and mocking the Catholic clergy in popular songs. I planned to go back to France after I took my general exams.

Not long after my return, two gentlemen from the US State Department arrived at our apartment to pick up my passport and that of my husband. A publication event had brought them to our door. Early in 1952, I had done the research for and been major author of a pamphlet entitled Operation Mind, which reviewed past interrogations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and urged readers to protest as unconstitutional its announced visit to Michigan. (In 1954, when the Michigan hearings finally took place, students did in fact protest on campus.) The pamphlet was issued in photo-offset, without the name of author, but simply listing two University of Michigan campus groups that had sponsored it. Whatever local readers thought, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not pleased with Operation Mind and sent its agents to the printer, who obliged with the name of the treasurer of the campus organization that had paid the bill—that is, my husband. The seizure of our passports was one of the consequences.

I was devastated, heartsick, by the loss of my passport. I had counted on getting back to the archives in France not only to finish the research for my thesis, but for any future work I hoped to do on my new path of social history. (Remember in those days there was no web, no digitization, and not even microfilms of most documents.) How could I go on? I thought with fresh appreciation of the much greater risks faced by those early Protestant printers who were publishing clandestine anonymous anti-Catholic writings and vernacular Bibles: they might end up burned at the stake.

But wait a minute! Those sixteenth-century Protestant books and Bibles, made by the workers on my three-by-five cards, were available in American rare book libraries. I could find traces of printers and other artisans and much more in the pages of these books and their marginalia; even their bindings held treasures. The FBI could keep me from France, but not from the New York Public Library or the Folger or the other great rare book collections in the United States.

So per force, I added the approaches of cultural history to those of social history. All kinds of books turn up in rare book collections, including many forms of popular literature. I could find the voices there of artisans and women as well as of the learned and the powerful. After I got my passport back in 1960 and for the rest of my life, I’ve always combined research in archives with research in early printed books. It was in a rare book library that I later read the 1560 book about the case of Martin Guerre.

This episode also expanded my notions of human response to situations of constraint, both my own and that of people in the past. I realized that between heroic resistance to and fatalistic acceptance of oppression, there was ample space for coping strategies and creative improvisation. Much of human life was and is carried on in this fertile middle ground. I am seeing this still in my current research on four generations of a slave family in colonial Suriname. One of the men escaped to the Maroons and led uprisings, but most stayed put, helping set up secret slave courts to have some control over their lives. The women used their liaisons with white men to advance their own kin, but also to win favors for their fellow slaves.

I have wanted to be a historian of hope. We can take heart from the fact that no matter how dire the situation, some will find means to resist, some will find means to cope, and some will remember and tell stories about what happened.

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