A good many years ago Robert Darnton, as he puts it, “walked into a historian’s dream: an enormous cache of untouched archives, the papers of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel.” What he discovered there forms the basis of this collection of articles, most of them on the French writers whose works risked censorship before the Revolution, and were therefore published by such Swiss printers as the ones at Neuchâtel. To find a gold mine may be a matter of luck, though it rarely is; to exploit its potential calls for knowledge, skill, and the investment of resources. Darnton is amply supplied with all three. He has an enviable gift for reading between the lines, extracting meaning and life from unpromising material, and finding relations between things that have no obvious connection with each other. Whatever he writes is stimulating to read.

It was an excellent idea to bring these pieces together, for they have a unifying theme and some of them were not easily accessible. If Darnton’s conclusions give rise to some reservations this is partly the ransom of his success: they were so arresting when they first appeared that they have generated a good deal of debate, brought disagreement to the surface, and encouraged other historians to clarify their own ideas.

Darnton’s objective is to write a social history of eighteenth-century French literature. By this he means a quantitative study of what was written, how much of it was published, how it made its way from publisher to reader, and who the readers were. He is particularly interested in the books subject to censorship and how they were distributed nonetheless. He believes that the answers to these questions, besides being of interest in their own right, will help to explain the collapse of the ancien régime in 1789 and the links between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. At times he suggests that there was something in common between the ideas in the prohibited books and the nature of the illicit book trade itself. While rejecting what he calls “vulgar Marxist reductionism,” he sees a parallel, if not a connection, between the ideas of liberty and hatred of privilege on the one hand and the way in which the marketing of books was carried on in eighteenth-century France on the other. This allows him to present his conclusions about the book trade as evidence for a general revulsion against both the theory and practice of the ancien régime.

In his first chapter, the “High Enlightenment and the Low Life of Literature,” which first appeared in 1971, he makes a sharp distinction between respectable and disreputable writers. The former, with some reservations about the respectability of Diderot, were the established giants of a generation that had virtually died out by 1780. Montesquieu died in 1755, Voltaire and Rousseau in 1778. He has not much to say about their successors, although he implies that they were mostly mediocrities. The disreputable were men who came to Paris, usually in their twenties, in the hope of becoming the Voltaires and Rousseaus of the new generation; failing to win acceptance and trying to keep body and soul together, they were driven to such expedients as hack pamphleteering and the peddling of pornography. In the process they became both socially and morally degraded, they transferred their self-hatred to a society that found no place for them, and emerged as embittered radicals of a new kind. As Darnton puts it, “It was from [Grub Street’s] visceral hatred, not from the refined abstractions of the contented cultural elite, that the extreme Jacobin revolution found its authentic voice.” In other words, as the would-be philosophes from bourgeois families were reduced to desperate poverty, they became a “literary proletariat” whose ideas were more socially subversive than those of their successful rivals.

Darnton presents one writer, the journalist Jacques-Pierre Brissot, as an example of this process. He has discovered evidence that confirms what Brissot’s enemies said about him—that he had signed on as a police informer about the time of his release in 1784, from imprisonment in the Bastille on a doubtful charge of publishing pornography. Darnton sees this episode as the turning point in Brissot’s life, the time when he abandoned the generous idealism of his youth. “It corrupted him, and in the corrupting it confirmed his hatred of the Old Regime. How he must have hated it! How he must have raged inwardly against the system of arbitrary power that first struck him down and then enlisted him in its service. How he must have reviled the men in control of the system, who first blocked his attempts to win honor for himself and then dishonored him by making him their agent.” So many “must haves” make one a little uneasy. Brissot became a member of the Convention, a leader of the Republican Girondins, and an enemy of the Montagnards, the extreme revolutionary party that directed the Terror. Darnton suggests that Brissot’s opposition to the Montagnards in 1793, which led to his execution, was due to his fear that they would destroy the success and independence that he had won for himself during the Revolution.


Then follow two well-documented studies, the first about the desperate efforts of a singularly obscure writer (Le Senne) to obtain commissions or a job from the Société typographique de Neuchâtel, and the second describing how the society was imposed upon by a dishonest bookseller from Troyes. Darnton uses these examples to illustrate the difficulties of both writers and publishers in breaking through the restrictions of censorship and the monopolistic privileges of the booksellers’ guild in Paris. The ancien régime opposed free trade in ideas as well as commodities. In this respect, as in so many others, it was weakened by its internal rivalries, which made “absolutism” anything but absolute in practice. The police, who had their own quarrel with the booksellers, were prepared, up to a point, to tolerate the illicit sale of pirated editions, provided that they were not seditious, blasphemous, or pornographic. Darnton uses the career of Le Senne, whose political and religious ideas varied with changes in his personal circumstances, as evidence that the hacks would write anything for a living. “Poor devils could not afford to be consistent.” In his essay on the bookseller, he suggests that what Frenchmen actually read during the eighteenth century was very different from what would nowadays be thought of as “eighteenth-century French literature” and that much of it “made the regime look rotten.”

After a brief study of working conditions in the printing industry, of considerable interest in its own right, Darnton returns to his main theme in the final chapter, “Reading, Writing, and Publishing.” This is an attempt to get at the elusive question of who read what in the decade before the Revolution. Darnton disposes somewhat briskly of the efforts of his predecessors in this field, but he himself is unable to make much headway and he concedes that even if one could discover the actual sales, this would give no indication of the effect the books had on their readers. What was read was determined not merely by what people wanted to write, but by what could be published and got into the hands of booksellers. The decision of the comte de Vergennes, the foreign minister, in 1783 that all books printed abroad must pass through the hands of the Paris guild had a disastrous effect on the import trade with such foreign printing centers as Neuchâtel and may have led to a reduction in the number of books published in France.

In his conclusion, Darnton brings together his converging arguments. “Books are economic commodities as well as cultural artifacts; and as vehicles of ideas, they have to be peddled on a market.” It was therefore natural that an underground book trade that suffered from censorship and monopoly should sell books that argued in favour of liberty. “The police took the libelles [i.e., the lampoons of popular journalism] seriously, because they had a serious effect on public opinion.” He goes so far as to claim that “this was more dangerous propaganda than the Contrat social.” To quote his final words: “When philosophy went under, it lost its self-restraint and its commitment to the culture of those on top. When it turned against courtiers, churchmen, and kings, it committed itself to turning the world upside down. In their own language, the livres philosophiques called for undermining and overthrowing. The counterculture called for a cultural revolution—and was ready to answer the call of 1789.”

This is splendid historical writing. Much of the information is new—or was when it was first published—and this reviewer is happy to have the opportunity of acknowledging how much Darnton’s work has widened his own view of the period. His imaginative reconstruction of the Grub Street world, and its enforced subordination of principle to the need for survival, illuminates the later revolutionary press, whose editors came mostly from the literary underground. All this has earned Darnton a well-justified reputation as one of the most original contributors to our understanding of life in pre-revolutionary Paris. Much of it is beyond argument and will be reflected in future writing about the period. If one still has doubts, they mostly concern his grand design: history is rarely so neat. To suggest that things were rather more complicated and untidy is not to imply that Darnton is wrong, merely that one must bring in factors that he excludes and that his truths have to coexist with others.

He draws too sharp a line between Grub Street and what he calls le monde. Voltaire, who lived at Ferney so that he could be across the Swiss frontier before anyone had time to catch him, scarcely saw himself as a member of any kind of establishment. Darnton is never sure where to put Diderot, who served time in Vincennes jail and had a couple of pornographic works to his credit. He describes him as one of the four greatest philosophes but he also says that he “never fully extricated himself from Grub Street.” At the opposite end, Brissot, Marat and Louis-Sébastien Mercier, the popular author of the Tableau de Paris, would have been incensed by the suggestion that they belonged to some kind of “literary proletariat.” Marat failed to get the job of secretary to the Spanish Academy, but his hopes were not a “fantasy,” and he was in fact employed as a doctor to the household troops of the king’s brother. It would have been an odd proletarian who invited the court genealogist to confirm his noble ancestry. Brissot had a more difficult time but he was eventually rescued by the influential Swiss banker Etienne Clavière—just the kind of patronage that Darnton associates with le monde.


All this is directly relevant to the argument that Grub Street gave such men a visceral hatred of the ancien régime which distinguished them from genuine philosophes and turned them into revolutionaries. Darnton himself admits that Condorcet’s radicalism could not have had this kind of motivation. Marat’s ideas never advanced beyond those put forward in The Chains of Slavery, published in London in 1774, when he seems to have been reasonably well off. He certainly did regard himself, after his return to Paris, as an unrecognized scientific genius, but he was not an impoverished one. During the Revolution he avenged himself on the Academies for their former neglect of his theories, but it was not merely Grub Street alumni who paid off old scores in ways like that. Brissot had to compose what Clavière wanted written, but it was sometimes what he wanted to write himself, even if he sold the United States to the French on political grounds when Clavière was trying to sell it, in a rather more literal sense, on economic ones. If he had bitterly resented his former dependence on the Swiss banker he would not have gone on praising him after he had become a successful revolutionary journalist, or helped to make him a minister in 1792. Brissot became more, rather than less, cautious in 1789. In subsequent years he was radical when aspiring to power and more conservative when trying to retain it. His Montagnard opponents were to behave in much the same way. So have a good many other politicians since then.

Although Darnton makes effective use of Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau to show how his own evidence confirms what can be discovered from literary sources, he is generally content to treat books as commodities rather than as expressions of ideas. To the extent that most historians have done the opposite, he is justified in redressing the balance, but an examination of what people like Brissot and Marat actually wrote might have changed his views about what they “must have” felt. Far from denouncing the philosophes, of whose comfortable eminence they might have been supposed to be envious, Brissot and Marat continued throughout the Revolution to heap praises on both Rousseau and Montesquieu. They were probably the only men whom Marat considered his superiors—and, from the man who had a rather poor view of Newton, that was praise indeed. If anything, he thought Montesquieu the greater of the two.

Mercier, who had unsuccessfully rebelled against Rousseau’s influence in the years before the Revolution, acknowledged him as his master in 1791. It is difficult to see this as having much to do with Grub Street and, in any case, Mercier had always given the impression that he considered himself to be a successful writer. He may not have been a very good one—except in the descriptive genre of his Tableau de Paris—but he was no starveling peddler of whatever others wanted to read. Books, in other words, are rather more than commodities and if one wants to assess their influence one has to take account of what they say.

This brings us to Darnton’s conclusion that by 1789 the literary underworld had made a significant contribution to undermining the old order. Here everyone is on dangerous ground since we still do not know with any precision what books were sold or who bought them. Even if we did, we might still be a long way from understanding their effects. Anyone who applies Darnton’s methods of analysis to the contents of an airport bookshop would arrive at some curious conclusions about Western culture: no theology, very little serious politics, some semi-fictional history, and a deluge of war and sex.

Darnton would be the first to protest—and quite rightly—that the twentieth century is not the eighteenth. In that case, however, our only way of judging how people were affected by what they read is to study their conduct rather than the books they bought or borrowed. Marie Antoinette was certainly unpopular in 1789 and this may have owed something to the particularly vicious pamphlet campaign against her. But Louis XVI had not been spared by the pornographers—and he could have had the leadership of the Revolution for the asking. Counterrevolutionary princes or nobles, like Artois and the Polignacs, were as unpopular as the queen, but most of the early leaders of the Revolution were nobles. There are few signs of any general belief that the nobility was morally rotten, as distinct from inclined to be politically retrogressive. Perhaps Darnton’s belief in the existence of a “bourgeois morality” among the revolutionaries is itself a twentieth-century anachronism. Some of the Montagnards were eventually to try to impose what they believed to be Rousseauist vertu, but that was very different thing, and by that time the revolution had entered its least “bourgeois” stage. The key word in 1789 was “regeneration” and in that dawn when it was bliss to be alive, it was a word that was thought to apply to everyone.

Darnton has told us a great deal about the reactions of some people and something about the reactions of a great many people. He has made good use of his gold mine and left us all greatly in his debt. Thanks to him we know a good deal more about the ecology of ancien régime society. His attempt to impose a rather rigorous classification on the flora that it produced is less persuasive, but even here there is much to learn from him. Grub Street may have been a place in England; in Darnton’s sense it was more an attitude of mind and a set of habits. One did not have to choose between Grub Street and respectability. Those who saw themselves as latter-day philosophes or acquired independence as a result of revolution nevertheless picked up Grub Street habits that they could never shake off. In this sense, what Darnton says about the writers is necessary to understanding the revolutionaries. The French Revolution was a continuous conflict between people, as well as a battle of ideas, and anyone who wants to understand the people had better start with the work of Robert Darnton.

This Issue

October 7, 1982