Grub Street Revolutionaries

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,…

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