Robert Darnton
Robert Darnton; drawing by David Levine


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.

If all we had to go on were these essays on the broad themes of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, we could not fully appreciate the importance of Darnton’s career as a historian. For these brief essays on the Enlightenment, Rousseau, the pursuit of happiness, and the French celebration of America hardly reveal the scope and originality of his earlier work. The idea of the Enlightenment presented in his opening chapter, for example, differs very little from the traditional conceptions set forth by previous generations of historians, who tended to concentrate on the writings of what Peter Gay called “the little flock of philosophes“—Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert, Condillac, and Rousseau, that is, the great French writers that everyone has heard of. Yet in fact Darnton has a much deeper and more complicated understanding of eighteenth-century French intellectual and cultural life than can be found in the writings of these eighteenth-century French luminaries. Thanks to his work we now know about another world that existed beneath the lofty world of the major figures—a rough and dirty underground world of angry Parisians and provincial hacks who had to earn their keep by turning out illegal pornographic, seditious, and anticlerical writings that, Darnton suggests, did more to undermine the Old Regime than did the canonical writings of the preeminent philosophes.

At the beginning of his career in the 1960s Darnton decided that the then current interpretations of the Enlightenment were much too rarefied and “overly highbrow, overly metaphysical.” In a path-breaking and much-cited article, “The High Enlightenment and the Low-Life of Literature in Pre-revolutionary France,” published in the historical journal Past and Present in 1971 and later collected in his book The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982), Darnton drew a distinction between the heroic Enlightenment of the mid-century, when the risk-taking Voltaire and his allies shook the power structure to its roots, and the High Enlightenment of the generation that followed the famous philosophes during the last twenty-five years of the Old Regime. By the time of this later phase, in the 1770s, Darnton argued, Voltaire and the other philosophes had lost much of their earlier critical edge. They had in some ways become tamed and domesticated by the establishment or the grand monde.

Not that they had sold out to the power structure; they had simply sought to provide for themselves and maintain their literary careers in the only ways that eighteenth-century society allowed. They had sought aristocratic protectors and patrons and the most successful of them had come to rule the republic of letters from salons and academies. Although they continued to criticize the Old Regime and to fight bigotry and injustice to the end, they had become identified with the fashionable radicalism that many of the nobility themselves were drawn to.

Such well-placed writers could never account for the hatred and passion unleashed by the Revolution. To do so, Darnton concluded, historians required new methods and new materials. First, they needed to bring the Enlightenment down to earth, to think about it in other ways if it were to remain as an explanation of the Revolution. They needed to look at eighteenth-century literary life from the bottom up, not from the lofty point of view of the philosophes in the salons and the academies, but from that of literary low-lifes and the obscure scribblers who had to fill their bellies, house their families, and make their way in the world.

Darnton sought to expand what Peter Gay called “the social history of ideas” and to explore the resentment of the later generation that was expressed by Parisian hacks and others against their illustrious predecessors. These poor and obscure scribblers in the gutters of the literary world earned their keep by releasing torrents of scurrilous and subversive writings exposing the corruptions and immoralities of the ancien régime. They hated the closed world of high culture, and that hatred as well as the inferior and humiliating circumstances of their careers as Grub Street scribblers bred a deep resentment of the ancien régime that ultimately shaped the nature of the Revolution. Writers and future revolutionaries such as Jean-Paul Marat, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, and Jean-Louis Carra were never reformers, Darnton argued:

They hated the system in itself; and they expressed their hatred by desanctifying its symbols, destroying the myths that gave it legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and perpetuating the countermyth of degenerate despotism.

The many crude and obscene descriptions of a French court dominated by venereal disease, buggery, cuckoldry, and illegitimacy, Darnton wrote, were “more dangerous propaganda than the Contrat social.” In fact, according to Darnton,

the crude pamphleteering of Grub Street was revolutionary in feeling as well as in message. It expressed the passion of men who hated the Old Regime in their guts, who ached with hatred of it. It was from such visceral hatred, not from the refined abstractions of the contented cultural elite, that the extreme Jacobin revolution found its authentic voice.


Darnton’s work, like the work of any other major historian, has generated a great deal of controversy. In his case the controversy led to a 1998 collection of critical essays entitled The Darnton Debate: Books and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century.* Scholars criticized Darnton’s argument that the radicalism of the Parisian and other French hacks was fed by their low status and their self-interested hatred of the Old Regime. This argument, they suggest, smacks of sociological reductionism and seems to debunk the idealism that inspired so many writers and revolutionaries. Darn- ton’s distaste for “the great-man, great-book variety of literary history,” according to one of the historians, exhibits a pronounced anti-intellectual strain and a bias against the weight of ideas.

In his rebuttal, Darnton does not surrender much ground. He rightly sees no incompatibility between his emphasis on the social circumstances of his writers and the importance of their ideas. He was not saying in 1971 that ideas were simply the products of economic circumstances but that studying the careers of writers could be helpful in understanding how ideas were generated and disseminated.

Darnton admits that the sociology of his early work was perhaps thin and oversimple, but he believes that it presented a fresh way of looking at the culture and mentalité of the Old Regime, a perspective that is apparent in his new collection. Throughout his work, he has celebrated the pure empiricism of archival research. “Digging downward in intellectual history,” he wrote at the outset, “calls for new methods and new materials, for grubbing in archives instead of contemplating philosophical treatises.” He has never lost his early passion for archival research. Instead of invoking the literary theories and the obscure abstractions so appealing to many of his fellow historians, he has repeatedly urged them to look at the texts of the Old Regime “from the perspective of what appealed to eighteenth-century Frenchmen rather than twentieth-century professors.” Go to the archives has been his advice to all would-be historians. It is there that the surprises and curiosities about the past lie; and where the historical questions to be answered will be posed.

Certainly in his own case the archives have proved generous. In the 1960s Darnton walked into what he called “a historian’s dream”—an enormous cache of virtually untouched archives, the papers of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel in the municipal library of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The Société typographique was one of the largest of the many publishing houses that grew up around France’s borders in the eighteenth century, all attempting to supply the demand for pirated and prohibited books within the ancien régime. “Its papers,” noted Darnton, “contain the richest vein of information about an eighteenth-century publisher anywhere in existence,” and Darnton has spent his working life tapping this vein with extraordinary success.

He also remains interested in the sociology of writers. How did they pursue their careers? How did their economic and social condition affect their writing? Whom did they write for and why? One of the most important essays in this recent collection clearly reveals the rewards of Darnton’s approach to his underground writers. Its subject is Jacques-Pierre Brissot in the 1780s, before he became the leader of the Girondists during the Revolution. Brissot has long interested Darnton and is the principal subject of two other essays in the book as well. In “The Pursuit of Profit: Rousseauism on the Bourse,” Darnton shows how Brissot emerged from the Parisian counterpart of Grub Street to become the shadow press officer and defender of Étienne Clavière, the rich financier and stockbroker who became finance minister of France in 1792. Clavière rescued Brissot from bankruptcy and in return Brissot became Clavière’s press agent, writing pamphlet after pamphlet in an effort to manipulate both the stock market and the politics of state finance on Clavière’s behalf. Darnton’s essay is a model of historical reconstruction, and it is important because, as Darnton claims, it shows “how ideas filtered into everyday life and colored the perception of current events.”

Fascinated by the ways the illegal and pornographic writings of these Grub Street hacks were disseminated, Darnton has become increasingly concerned with what he calls “the business of Enlightenment,” with books as “objects of manufacture, works of art, [and] articles of commercial exchange.” In his later work he became less interested in dividing the world into high and low enlightenments and much more drawn to book publishing and bookselling. He wants to know how publishers and booksellers work. How did forbidden books get distributed? How did people find out about things in eighteenth-century Paris?

Another important essay, “The News in Paris: An Early Information Society,” grows out of questions of this kind. It builds on Darnton’s previous work on modes of communication in the Old Regime. Legally the public had no right to information about politics, which was exclusively the business of the king and his advisers. The press was censored and official news was very limited, yet the public was increasingly interested in knowing what was going in the court and government. In such contradictory circumstances how did the public get its news? That is the question Darnton wants to answer in this essay.

Darnton describes a complicated system of multiple modes of communication, a system as complicated for its time as ours is for our time. It was made up of “an amalgam of overlapping, interpenetrating messages, spoken, written, pictured, and sung.” The news was disseminated, Darnton says, through various channels to reach an ever-wider public. A piece of insider gossip at court, for example, might become a general rumor as it spread through Paris. This in turn could become incorporated into handwritten news sheets, which might also circulate in the provinces. Finally, the gossip might be printed in a scandalous book, which sometimes became a best seller, going through many editions and reaching readers everywhere. For his sources Darnton relies largely on spy reports and police records. Knowing the danger of such questionable sources, he nevertheless extracts from them, in the most imaginative historical detective work, remarkable descriptions of “two modes of communication that functioned most effectively in eighteenth-century Paris: gossip and songs.”

Gossip about the sex life of King Louis XV led to the publication in the middle decades of the eighteenth century of at least four novels in which real persons, including the King, appeared as fictitious characters. With separate literary keys or code-breakers, which were often inserted in the books’ binding or entered in handwriting on the last page, these novels could be read at ever-deeper levels revealing ever-naughtier stories about the King and his private life. Some even charged him with incest. The spread of such libelles, Darnton contends, helped to erode the moral legitimacy of the monarchy.

Songs did the same thing. Their words had all sorts of hidden meanings and double entendres that mocked the monarchy. So prevalent were these scandalous songs that the King and the government became determined to wipe them out. Darnton takes us through a police manhunt in 1749 for the author of some disreputable lyrics, a manhunt, says Darnton, that “produced the richest dossiers of literary detective work that I have ever encountered.” After a long search, the police finally arrested a person who possessed a handwritten text of the scandalous verse. But he said he got it from someone else, who got it from someone else, and so on through fourteen people. The police finally gave up without finding the originator of the offensive lyrics that had grown and proliferated as they passed from person to person. Each of these fourteen persons was arrested and each arrest generated its own dossier, which contained new evidence about the way such songs were communicated.

The pattern of communication that Darnton uncovered from the police records—what he calls “a multimedia feedback system” that resembles the Internet—was so complicated that he presents a flow chart to describe it. This affair of the fourteen, as it came to be labeled, was not unique; it was one example of many others involving satiric and scandalous songs, songs that were part of a full-scale media assault on the monarchy and the court.

We should stop distinguishing between separate spheres of elite and popular culture, Darnton writes. In communication they became mingled: learned pamphlets and smutty stories both worked to degrade the monarchy and prepare the way for the Revolution. All of the forbidden books that Darnton has spent his career uncovering and studying had simple themes:

The court is always sinking deeper into depravity, the ministers are always deceiving the king, the king is always failing to fulfill his role as head of state, the state’s power is always being abused, and the common people are always paying the price for the injustices inflicted on them—higher taxes, increased suffering, more discontent, and greater impotence in the face of an arbitrary and all-powerful government.

Darnton admits that in this brief essay he could not demonstrate fully and conclusively how many different kinds of communications worked to provide a frame for the French public’s perception of events during the crisis of 1787 and 1788. But he hopes that he has at least provoked some fresh thinking about the connection between the media and politics. Think of his essay, he says, as a promissory note for a book that will show “how the crisis was construed, day by day, in all the media of the time.” It’s a book we can eagerly look forward to.

This Issue

March 11, 2004