Robert Darnton and Zhang Chi: a conversation

Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, Emeritus and University Librarian, Emeritus at Harvard University. He is well known as a leader in the field of cultural history and history of books. Darnton’s works have profoundly changed historians’ understanding of the world of print and communication in eighteenth-century France. On 17 March 2022, he will give a lecture in the Weston Library, Oxford. Please keep an eye on our website for further information.

From 13-22 October 2019, being invited by Zhang Chi (associate professor in the History Department of Zhejiang University, China), Darnton visited Zhejiang University and gave three lectures. Our conversation began with a discussion of Darnton’s recollections of his academic career after nearly half a century of research of the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel.

Zhang Chi: You’ve been into the history of books ever since the 1970s. I suppose it was better to say that it selected you, than that you chose it. We all are familiar with that story: you got in touch with the library in Neuchâtel to get materials on Brissot, and then there were 50,000 letters. You dug into it the way a journalist would do with a murder case. As an American, why did you choose to study French history? What were things like in the field of the history of books when you first got in?

Robert Darnton: First, I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to address Chinese readers. During my recent visit to Zhejiang University I was greatly impressed not only by the hospitality I received but also by my hosts’ knowledge of Western history. I realized, too, how much I had to learn about the East. I hope this dialogue will contribute at least in a small way to communication between our two sides of the globe. I have grouped the questions together and omitted a few of them to make my answers more coherent.

As I get older, I have an increasing appreciation of contingency. An epidemic unexpectedly breaks out in a remote city, and the world economy collapses. Events like the American invasion of Iraq have disastrous, unintended consequences. Individuals change the course of history – for better (Nelson Mandela) or worse (Donald Trump). History was not supposed to happen that way, according to the Annales School. When I took a deep dive into Annales history in the early 1970s, I absorbed a view of history as long-term structural change uncovered by statistics – ‘histoire sérielle’, as François Furet called it. Furet introduced me to the historians working with him on Livre et société in 1972. Rather than concentrating on great books by famous writers, they used statistical analysis to detect century-long trends. The Enlightenment appeared implicitly as part of a shift away from religious and toward secular subjects across many decades and on a gigantic scale. A new discipline, histoire du livre, promised to reveal general patterns of culture – profound tendencies comparable to what the Annalistes had discovered in studying economic, demographic, and social history.

It was a compelling project, and I thought I had something to contribute to it, because I had been working in the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel since 1965. I had been doing histoire du livre without knowing it, before the term existed. My research fitted in with that of the Furet group, because it concerned the kind of literature excluded from their sources: illegal books, which I could count and map, showing their diffusion throughout France during the two decades before the Revolution. The history of books has changed enormously since the 1970s, and looking back at it, one factor in my own experience confirms my sense of contingency. I strayed into the archives of the STN by following up a footnote, not to study book history but rather to write a biography of Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who published his works in Neuchâtel. When I abandoned the biography and took up the history of books, I chose a fork in the road, and soon there was no going back. Of course, other factors influenced my decision. It was not a matter of chance.

In answering your question, I want to suggest something that I think has shaped many historians’ careers: opportunities that arise unexpectedly, options taken or rejected, unforeseen consequences, and fortuna. It was good fortune to come of age in the United States during the 1950s, when scholarships were plentiful, and to begin a career in the 1960s, when jobs were easily available. In fact, I have been downright lucky. Unlike my father, who fought in World War I and was killed in World War II, I never had to join the army. As to why I as an American should have been interested in France, a question I am often asked, my answer is that France is interesting, inexhaustably interesting, not only in itself (the cafés, the vineyards, the cathedals) but for its relevance to general questions: How do ideas ‘take’ in a social order? What is public opinion? Why do revolutions occur? Those questions bring me to others that you ask.

Zhang Chi: In What is history?, Edward Carr thought it good for history and sociology to learn from each other. While you belonged to another generation, who were concerned with the conversation between history and anthropology. Many years ago, over 20 years if I remember what you said right, you conducted a joint seminar on history and anthropology together with Clifford Geertz at Princeton University. In addition you have prefaced The Interpretation of cultures. Would you like to talk about this seminar? Why would you think history should be in conversation with anthropology? And on the other hand, what would other disciplines, anthropology, for instance, learn from history?

Robert Darnton: Like many historians, I have found inspiration in anthropology, sociology, and other academic disciplines. Yet I would like to point out a misconception about interdisciplinarity. Speaking for myself, at least, I don’t believe in rummaging around in the social sciences in order to come up with tools. With the exceptions of economics and demography, I don’t think social-science methods can be used to engineer historical research. In place of methodological prescriptions, I would invoke two remarks by historians I admire. Marc Bloch said (I am speaking from memory and may get the words slightly wrong): ‘The historian is like the ogre of the fairy tale; where he smells man, he finds his prey.’ And my friend and colleague, the late Carl Schorske, used to say: ‘Man is a meaning-making animal.’

I think the need for meaning is as fundamental for humans as food and drink. By that I don’t mean to imply that ordinary people think like philosophers. As Lévi-Strauss demonstrated, they express ideas and feelings by combining concrete things in their thoughts. Some things in certain cultures are peculiarly good to think with (the French says it better: ‘choses bonnes à penser’). Anthropologists have come up with famous examples – Mary Douglas’s pangolin, Victor Turner’s milk tree, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s witchcraft-substance. The power of such thinkable things consists in the way they are woven into rituals and fit into general patterns of culture. Anthropology can help a historian understand cultural patterns, but it does not provide instruments that will unlock symbolic systems. There is nothing instrumental or mechanical about it. It is exegetic, interpretive, hermeneutical, but it is not arbitrary. Symbolic worlds really exist. In fact, they constitute reality. However, historians, like anthropologists, can get them wrong – and fail to get them adequately right, just as we do when we cannot make ourselves understood in a foreign language. In the seminar I taught with Clifford Geertz, we tried to help the students understand that the interpretation of culture requires rigor, evidence, and conceptual clarity. We had no tool kit to offer, but we were able to orient discussions around a basic problem: what made life meaningful for other people in other times and places.

I fear that I am sounding avuncular, a danger that increases with age. Perhaps it would be better if I gave an example of a sociological concept that I recently found helpful. In The Presentation of Self in everyday life, the sociologist Erving Goffman argues that interpersonal relations can be understood as a form of theatricality. We assume roles and act in conformity with implicit scripts. When I first read the book, I took away from it little more than the notion of role playing, a fairly obvious thought that Goffman works over with a great deal of wit. In rereading it, I understood a more challenging idea: when we assume the roles of audience and actors – for example, in placing an order with a waiter for a meal or in registering with an official to get a driver’s license – we define a situation; we accept a mutual understanding of what is going on. While reading reports of incidents in Paris during the so-called prerevolution of 1787-1788, I found a surprising tendency for contemporary observers to use theatrical metaphors. The Assembly of Notables, for example, was described as a ‘troupe de comédiens’. As I accumulated information, I realized the constant references to acting in roles was a way of construing events – what Goffman calls ‘defining the situation’ or determining ‘what is going on’. As the Parisians understood it, the fundamental situation in 1787-1788 was a struggle against despotism. Yet as historians have traditionally understood it, the prerevolution was an aristocratic revolt. The disparity between the contemporary and the historical views opened up a possibility of rethinking events and of seeing how they figured in the creation of a collective consciousness. That is the subject of the book I am now trying to write.

Zhang Chi: In studying the history of books, you focus on books themselves: how were they made, subscribed, and sold? But you didn’t seem to be concerned with the way people understood them, and the impact such understanding cast on their actions. Is that true? If so, your researches would be different from your friend Roger Chartier’s history of reading. We can know what people read, if there are necessary materials, but it’s hard to know what they think. I think that would be the problem with the history of reading. Would you have divergence with Charter on certain problems? How do you understand the history of reading?

Robert Darnton: I certainly agree that the history of books should include the history of reading, and I have attempted in a few essays to understand the way the French read books two and a half centuries ago. The problem I kept running into was the paucity of sources. Fortunately I found enough evidence to understand how readers responded to the works of Rousseau, but I did not come across documentation about the response to other authors. Of course, we can study marginalia, commonplace books, reviews, and a few other sources. But we do not have enough material to construct a rigorous history of reading – nothing like what we can demonstrate in studying the production and diffusion of books. We are reduced to aperçus. They can be important, suggesting, for example, that silent reading existed in antiquity and that conventions about the spacing of words and punctuation arose during the Middle Ages. I am persuaded by the insights of Roger Chartier and other historians, but I do not think they have produced a history of reading.

I have also followed Roger Chartier in taking inspiration from the works of Michel de Certeau and Richard Hoggarth. They emphasize the active role of readers in construing texts – even to the extent of finding meanings that were not intended by the authors. In this view, readers exert independent power, and readings vary accordingly. However, that raises a problem: if readers behave as poachers, acccording to de Certeau’s famous remark, the poaching, taken as a whole, could look like anarchy, endlessly varied individual experiences, and it would be impossible to perceive general tendencies. One way out of this dilemma could be to fall back on the notion of ‘interpretive communities’ developed by literary theorists such as Stanley Fish. That can be helpful, but how can those communities be detected and described? Where is the evidence of their activities? Like many literary scholars, I have become wary of theory as a way to understand the history of literature.

Despite these difficulties, I think it would be a mistake to ignore the impact of a few important books such as Uncle Tom’s cabin and The Sorrows of young Werther. Rousseau’s works had a profound effect on the reading public in France, even after 1789 when they appealed to émigrés as well as revolutionaries. The Wertherfieber certainly deserves a place in the social history of Germany. In casting about for ways of coping with the difficulties, I have recently been impressed by the insights of the sociologist Gustave Tarde and the historian Benedict Anderson. They relate reading to the formation of collective consciousness. Although, as they acknowledge, individuals read books in different ways, readers as a whole share a sense of participation in the same general activity. Anderson goes so far as to interpret this collective experience as a decisive factor in the development of nationalism in colonial societies. I think that the reading public under the Ancien Régime, varied as it was, developed a general awareness of participating in literary culture. The eighteenth century was a time when writers were celebrated as public personages, when the ‘sacre de l’écrivain’ took hold, and when the intellectual as a social type first emerged. That, too, is the subject of a book I hope to write.

Couronnement de Voltaire sur le Théâtre Français, le 30 mars 1778 (engraving by Charles-Etienne Gaucherl Wikimedia Commons).

Zhang Chi: Compared with the history of books you were concerned with, what kind of breakthrough would the history of communication bring into the understanding and interpretation of history?

Robert Darnton: The connection between reading and collective consciousness has implications for the attempt to understand the relation of the Enlightenment to the Revolution. I think it is clear, for example, that Voltaire mobilized public indignation about abuses in the Church and the judiciary during the Calas Affair. He did not simply ridicule religious orthodoxy as he had done in his early career; he damaged the authority of priests and parlementary magistrates by occupying a higher moral ground. It was the shifting, not just the sapping of moral authority that made the Enlightenment a force. Empowered by that realignment and driven by that ethical energy, the revolutionaries set out to create a new world.

Utopian fervor can spread through the social order like wildfire. Historians have shown how it drove millenarian movements, especially during the Reformation, and I think that something similar took place in the French Revolution. The common people in the Sections of Paris were seized by the energy and vision of radicals who had absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment during difficult careers in the lower ranks of literature and the law. Pierre Manuel, as I have tried to show in The Devil in the Holy Water, typifies Sectional radicals of this kind. Thanks to the power of the press, men of the same stripe – Brissot, Carra, Marat, Danton, Desmoulins – rose to power at the national level. When I first developed this argument, which identified radicalism with the milieu known as Grub Street, I over-stated the case. But I did not mean to reduce revolutionary energy to the frustrations of hack writers. Instead, I intended to demonstrate the importance of obscure intermediaries in the process of ideological mobilization.

A poster of 1793 displaying the Phrygian bonnet.

Non-print media were crucial to this process. Few sans-culottes read books, even if they were literate. They listened to speeches, sang songs, marched in processions, and ate off plates decorated with Phrygian bonnets and crowing roosters. Newspapers and pamphlets belonged to a general stream of sounds and images that swept through Paris. The same was true before 1789. In Poetry and the police I tried to reconstruct the course of that stream in the context of the political crisis of 1749-1750, a time when the Maurepas ministry was overthrown and when contemporaries attributed its downfall to ‘songs’. That observation was a short-hand way of describing the mixed messages that passed through all the media of the time and that actually shaped events. Chamfort made the point with a witticism: ‘France is an absolute monarchy tempered by songs.’ So, yes indeed, I do believe that the history of books should be situated within the study of other media and of communication in general.

Zhang Chi: In The Cambridge Companion to the French Enlightenment (2014) French scholar Antoine Lilti asked: ‘Is it possible to write a social history of the Enlightenment? What connections should be drawn between the works, ideas and authors that brought great changes to the intellectual and political landscape in France during the long eighteenth century – commonly called the Enlightenment – and the social changes that occurred during this period?’ What would be your answer to this question? Half a century has passed since you first published The High Enlightenment and the low-life of literature in Pre-revolutionary France. In your opinion, what kind of progress have we made in understanding Enlightenment as a social phenomenon generally? Digitization changed a lot about historical researches. What do you think about its implication?

Robert Darnton: I think Antoine Lilti has partly answered his question by his own work on the salons and the nature of celebrity. Both of his books successfully relate the Enlightenment to social life in Paris during the eighteenth century. Yet they do not constitute a social history of the Enlightenment, a large enterprise that would require broader research. One problem, of course, is how to conceive of the Enlightenment itself. I am not a great believer in definitions, because they tend to reify a subject – that is, to treat it as a thing-in-itself, which, once identified, can be traced through history as if it were a radioactive substance in the blood stream. Antoine Lilti is conscious of this danger and therefore emphasizes the games and worldly amusements of the salons along with the performances in them by the philosophes. He puts Rousseau’s influence into a social context by showing how it was carried on the wave of a new phenomenon, the fascination with celebrities, which included a few philosophes but usually featured non-intellectuals like Cagliostro and the cardinal de Rohan. The more we know about the social context of the Enlightenment, the better we can appreciate it as a historical phenomenon. By situating the Enlightenment socially, however, we may raise the danger of blunting the sharpness of the philosophes’ ideas, of underestimating their cutting edge.

That problem did not seem urgent to the generation that set the course of Enlightenment studies immediately after World War II. Although I myself did not intend to become a historian of the Enlightenment, I got to know the leading scholars of that generation thanks to my tutor at Oxford, Robert Shackleton, the expert on Montesquieu. He introduced me to Franco Venturi, the historian of intellectuals and the reform movement in Italy. Later I became a close friend of Roland Mortier and met other specialists like René Pomeau, Ralph Leigh, and Ira Wade. They did not find the Enlightenment problematic, although they disagreed in describing aspects of it. Its leaders could be identified, its ideas analyzed. It was a field of study, with its own reviews, organizations, and congresses. Above all, as they understood it, it challenged orthodox ideas. It took the Church as its principal target, and it fomented reform of all kinds, social and political. This militant Enlightenment suited a generation that had fought fascism in World War II and opposed totalitarianism during the Cold War.

The current generation has other concerns. Without presuming to characterize it as a whole, I would mention two factors that have shaped its scholarship: globalization and digitization. The attempt to see everything globally can appear as a fad, yet it is an appropriate response to the interconnectedness of the world today. The International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, which was devoted primarily to the famous philosophes (above all Voltaire) at the time of its founding by Theodore Besterman, now includes 37 national societies, which cover most of the globe. Their members want to investigate Enlightenment thought as it affected people in Rio de Janeiro, Tunis, and (yes!) Beijing – and they want to know how those people developed ideas of their own. One line of inquiry that corresponds to the interests of this generation deals directly with connectedness. Enlightenment scholars have studied correspondence networks, showing how intellectuals communicated through the mail and how their exchanges created a common sense of participation in an international Republic of Letters. The correspondence of Samuel Formey, the secretary of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, is astonishing. He wrote and received dozens of letters every day from nearly every part of the Western world.

That brings me to the second subject, digitization. If Formey’s correspondence were digitized, it would be a map of the Republic of Letters. (There have been attempts to do so, but I think they have foundered.) We now have nearly complete editions of the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson, and they have been digitized. Taken together, they already constitute such a map; and they have been combined with digital versions of many other writers in a gigantic data base, the Electronic Enlightenment administered from Oxford. The digitization of texts such as ARTFL’s version of Diderot’s Encyclopédie raises endless possibilities for word-searching, context-scrutinizing, and discourse analysis. I won’t mention other examples of big data, which, I gather, are familiar in China. But I would like to conclude by suggesting one direction that might be taken by future scholarship.

The Enlightenment can be understood as a campaign to spread light. Most of its ideas had been developed before the eighteenth century. What gave the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ its peculiar character was the diffusion of ideas, followed up by engagement in putting them into practice. Leaders like Voltaire, Franklin, and Formey consciously manipulated the media of their day. Their strategies could be studied and compared so that we could see them at work, enlisting allies, attacking enemies, empowering reforms, and transforming public opinion. Research of this kind is already taking place and could lead to something like a social history of the Enlightenment. If I were to choose one example of a book that shows the way, I would cite Forging Rousseau: print, commerce and cultural manipulation in the late Enlightenment by the late and much regretted Raymond Birn. It gives a deeply researched and superbly written account of how Rousseau became embedded in the collective imagination of the French.

From a letter by Voltaire to d’Alembert, 28 September 1763 (D11433; Gallica images).

Although I haven’t come close to answering all your questions, I had better stop here at the point where globalization and digitization converge. It should be clear at this point that scholarship cannot be contained within national, disciplinary, or political boundaries. I am sending my replies to you from a place of confinement at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic and at a moment when the destructive forces of nationalism and bigotry seem more threatening than ever. Yet we still hear the call of Voltaire: Ecrasons l’infâme.

Another version of this interview has been published in Historiography Bimonthly (2021, No. 1). Thanks for the authorization from its editors. Especially thanks to Jiao Bing, editor from Historical Research.

Voltaire, historiographe précurseur: ‘Les mœurs des hommes, l’esprit de parti, se connaissent à la manière d’écrire l’histoire’ (Essai sur les mœurs, ch.171)

Les chapitres 170, 171 et 173 de l’Essai sur les mœurs (OCV, t.26B) consacrés aux guerres civiles de France donnent à Voltaire l’occasion de reprendre un sujet sur lequel il a commencé à faire des recherches lors de la composition de La Henriade (publiée sous le titre de La Ligue en 1723). Cette période particulièrement tourmentée et sanglante de l’histoire de France illustre mieux qu’aucune autre l’engrenage de la violence, qui revêt, à côté du conflit militaire, de multiples visages: libelles haineuses, conspirations (conjuration d’Amboise) et factions (la Ligue), emprisonnements et jugements sommaires, massacres (Wassy, la Saint-Barthélemy) et assassinats – ces derniers prenant même la forme extrême du régicide, sur lequel se clôt le règne calamiteux d’Henri III.

Hogenberg / Franois / 0410. L'assassinat du duc de Guise / [est

François Hogenberg, ‘L’assassinat du duc de Guise’ (estampe, XVIe siècle; Bibliothèque nationale de France).


C’est là un riche sujet de réflexion pour Voltaire, qui, dans la lignée de Bossuet, puise dans l’Histoire la matière d’un enseignement moral et philosophique, jugeant le passé à l’aune des préoccupations contemporaines. Les Guerres de Religion sont à cet égard un cas d’école: on ne peut mieux prouver les méfaits, bien plus, l’absurdité de l’intolérance religieuse, qui favorise ce qu’elle prétend détruire. Non pas que l’auteur accorde, dans sa narration, la place qu’on attendrait au débat théologique, bien au contraire. Ce silence s’explique fondamentalement par la vision voltairienne du rapport entre pouvoir et religion: chez les princes, note-t-il, ‘la religion n’est presque jamais que leur intérêt’; elle n’est qu’un prétexte pour conquérir ou conserver le pouvoir, un moyen d’instrumentaliser le peuple fanatisé.

Plus fondamentalement, son projet d’histoire universelle le conduit à renouveler le regard qu’il portait sur cette époque dans La Henriade ou l’Essay upon the civil wars of France (1728). Sa vision s’enrichit de l’attention portée à la longue durée – aux mœurs de la Cour, aux conditions matérielles d’existence, aux institutions politiques ou juridiques, aux structures économiques et financières du royaume. De façon intéressante, Voltaire intègre ces données d’arrière-plan à la trame événementielle. Ainsi, pour éclairer l’enchaînement imprévu des faits qui aboutissent à la tuerie de Wassy, il souligne l’habitude qu’ont alors les seigneurs de se déplacer accompagné d’une très nombreuse suite.

Voltaire approfondit son érudition par un travail de documentation considérable – puisant aussi bien dans les travaux des historiens que dans les chroniques et les mémoires du temps, chez les auteurs protestants que chez les auteurs catholiques – et prend ouvertement position dans le débat historiographique, ici pour corriger une erreur, là pour dénoncer la partialité d’un jugement, quitte à se montrer injuste envers les auteurs qu’il utilise abondamment, comme c’est le cas pour le jésuite Daniel.

Comme l’a montré Pierre Force dans sa Préface du tome 26B, l’écriture de l’Essai sur les mœurs témoigne d’un art de la brièveté qui le rattache au genre du ‘précis’. Dans nos chapitres, Voltaire se contente souvent de faire allusion aux événements supposés connus, pour se concentrer sur des détails piquants, des anecdotes savoureuses, des propos mémorables. Il livre un portrait romanesque de la Cour sous la régence de Catherine de Médicis et le règne de ses fils, qui forme un curieux mélange de ‘galanteries et de fureurs’, et ne manque pas une occasion de surprendre ou d’amuser son lecteur, a fortiori si elle lui permet au passage de faire montre de son savoir. En somme, on découvre dans ces chapitres quelques-unes des caractéristiques essentielles d’une figure d’historien que l’édition critique de l’Essai sur les mœurs aura permis d’appréhender dans toute sa complexité.

– Justine de Reyniès