Alain Corbin: Making Sense of French History
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French Historical Studies 25.2 (2002) 381-398

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Review Essay

Alain Corbin:
Making Sense of French History

Sima Godfrey

Archaïsme et modernité en Limousin au XIXe siècle, by Alain Corbin. Vol. 1, La rigidité des structures économiques, sociales et mentales. Vol. 2, La naissance d'une tradition de gauche (1975; reissued with new preface, Limoges, 1999)

Les filles de noce: Misère sexuelle et prostitution au XIXe siècle, by Alain Corbin (1978; abridged ed., Paris, 1982)

Le miasme et la jonquille: L'odorat et l'imaginaire social (XVIIIe–XIXe siècles), by Alain Corbin (1982; rpt., Paris, 1986)

Le territoire du vide: L'occident et le désir du rivage (1750–1840), by Alain Corbin (1988; rpt., Paris, 1990)

The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World 1750–1840, by Alain Corbin, trans. Jocelyn Phelps (Berkeley, Calif., 1994).

Le village des cannibales, by Alain Corbin (1991; rpt., Paris, 1995)

The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870, by Alain Corbin, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass., 1992)

Le temps, le désir, et l'horreur, by Alain Corbin (1991; rpt., Paris, 1998) [End Page 381]

Time, Desire, and Horror: Toward a History of the Senses, by Alain Corbin, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge, 1995)

Les cloches de la terre: Paysage sonore et culture sensible dans les campagnes au XIXe siècle, by Alain Corbin (Paris, 1994)

Village Bells: The Culture of the Senses in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside, by Alain Corbin, trans. Martin Thom (New York, 1998)

Le monde retrouvé de Louis-François Pinagot: Sur les traces d'un inconnu (1798–1876), by Alain Corbin (Paris, 1998)

Historien du sensible: Entretiens avec Gilles Heuré, by Alain Corbin (Paris, 2000)

"Coulisses," by Alain Corbin, in vol. 4 of Histoire de la vie privée, ed. Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby. 4 vols. (Paris, 1987)

Over the course of some ten remarkable books published since the completion of his magisterial thèse d'état in 1973 on the social, cultural, and political life of the Limousin region in the nineteenth century, Alain Corbin has established himself as one of the most original (and most translated) historians of modern France. Formed in the great Annales tradition of French scholarship epitomized by Fernand Braudel and Lucien Febvre, Corbin has forged his path as something of a maverick in the study of French social history—a maverick with a "crown," nonetheless, having been awarded the prestigious Prix Gobert (Grand Prix d'histoire) for his entire oeuvre by the Académie Française in 2000.

As a historian of French literature, I first encountered the work of Corbin in the very early 1980s. At a time when literary studies were largely dominated by poststructuralist analyses, Corbin's book on nineteenth-century prostitution offered invaluable insight into the cultural (as opposed to textual) constructs informing the representation of prostitutes in the nineteenth-century French social imagination. The books that followed reinforced for me Corbin's importance as a historical reader and analyst of various mentalités in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. I realized in retrospect that much of his originality as a historian was already evident in the thèse d'état.

In the avant-propos to his two-volume thèse, Archaïsme et modernité en Limousin au XIXe siècle, Corbin announced—with specific reference to Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre—that it was precisely because of his interest in studying "les mentalités populaires" that the peripheral Limousin region had appealed to him in the first place (vii–viii). He then set about to excavate that archaic peasant mentality in a structuralist analysis of indicators of geographical isolation, rural poverty, and low literacy rates. In its focus, the thèse brought a new cultural perspective [End Page 382] to the study of nineteenth-century French regional history that was largely characterized at the time by the neo-Marxist premises set forth in Ernest Labrousse's 1956 edited volume of essays, Aspects de la crise et de la dépression de l'économie fran&ccedil...