- The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment, and: Citizens without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociability in French Thought, 1670–1789
The simultaneous publication of these two studies caused this reviewer to reflect upon the powers as they have been balanced of late in French historiography. Some trends are as obvious as the widespread interest in literary texts and literary commerce on the part of cultural historians and the massive investment in the eighteenth century, in particular in the French Revolution. Countertrends are perhaps less conspicuous—for instance, the fact that none of the energy generated around the eighteenth century has inspired a similar renewal of seventeenth-century historiography. Of late, historians have not been inclined to follow Paul Hazard’s lead: rarely have they traced the origins of the Enlightenment to the seventeenth century’s closing decades.
I would like to hope that these studies by Dena Goodman and Daniel Gordon will someday be seen as part of a new inclination in cultural history. Whereas they both turn largely to literary material for their revised views of the eighteenth century, they begin their search for new developments in the seventeenth century. Because of this displacement, Goodman and Gordon highlight institutions such as the salon and concepts such as sociability never more influential nor more widely theorized than during the glorious years of the Sun King’s reign. Rather than merely citing contemporary literary texts as confirmation of historical and cultural developments, as is too often the case, these historians place literature at the center of culture: they see genres such as the letter and the conversation at the origin of the cultural trends that interest them. In the process, they provide accounts of the development of French culture in its most characteristic phase that literary historians and scholars may well find more satisfying than other recent efforts to bring literature into the historian’s domain. [End Page 115]
Some cultural historians, on the other hand, may be less pleased with the ways in which Goodman and Gordon define their enterprises. Goodman’s project is particularly likely to unsettle. In no uncertain terms, she takes on many of the pillars of Enlightenment historiography—from Daniel Mornet, to Ernst Cassirer, to Robert Darnton, to Roger Chartier (56–73). Gordon, although he is less decisively critical of his predecessors, takes Darnton to task for his definition of the social (139), formulates a detailed and convincing critique of Norbert Elias’s view of the “civilizing process,” and disagrees with recent French scholars—from Pierre Bourdieu, to Chartier, to Jacques Revel—whose views of early modern France are founded on Elias’s theories.
Their extensive self-positioning has a major common goal, that of demonstrating that much activity generally classified as “merely” social—especially all the varied manifestations of conversation that were so central to the intellectual life of the Ancien Régime’s last two centuries—has true political content. Gordon’s most important thesis—one that at least scholars who view the Enlightenment from the vantage point of the seventeenth century are likely to find convincing—is based on a distinction between what is generally thought of as equality and a form of social, prerevolutionary egalitarianism particular to roughly the last century of the Ancien Régime. According to Gordon, the salon society of the seventeenth century’s final decades “invent[ed] the social as a distinctive field of human experience” (5). It did so in order to construct a space that it could imagine as somehow outside the control of the absolute monarchy. Within this separate sphere, a new type of equality as well as other “prerevolutionary” concepts were put in place (4–6, 127–28).
Goodman’s most significant thesis also posits the centrality of salon activity for understanding the last century of the Ancien Régime. She criticizes previous historians for having looked “through a Rousseauean lens” (62), by...