ASECS at 50:Interview with Robert Darnton
Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, Emeritus and University Librarian, Emeritus at Harvard University. He earned his A.B. from Harvard University and his B.Phil. and D.Phil. at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. After graduate school, he worked as a reporter for The New York Times. Darnton joined the faculty of the Department of History at Princeton University in 1968, where he worked for forty years. He became Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard University in 2007. He has served as president of the American Historical Association (1999) and the International Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies (1987). Darnton is a member of the French Legion of Honor, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, and an awardee of the Institut de France's Del Duca World Prize in the Humanities.
Darnton is well known as a leader in the field of cultural history. Cultural history as an approach emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s, as historians engaged with new theoretical and interdisciplinary approaches that equipped them to move beyond the study of elites. Darnton was among a group of historians who embraced critical theory and cultural anthropology to study the Ancien Régime and Revolutionary France. His books on cultural history include The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), which has been translated into eighteen languages, and The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (1991).
Robert Darnton has worked as a groundbreaking scholar in the history of the book. Over the course of his career, he has studied authors and readers, but also the numerous and fascinating middlemen who mediated the world of print: [End Page 21] the publishing houses, the printers and their apprentices, the agents, smugglers, peddlers and retailers, and the censors and police. His scholarship has enabled historians to understand the connections of such figures to one another, and to limn their engagement with broader intellectual currents, as well as state and market forces. He visualized this complex system of interaction within a "communications circuit," a model he first proposed in 1982 in his article, "What is the History of Books?" In addition to numerous articles, book chapters, and edited volumes, he has written more than a dozen books, which include: The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie (1979), The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Prerevolutionary France (1995), The Case for Books (2009), The Devil in the Holy Water or the Art of Slander in France from Louis XIV to Napoleon (2010), Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (2010), and A Literary Tour de France: The World of Books on the Eve of the French Revolution (2018). Darnton's work has profoundly shaped the way historians today understand the world of print and communication in the eighteenth century.
Our conversation began with a discussion of Darnton's recollections of the American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies in the 1970s and 1980s and his perspective on the field of eighteenth-century studies today. The discussion then turned to his experiences and influence on the field of eighteenth-century studies through his research and his leadership in the digital projects, Gutenberg-e and the Digital Public Library of America.
You have worked in a range of leadership positions over your career, including on the American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) Executive Board (1976–1980), and as President of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ISECS), which held its Enlightenment Congress in Budapest in 1987. What are your recollections of ASECS from that period, and of the 1987 Congress in particular?
As I recollect (but my memory is blurred and tinted around the edges with shop talk), ASECS was founded in the wake of a private steam ship, which took the participants of the first Enlightenment conference late at night in July 1963 from the château de Chillon on Lac Léman to Geneva. Theodore Besterman masterminded the affair. He had published the first of the 107 volumes of Voltaire's correspondence seven years earlier from his Genevan headquarters, and he inspired the succession of international conferences that took place at different sites every four years after the founding event in Geneva. They led to the creation of national societies of eighteenth-century studies, beginning with France in 1964 and the U.S. in 1969. I missed the Genevan extravaganza, but I heard all about it from Robert Shackleton, who then was one of my tutors at Oxford. Drawing on his inexhaustible energy and entrepreneurial spirit, Besterman set eighteenth-century studies on a course that was both international and interdisciplinary. It has remained so ever since.
I began serving on the Board of ASECS in 1976, the year of Besterman's death. By then, few of the American members had ever encountered him, and other senior scholars set the pace in the field, but there was a French focus in many of our activities. Perhaps it resulted from the concentration on Voltaire and the [End Page 22] other famous philosophes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Diderot. At that time, eighteenth-century studies crystallized around great men and great ideas. Women, except for a few salonnières, hardly existed, and the ideas came well packaged in great books, as we had studied them in the Arthur Lovejoy tradition of intellectual history. Notions of discourse, idiom, intertextuality, and episteme were nowhere to be found, except in remote corners of the Left Bank unknown to most of us.
Another characteristic of eighteenth-century studies as practiced in ASECS was the dominance of literature as opposed to history, the fine arts, philosophy, and the social sciences. Most of our members came from departments of English and Romance Languages, yet they usually approached their subjects from a historical or philosophical perspective. I think a survey of all the papers given at ASECS meetings would show a continued commitment to interdisciplinarity—an appropriate approach to a century when most academic disciplines had not yet taken shape and when cultural life spilled over national as well as intellectual boundaries.
Nationalism certainly had no place in our deliberations. Yet much friction developed between the American and the French societies, particularly at meetings of ISECS and in discussions of subjects like the payment of dues. At the ISECS meeting in New Haven in 1975, one prominent American dix-huitiémiste reportedly took off his coat and invited his French counterpart to a fight in the street. Perhaps this kind of conflict led to my election as vice-president (and president-elect) of ISECS in 1983. As a Francophile and a member of both the French and American societies, I was in a position to restore an entente cordiale.
By 1987, when I began to serve as president, the climate had changed, in part because of the thaw in the Cold War. The international conference took place that year in Budapest—for the first time in a country located within the Soviet empire. During the previous summer, Roland Mortier, the great Belgian scholar who then was president, his wife, and I drove from Brussels to Budapest to help prepare for the conference. I remember how Roland was seized with fear when we crossed the border: the hostility of the customs agents, the mirrors placed under the car, the surrender of our passports. But when we arrived in Budapest, passports duly stamped, the sun came out. Our host, Béla Köpeczi, a dix-huitiémiste who spoke fluent French, was minister of education. He served us the most stately dinner I have ever eaten: waiters standing at attention, Ancien Régime style, behind each chair, keeping our glasses full with astonishing Tokays. A year later, everything was sunshine. I left the conference in the hope that we dix-huitiémistes might contribute something, however modest, to ending the Cold War—not that I ever dreamt it would end within my lifetime.
One particularly rich aspect of Eighteenth-Century Studies as a journal is its publication of research informed by various interdisciplinary perspectives, from a wide range of geographic vantage points. How has this expansive approach at the journal, at ASECS, and ISECS opened up unique possibilities for scholarly conversations? In light of your work with this organization, what emerging approaches and questions have you found to be especially influential for eighteenth-century studies? In light of your experiences, what is most exciting to you about where eighteenth-century studies as a field is going? [End Page 23]
In 1988 I received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to create an East-West Seminar in Eighteenth-Century Studies. Under the auspices of ISECS, we would bring together ten young dix-huitiémistes from Eastern Europe and ten from the West. The best applicants would be selected by a jury of experts and would write papers, which would circulate in advance. They would meet for a week in a European capital to discuss the papers in an informal seminar. At the end of the week, the Western fellows would depart and the Easterners would be given the rest of the month to do as they pleased, in libraries, archives, and museums, with the help of mentors in the host city and a generous stipend, including a book account. We hoped that the fellows would stay in touch and form a network, which would grow over time, because the grant paid for a new set of fellows for four years, and it could be extended.
When I greeted the first group of fellows in Berlin in July 1989, I said that the seminar was theirs and it was up to them to make of it what they wanted. I had appointed a leader to preside over the discussions at each morning and afternoon session, and after things got under way, I retired into the background and did not say another word until I toasted them at the farewell dinner. Thanks to help from our host institution, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, everything worked out beautifully. The fellows exchanged letters and visits for many years—and four months after the first meeting, the Berlin Wall collapsed. That was not, I admit, a matter of cause and effect. The seminar continued long after the end of the Cold War, reinforced by further grants under the sponsorship of ISECS. It evolved into a North-South seminar, the focus shifting to relations among developing and developed countries. And it is still going strong, now reincarnated as the International Seminar for Early-Career Eighteenth-Century Scholars.
The seminar is a small part of a large enterprise: the attempt to overcome national and disciplinary boundaries in the spirit of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters. Despite the pressure of professionalization and careerism, that élan vital is still alive. Of course, it takes a different form. The Great Man, Great Book approach to the humanities now is dead. Younger scholars are attracted to subjects set off with adjectives like "inter" and "trans": interdisciplinary, intertextual, transatlantic, and transgender research. In the decades after World War II, eighteenth-century studies grew up around intellectual biographies: René Pomeau's Voltaire, Jean Starobinski's Rousseau, Robert Shackleton's Montesquieu, Arthur Wilson's Diderot. That also was an era of concentration on key concepts explored at length and in depth by huge tomes: happiness as studied by Robert Mauzi; nature, by Jean Ehrard. The French thèse d'Etat lent itself to such exhaustive research. Yet the British also stretched scholarship to its limits by producing critical editions. Ralph Leigh's edition of Rousseau's correspondence in 52 volumes is as exhaustive as Besterman's edition of Voltaire. The footnotes alone from those two works would constitute a biographical dictionary of the Enlightenment.
Yet scholarship on a grand scale still exists today, thanks to the Internet, electronic data bases, and algorithms. The ARTFL project at Chicago and the Electronic Enlightenment at the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford have opened up new perspectives on the eighteenth century. Research has gone global. In place of French literature, we now study francophone literature. Historians pay increasing attention to the colonial world—British, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Dutch. [End Page 24] Transnational studies of slavery and the slave trade extend around the world, and new research on the history of climate is global by its nature.
That said, I cannot put my finger in the wind and say where eighteenth-century studies are headed. I am too bad at predicting the changing shapes of the past to be able to prophesy about the future.
What motivated you to study the eighteenth century, personally and intellectually? How did you come to study the history of the book in particular? And what has held your attention in this field over the years?
I cannot say that when I met the eighteenth century it was love at first sight. There was a long period of foreplay. In college I majored in American history and literature. After graduation in 1960, I received a scholarship to Oxford and completed a quick and painless D.Phil. in 1964: no general examinations, no seminars, no supervision. I got on well with my supervisor, Richard Cobb, but he merely told me to go to the archives and come back and write. He never read my dissertation, which wasn't very good and has never been published. However, I did acquire a love of the archives. In 1964 I returned from Oxford to join The New York Times as a reporter in the city room and police headquarters. Having already done a lot of police reporting at The Newark Star-Ledger, I had had enough of holdups and homicides. I used to go to the reporters' "shack" outside police headquarters in Manhattan with a copy of Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy hidden inside a copy of Playboy so that the other reporters would not detect my taste in reading. When my Harvard tutor, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., nominated me for a position as a Junior Fellow in Harvard's Society of Fellows, I jumped at the chance. I resumed the study of history and have lived happily ever after.
Why the eighteenth century? I never intended to spend most of my life in that segment of time. When I arrived at Oxford in 1960, I first did a B.Phil. (now called an M.Phil., something like an intense M.A.) degree, and it had an attractive program on the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. I had two great tutors, Harry Pitt and Robert Shackleton. As I got deeper into study, the subject became increasingly fascinating, and I am still at it. The eighteenth century is irresistible.
As to the question of book history, I got into it by mistake, without knowing that I was doing the history of books, a term that did not exist at the time. In the course of my research for the D.Phil., I became interested in Jacques-Pierre Brissot, the leader of the Girondists in the French Revolution and one of the most radical enthusiasts for the new American republic before 1789. I wrote a short thesis for the B.Phil. about a société de pensée, the Gallo-American Society founded by Brissot and some other wild-eyed Rousseauists. In following up a footnote, I learned that the small, municipal library of Neuchâtel, Switzerland had some unpublished letters by Brissot. After I received my fellowship at Harvard in 1965, I went straight to the library in Neuchâtel, and there, sure enough, were 119 Brissot letters, enough to provide a completely new interpretation of his prerevolutionary career. Those letters were in the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), the only eighteenth-century publisher and wholesale book dealer whose papers have survived nearly intact. The STN archives contain almost 50,000 other letters, all by [End Page 25] people who had to do with books—printers, paper millers, smugglers, and wagon drivers, as well as authors and book sellers. I plugged away at the biography of Brissot, but after 500 pages I put it in a drawer, where it has remained ever since, because I decided that the history of books was more important than the history of Brissot. (Actually, I published his letters with a long biographical introduction, so I did not completely abandon the subject.)
You have worked on the Société typographique de Neuchâtel for five decades. What has drawn you to return to the STN throughout your career?
I began to work in Neuchâtel in the summer of 1965. Now, in the summer of 2019, I think that I am finished. I have just completed a book, Publishing and Pirating in the Age of Enlightenment, which is a sister volume to a previous work, A Literary Tour de France: The World of Books on the Eve of the French Revolution. Before them I published many other books and articles based on the STN papers and related collections in Paris. Sometimes I ask myself why I devoted so much of my life to this subject, which is hardly designed to attract a large number of readers, especially in the United States. I have come up with two answers: the research is important, and it is fun.
Your work has been foundational to the field we now know as the history of the book. What do you believe makes this scholarly field so integral and influential for eighteenth-century studies? How has your work focusing on intermediaries changed the way we understand the "social history of ideas"?
The importance of book history is evident if you read the work of scholars like Roger Chartier (France), James Raven (England), David Hall (the United States), and Reinhard Wittmann (Germany). Aside from its implications for understanding history and literature in general, it has pertinence to particular questions. One, posed by Daniel Mornet in 1910, is: What did the French read in the eighteenth century? Mornet was a fine scholar, but he made several mistakes and left the question hanging. In A Literary Tour de France, I believe I have answered it. After reading thousands of letters by book sellers, I compiled statistics from the orders they sent to the STN. I will spare you my argument about methodology and the representativeness of the sources, but I think I have measured literary demand and have demonstrated what books actually circulated on the market place. I also have been able to identify the character of the reading public—in a general way, if not with sociological precision. But I find it impossible to discover how eighteenth-century readers read, except in a few case studies, such as one concerning a merchant in La Rochelle who was a passionate disciple of Rousseau. Many other questions remain, including those about connections between buying books, reading them, forming opinions, and taking action. I do not believe in linear notions of causality, and I am still wrestling with the problem of relating culture to revolution. But I am convinced that the history of books can take us deep into the world as it was experienced by ordinary people in their everyday lives, a kind of scholarship that could be called the social history of ideas or ethnographic history. [End Page 26]
The second answer concerns the sheer pleasure of archival research. You have a hunch; you order a carton of documents; you untie a ribbon and open the box; you see a stack of folders; and you begin to read your way through them, letter after letter. Little by little, a human being emerges and a story takes shape. When I began, computers and smartphones did not exist. I took notes on index cards and arranged the cards in shoe boxes. As the shoe boxes piled up, I faced the task of transforming the index cards into history. It is hard work, but pleasurable, because it gives you the sense of making contact with people whose lives have been forgotten, like those of most human beings.
Some have argued that we are living through a communication revolution as profound as the one Gutenberg and his contemporaries experienced. How has the so-called digital age changed your own research? From your perspective, how has it changed the field of eighteenth-century studies?
The problem of construing history from notes still exists in the electronic age. Perhaps it has become more difficult. A few years ago when I was in the Archives nationales, scribbling away on index cards with a pencil and surrounded by people tapping at their computers, I came upon a long letter so rich in detail that I decided to photocopy it. I asked the person in charge of the reading room whether I could do so. She looked at me with barely concealed disgust. "We don't photocopy any more," she said. "Look around you." Not only were the others using computers, they were also photographing documents with iPhones. Click, click, click. The work went so fast that they could get through entire cartons in a matter of minutes. Back home, they would have archives of their own, searchable on computers. This is, I agree, a great technological leap forward. Yet some students never read all the texts in their data bases. They do word searches, instead. If you work slowly through documents, summarizing their contents, copying out key passages, and writing an interpretive note to yourself about their importance, you absorb a great deal. As Flaubert said about one of his long periods between books, you are "marinating." And index notes, if properly filed, can be arranged in various ways to help you perceive patterns in the material.
Now, I am not making a mindless apology for artisanal craftsmanship. I did absorb a heavy dose of English empiricism, and even amateurism, during my years at Oxford. Later, however, I awakened to the importance of theory. I became a good friend of Pierre Bourdieu during a semester he spent at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and I taught a seminar on anthropology and history at Princeton off and on for twenty years with Clifford Geertz. I could mention other friends and mentors from the theoretical side of the "human sciences." Although I avoid introducing my books with discourses on method and theory, I believe that a historian needs to work through conceptual issues while trying to make sense of ink scratched onto paper. For example, while unpacking a box in the archives of the Bastille, I came upon a thick dossier labeled simply, "L'Affaire des Quatorze." It turned out to be a police investigation of poetry and songs that were coursing through the streets of Paris in 1749–1750. By following the police as they followed the trail of the orators and singers, it was possible to reconstruct oral communication networks and to see how sound, writing, and print intersected in a communication [End Page 27] system. To interpret the material, even to perceive it as a subject, it was crucial to have some familiarity with communication theory.
That issue takes me to the current revolution in the modes of communication. I hesitate to join the ranks of the pundits who proclaim that we are living through a period of change as great as that in the age of Gutenberg, but I think they are right. I even agree with many of their jeremiads. Digital "silos" isolate like-minded groups from others and seal them off from information that can challenge their preconceptions. At the same time, the speed and scale of the communication magnifies its effect. Amplification occurred in the past, with street songs and canards, but the effects today run deeper. I see a genuine threat to democracy … but I don't want to lapse into the kind of comment you can obtain more easily from an op-ed page, if you are one of the remaining newspaper readers.
You have worked as a leader in the Gutenberg-e project and the Digital Public Library of America, or DPLA. How do you see public history figuring within the changing information landscape in which we find ourselves?
When I was elected to be president of the American Historical Association in 1999, I applied to the Mellon Foundation for another grant, this one aimed at a double problem: the need to establish a model for a new kind of scholarly book, one that would be available online, and the difficulty of publishing monographs faced by recent Ph.D.s. Mellon provided funding for a program that eventually stretched over seven years. The AHA sponsored a competition for the best recent dissertations, a blue-ribbon jury selected ten or so winners each year, and the winners received large stipends to be used in reworking their dissertations in a manner adapted to the Web. Columbia University Press organized an annual workshop for every cohort. Computer technicians, web designers, editors, and other experts helped each winner produce a top quality electronic monograph. The monographs were marketed as a bundle at a low price to research libraries, which snapped them up. Of course, problems arose. In fact, one purpose of the experiment was to identify the problems and to find solutions. I wrote several letters to department chairs who suspected that the "e-thing" could not be a real "book," certainly nothing worthy of promotion to a tenured position. Imaginative use of recordings, films, interviews, and big data helped the fellows prove that this new kind of book could be a great advance on the traditional printed codex. The greatest problem then turned out to be delays by work caught in the pipeline. The authors could not submit their finished texts on time, mainly because they were beginning careers as assistant professors and felt overwhelmed with work. After seven years of hard labor we began to cover costs, but the project never became self-sustaining as we had hoped. In the end, however, we produced a superb list of monographs, which were eventually taken over and preserved as open-access publications by the American Council of Learned Societies.
After I became the director of the Harvard University Library in 2007, I took the view that the library's assets should be treated as a public good and shared by means of digitization with the rest of the world. Therefore, I strongly supported the open-access movement, which was being led at Harvard by Stuart Shieber, a computer scientist, and Peter Suber, a philosopher. We began by sponsoring a [End Page 28] debate about the creation of an open-access repository, called DASH, in which professors would be required to deposit scholarly articles. By nearly unanimous votes, all the faculties of Harvard committed themselves to making mandatory deposits. We set up an Office for Scholarly Communication within the library to design and expand DASH, which now contains about 50,000 articles, and to promote open-access in general.
In the spring of 2010 I received support for an exploratory meeting to discuss the possibility of integrating all the digital holdings of all U.S. research libraries in a single system, which would make them freely available to everyone in the world. I sent a sketch of the project to forty foundation presidents, library directors, and computer scientists. We met at Harvard on October 1, 2010 and instantly agreed that it was a good idea and that we could make it work. The Sloan Foundation provided a generous grant. We appointed a steering committee led by John Palfrey at Harvard's Berkman Center and after a national debate and a great deal of organizing—including volunteer work by computer experts to create the infrastructure—we launched the Digital Public Library of America on April 18, 2013. Thanks to contributions from more than 2,000 libraries in all 50 states, it now makes 30 million works available free to everyone in the world.
By mentioning these projects in such rapid succession, I may make it seem as if they represented a coherent plan. In fact, I improvised things as opportunities arose. The opportunities came up as I assumed positions of responsibility, which included service as a trustee of the Oxford University Press USA, and a trustee at the New York Public Library, where I produced the design for the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. In all of these activities, I was but one of several collaborators, and through all of them ran a central concern: to find ways to make the new modes of communication serve the public good. I came of age at a time when information technology was being transformed, raising enormous possibilities and also dangers. In my view—and many disagree—the greatest danger is represented by giant corporations bent on creating monopolies. I became involved in the attempt to prevent Google from monopolizing and commercializing access to the digital riches of our country's libraries. Thanks to a decision by a federal court, Google lost. Google Book Search is dead, and the DPLA is thriving in its place. Commercialization versus democratization—the opposition sounds simple, but it involves complex questions that need to be confronted in new forms every day. [End Page 29]
Elizabeth Andrews Bond is Assistant Professor of History at the Ohio State University.