- 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...