Robert Darnton introduces us to the shadowy world of pirate publishers, garret scribblers, under-the-cloak book peddlers, smugglers, and police spies that composed the literary underground of the Enlightenment.
Here are the ambitious writers who crowded into Paris seeking fame and fortune within the Republic of Letters, but who instead sank into the miserable world of Grub Street—victims of a closed world of protection and privilege. Venting their frustrations in an illicit literature of vitriolic pamphlets, libelles, and chroniques scandaleuses, these “Rousseaus of the gutter” desecrated everything sacred in the social order of the Old Regime. Here too are the workers who printed their writings and the clandestine booksellers who distributed them.
While censorship, a monopolistic guild, and the police contained the visible publishing industry within the limits of official orthodoxies, a prolific literary underworld disseminated a vast illegal literature that conveyed a seditious ideology to readers everywhere in France. Covering their traces in order to survive, the creators of this eighteenth-century counterculture have virtually disappeared from history. By drawing on an ingenious selection of previously hidden sources, such as police ledgers and publishers’ records, Robert Darnton reveals for the first time the fascinating story of that forgotten underworld.
The activities of the underground bear on a broad range of issues in history and literature, and they directly concern the problem of uncovering the ideological origins of the French Revolution. This engaging book illuminates those issues and provides a fresh view of publishing history that will inform and delight the general reader.
This is splendid historical writing… Darnton [has] a well-justified reputation as one of the most original contributors to our understanding of life in pre-revolutionary Paris… What Darnton says about the writers is necessary to understanding the revolutionaries. The French Revolution was a continuous conflict between people, as well as a battle of ideas, and anyone who wants to understand the people had better start with the work of Robert Darnton.
[Darnton’s] book gives us not only a history of 18th-century publishing but a notion of how the lower orders of literature contributed to the fall of the Old Regime… The reader who wants a glimpse of the world behind a very unusual literature and an enlightening look at a famous time in history will get an eyeful in this surprising and entertaining volume.
Detail is indeed Robert Darnton’s strong suit. He likes to conjure up voices which had been silent for two centuries, to resurrect what he calls (modifying Peter Laslett’s famous phrase) ‘a world that we had lost.’ And how? Not by ‘contemplating philosophical treatises,’ but by ‘grubbing in archives,’ in particular, the rich store of papers from a Swiss publishing house, the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel… Darnton resuscitates a vanished world, and in doing so, like the best historians…produces a literary text of our own time.
Rarely has assiduous, original research (aided and abetted by Darnton’s energetic prose) made for such fascinating reading.
- 272 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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