I heard about this book a long time ago, probably in the context of a university history subject that was attempting to give students an overview of different ways of approaching the writing of history; it was preparatory to undertaking Honours. It was probably mentioned by Peter McPhee, discussing the idea of cultural history. At any rate, I thought of it on and off but never got around to it, and then a friend gave me a copy when culling their library of extraneous books. So I read it today. And overall, it was very good.
Darnton’s approach is an anthropological one, in an attempt to understand the mentalite of sections of Old Regime French society. He doesn’t claim to be getting to the heart of 18th century French culture, nor completely understanding any one individual. Rather this is meant to be a beginning, showing a possible methodology (or road, using one of the metaphors in the book) that might allow Anglo-Saxon historians to do something the French have been doing for a while and, in his estimation, sometimes doing poorly.
There are six chapters. The first three essentially go through three different classes (DANGER WILL ROBINSON!) and look at a particular piece of culture as a way in to understanding, in some way, that person, group, and indeed the cultural milieu of France. I think I loved the first chapter the most – looking at peasants through the lens of folklore. It is the one that he describes as most ‘impressionistic’ and I get the feeling he feels almost guilty over it, and certainly worries that it appears least to rely on evidence. But it is wonderfully written, sets the context for peasant life beautifully (acknowledging the problematic nature of ‘generic peasant’), and does some really intriguing stuff in looking at variations in folkloric traditions within France and then between France and England, Italy, and Germany. He warns the reader off the idea of thinking you can completely ‘understand’ people, but suggests this as a way of better grasping how people approached their world.
The second chapter is the titular one, and is also deeply fascinating as it explores relationships between apprentices, journeymen, and masters; it also looks at the role of tormenting cats, which – whoa. The third looks at what must be a really bizarre text created by a man living in Montpellier, which seems to want to present the entire town as text and which Darnton uses to try and get at what it might have meant to be or think of oneself as bourgeois.
The second half is focussed on even more ambiguous groupings. The fourth chapter was kind of hilarious as it looks at the police reports written about ‘men of letters’ in the mid-18th century – written by a man whose job was basically to keep an eye on these producers of culture, and who makes all sorts of comments on their appearance, their literary worth, and who they’re connected to. I can’t help but imagine what a similar set of ASIO files would look like for Melbourne’s literary scene. The fifth chapter was, sadly, almost impenetrable for me: it looks at Diderot and d’Alembert and their constructing the Encyclopedie. There’s a lot of discussion of various philosophical ideas and modes of constructing knowledge and so on that I just didn’t get; Darnton presupposes a lot of understanding in his readership here that he doesn’t presuppose in knowledge of French society. Which surprised me, and disappointed me somewhat. Anyway, the last chapter is about reading Rousseau and changes in ways of reading. Darnton explicitly says not to but I can’t help but read the letters that readers of La Nouvelle Heloise as the most awesome fan letters ever; there’s a lot of weeping and sighing and offers of sex, basically. (I thought I would get to the end of the chapter feeling guilty about not wanting to read Heloise but Darnton reassures me that it’s almost unreadable to a modern audience. HOORAY.)
I had two issues with reading the book. The first, site-specific, was the opaque nature of the fifth chapter. It really bugged me. The second was the lack of women. Yes, there probably were fewer literate women at the time. Yes, digging up evidence of women’s contributions to culture can often be problematic. But the man is using folklore as real and useful evidence; I don’t think that difficulty ought to be used as an excuse here. Even in that chapter on peasants it felt like there was an emphasis on men – he uses the Perrault versions of the stories as his ‘literary’ comparisons, and of course the Grim brothers, and acknowledges that Jeanette Hassenpflug was the latter’s source, but Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy gets one mention only. And there’s no discussion, really, that women may have been involved in the transmission of stories, except in telling them to the men who wrote them down. And he does mention women as running salons when discussing the men of letters, and of being patrons, but again only in passing. I don’t know what else is out there; I would really like to have seen some discussion at least of the difficulty of finding women, perhaps as a challenge to later historians.
Overall this is a generally approachable book – not for the completely un-historical, but fun if you’re interested in the development of culture and different styles of Doing History.