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Old Lions Department: Cultural Historian Robert Darnton at 78

You’d better be careful when you open a book. “There are vipers in the stacks!”

Such dialogue was howled in the archives in 1965 at a very small library in Switzerland, the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel, where cultural historian Robert Darnton, then 26, was doing some intensive reading. The building was partially occupied by a school and contained a tiny pocket museum of natural history connected to it, where they had a display of stuffed animals and a glass cage with snakes inside.

When the snakes were being fed live mice, students would gather around to watch the impressive sight, “oooh”ing and “ahhh”ing at the public feasting. As Darnton described to me on a phone call one December evening, “one night, one of the pregnant vipers escaped from the glass cage and was somewhere in the bookstacks of the library, and word spread: ‘There are vipers in the stacks! Clear out!’ ”

It was a bizarre episode, a scene likely to be borrowed from a Lemony Snicket novel, but as Darnton reflected, “things do happen in libraries. In this case, there was the fear that the vipers might get you or she might be laying her eggs and new vipers would hatch all over. You’d better be careful when you open a book.”

It was the same year that Darnton arrived in Neuchâtel, Switzerland that he also experienced a series of highly fortunate events. He had intended to follow the trail of the leading member of a loosely knit political faction during the French Revolution, a man by the name of Jacques-Pierre Brissot.

Instead, he walked into a historian’s dream — an astonishing archive which had been virtually unknown for over two hundred years. It was the archives of a publisher in French Switzerland, just on the Swiss side of the French border, where Darnton spent fourteen summers and one winter totally immersed in the reading of 50,000 letters. These letters were from anyone who had anything to do with the book trade.

“Authors, publishers, printers, booksellers, and also smugglers, wagon drivers, papermakers, the people who made ink, the workers who pulled the bar of the press — absolutely everyone. It was an archive of such enormous size and richness about people who had never really appeared in history before,” Darnton explained.

This “quite obscure” cast of departed folks inspired Darnton to write a series of studies that would communicate the nature of the entire world of books as it existed on the eve of the French Revolution. These French books circulated between 1769 and 1789 and there were also huge archives in Paris that complemented the accounts within the letters, where often the same people appeared, but now in the eyes of police, in the papers of the Bastille Prison, or in various state documents.

“It was possible to see the world of books from the point of view of the state and from the point of view of the publishers who produced them and then from the viewpoint of hundreds of booksellers who were the key cultural intermediaries between readers and writers,” Darnton said.

A Historian’s Dream: The discovery of a rare archive

Here’s the way it happened. Darnton, at the time a graduate student at Oxford, attending on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1963, had noticed a footnote which suggested that were some unpublished letters of Jacque Brissot, who became one of the dozen or so most famous leaders of the French Revolution. Brissot was one of the most outspoken of the French intellectuals and had created a club of sorts called The Gallo American Society, which was going to examine all aspects of life in the new American republic and spread the word among the French.

“The French had an extravagant idea of Americans; Quakers, the Indians, Nantucket whalers,” Darnton noted. Darnton was downright intrigued by Brissot because he was a Frenchman in the 1780s who was enamored of the American Revolution.

“Fascinated by this new republic, he fell for the myth of America as a country full of yeoman farmers and Nantucket whalemen, and rough country folk who were virtuous citizens and dedicated to creating a democracy.”

Darnton thought he would follow Brissot’s trail, and wrote a letter to the head of the library asking if they had any letters from the Frenchman. After reviewing a photocopy of one of the 119 letters they had, Darnton realized that the whole biography of Brissot had to be redone because it was full of information that had escaped his previous photographers and that really put his life in a new perspective.

At this point in 1965, Darnton had received an offer for a junior fellowship in the Society of Fellows at Harvard, and he was free to travel to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, so he could read up on these many letters. “Sure enough, there were 119 letters of Brissot surrounded by 50,000 letters of all these book people,” Darnton said. If he hadn’t been the one who discovered this stash of letters, Darnton figures someone else may have come along the way.

It wasn’t hiding under a mountain, after all, but stored in the basement of a small municipal library. A local Swiss professor had used a small part of these archives to write some local history, he said. “It could’ve just been material for anecdotes about local history. It’s hard to predict what would have happened.”

While it wasn’t a momentous event in Darnton’s eyes—”it wasn't like the world was waiting for Bob Darnton to come there and start swatting through the archives and writing books about them!” he mused—it certainly was an event that oriented his own attempts to contribute to the understanding of history. His discovery lent itself to a larger vision of a new discipline: book history.

In the scenic city of Neuchâtel in wine country, next to a lake behind a majestic range of mountains, Darnton started writing a biography of Brissot. After going through a few hundred letters and 500 pages into his book, he decided to switch gears because he thought the history of books was more interesting than the biography of Brissot. He transitioned into a line of study which at the time didn’t even have a name. Now it’s called the history of books, and he’s been working in that area ever since.

A Historian of Books

The history of the book is an academic discipline that’s concerned with books, scrolls, manuscripts, codices, and mainly has to do with texts and their uses. Darnton is a pioneer in the field, having authored works such as The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the ‘Encyclopédie’, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Prerevolutionary France, and Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris, among others. When he was asked in a C-SPAN interview why he decided on the title of his book, George Washington’s False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century, Darnton said that he had always been amazed by Washington and his teeth, along with many others as it turns out, even having discussions about it with his dentist.

Darnton retired in 2015 from his positions as Harvard’s Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian, but he feels there’s not a great deal of difference between retirement and non-retirement because all his life he’s been writing books, and he continues to do so.

His latest book is scheduled to be published by Oxford University Press this February. He has also written the first three chapters of another book, and so he’ll probably go on writing books “until I drop!” he joked. “In my case, the reason for that is not simply that I’m obsessed with writing books,” Darnton said. “My wife sometimes says that ‘there are enough books in the world, why are you making things even worse?’ ”

The discovery of rare and valuable archives has been the driving force behind this cultural historian’s dynamic career. In line with this, Darnton described one of the most exciting days he had was when he was sitting in the archives of the Bastille in the Bibliothèque de L'Arsenal, in Paris. He was looking for information about another French revolutionary. He had ordered a box and when it arrived on his desk, he opened it and there was a pile of folders, and one of them said “The Affair of the Fourteen” (“l’Affaire des Quatorze”).

No one had ever heard of the affair of the fourteen. His curiosity led him to inquiring further and it turned out to be a detective story. Police in Paris receive an order from the most powerful man in the government to locate the author of a poem that began with one line. It was the only clue the police had, and they wanted to arrest the man who had written this poem because it was an attack on Louis XV.

The police had enlisted about 3,000 spies in cafes, public gardens and local drinking establishments, scattered throughout Paris. Soon enough, suspects were arrested and the police filled the Bastille Prison with fourteen people who have been perpetuating not just handwritten poems but had been reciting them publicly.

“Now at that time, there were no real newspapers in Paris, this is 1749, so these new verses to old tunes were like ‘sung’ newspapers. The more research I did, the more I realized that Paris was full of people singing about current events,” Darnton said. He realized it would be possible to reconstruct a system of oral communication of a kind that eluded historical research before, and his book, Poetry and the Police, is what became of it.

On Significant and Memorable Events in His Life

Which historical events does Darnton consider the most significant? He made the distinction that the kind of history he does is not to pronounce on what people should stand back and admire or fear as most important. “I’m trying to communicate the nature of life and of the human condition as it was actually experienced,” he said.

Among the “many events of tremendous importance that we are still trying to assimilate,” Darnton said is the French Revolution, citing a famous remark attributed to Zhou Enlai, when he was asked what was his view was, replied, “It’s too early to tell.” Darnton agreed that the storming of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789 was the kind of event that continues to resonate and we’re continuing to try to make sense of it, “but there are many events of that kind.”

In my own field of research, the French revolution obviously stands out as one you have to think about and reflect on and try to make sense of over and over again, because it just is so big that it is daunting and it’s especially difficult to take in its ‘violence’ aspects. The violence of the September massacres, the battles, and the slaughters in the street are very hard for me to absorb in a general interpretation. It’s quite upsetting to come face to face with some of the naked violence in the French revolution, yet it was a great liberating movement, though it’s enormously complex, the kind of series of events that I think will endlessly challenge the hours of interpretation of historians. We may never get to the bottom of it.

In Darnton’s own life, he experienced a true sense of awe during the time of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and, and the September 11th attacks. They had rocked the world and they rocked his own sense of how things were holding together in American society and how things could fall apart.

They were events of such magnitude that they challenged your sense that the order of society is solid, and there’s also something about the shock of a great event that makes your relations with people in the street or in your office or wherever you may be, transformed, in the sense that you no longer see them as playing a role at whatever institution it might be, but you just see them stripped down to their essential humanity.

The perception of others suddenly changes and we are all equals in the face of this awesome event, and that way of stripping away the normal characteristics of people as they interrelate is something that makes you rethink the human condition. Even with terrible events, there is something that I think exposes the humanity in all of this, even when we are most struck by something terrible, and by suffering.

Journalism as a Family Trade

For the Darnton family, journalism was a kind of collective family undertaking. From his earliest years, he felt predestined to be a newspaper reporter. His father, Byron Darnton, was killed as a war correspondent during World War II and Robert ended up following in his father’s “rather large footsteps” after his tragic passing. John Darnton, Robert’s younger brother, also went on to write for the New York Times and was the recipient of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, also winning the Polk Award twice.

Robert’s own journalism career began at the Newark Star Ledger, where he covered police headquarters, and then he worked part-time for the New York Times, finally joined the publication after completing his Ph.D. at Oxford.

He worked in the city room but he also spent a lot of time working in the reporter’s room opposite police headquarters downtown in Manhattan where most of the reporters played poker, waiting for something to happen.

Darnton couldn’t play poker, he said, because the ante was a dollar and that was more than he could afford. “A dollar was a lot of money in those days, this is 1964.” He found himself wanting to read history, and he remembers going into the reporter’s room with a copy of Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy hidden inside a copy of Playboy so that the other reporters would not suspect that he was “too much of an intellectual.”

“It would make a fool of myself, so I used Playboy as a kind of camouflage so that I could read Burckhardt,” said Darnton. Burckhardt’s book is one of the masterpieces of history that he goes back to and finds the most inspiration in and it was the one that convinced him that his vocation was to become a historian rather than a newspaper reporter. He found that students love the Burckhardt book because “it’s a very anthropological book, it talks about the daily life of people, about ceremonies, folklore, rites of passage, how individuality is understood and construed, and it’s endlessly rich in its detail but especially in its overall vision of history as a system of meaningful patterns of behavior.”

Historian or Anthropologist? Darnton meets Geertz

Darnton takes what he likes to call an anthropological approach to the archives he studies, and he’s the kind of historian who works from manuscript sources, getting as deep as he can in the original documentation. “But how do you ask questions of documents?” he asks. “How do you make sense of scribbles on paper that were made 200 or 300 years ago?”

He takes inspiration not just from anthropology in general but especially what is sometimes called “symbolic anthropology” which attempts to penetrate into systems of meaning to understand how people organized the world in their minds and how they infused it with things that they thought were significant — how they made sense of life but also how they tried to navigate away from those conditions in which they lived.

This kind of anthropology, Darnton notes, has been developed by many anthropologists, but the most famous of them is the late Clifford Geertz, whom he met when he arrived at Princeton University in 1968 for his first teaching job. They bumped into each other somewhere and Geertz asked Darnton what he was working on, and Darnton replied that one of his main interests was a kind of history that the French called “the history of mentalities.” “What’s that?” Geertz asked. “Well, it’s the way people construe the world in their imaginations, the collective vision of what the world is like and how they develop a strategy for dealing with it,” Darnton said. Geertz replied, “Well, that sounds like anthropology!” and the two men realized that they were concerned with the same things.

Geertz did research and fieldwork in Indonesia and Morocco, while Darnton conducted research in the archives. One thing led to another, and soon, they were teaching a joint seminar together at Princeton on history and anthropology for a limited number of undergraduate students. Geertz would sit at one end of a large table and Darnton at the other, and this went on for twenty years, on and off.

“It turned into a kind of running dialogue about the way history and anthropology deal with the same kinds of issues,” Darnton reflected.

“After each session, we would go to a local bar and have beer and just continue talking. So we became close friends — I mean, he was older than I, and much smarter and better read, but he was the kind of person who really was a source of inspiration; a wonderful writer, a wonderful scholar, interested in absolutely everything.”

This exposure to anthropology gave Darnton an approach, a kind of outlook and a strategy for doing research which emerged not just from the anthropological views of Geertz but from many other anthropologists that they studied together along with other historians — a broad-based, ethnographic approach to history.

This fusion of ethnography and history is expressed most directly in Darnton’s seminal contribution, The Great Cat Massacre, which acknowledges Geertz in the introduction and is explicit about trying to apply an anthropological understanding to empirical research in historical sources. The book was about the complexity of the symbolic associations connected with cats, and it attempted to show how the ritual slaughter of cats related to other rituals in complicated patterns of behavior.

Teaching with someone like Geertz for over twenty years and befriending him gave Darnton the opportunity to converse with the famed anthropologist about anything from sports to foreign affairs, and he said that “it really affected my own understanding of things in general.”

Head Librarian at Harvard

Decades later, Darnton found himself the head of the largest university library in the world at an educational institution that really matters in the academic world. Comprised of 73 libraries with upwards of 18 million volumes, the Harvard Library system is the oldest in the United States. If Darnton did things here, he could have some influence on the general shape on the world of learning and the world of books. His passion for the history of books lent itself to his work as Harvard’s librarian.

The other ingredient was the sense that in some libraries, the world of books had been closed, restricted only to a small elite: students and faculty of Harvard who had access to this great resource. Darnton’s main ambition was to open up the library to the rest of the world and share its intellectual wealth.

Well, how could that be done? I mean, we couldn’t just open the doors and let everyone in. We would be swamped. But along came the internet. The world wide web was only invented and developed in 1991. It became clear to me that by digitizing our resources at Harvard, and by working out a system so that we could share those resources with other digitized collections in other libraries, we could gradually build a digital library that could be used by all citizens, not just by the privileged elite who had access to Harvard’s library or Chicago’s library or Berkeley’s library.

Several projects started being developed: the digitization of all of Harvard’s collections that concerned North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth century (an enormous amount, 500,000 documents). “It’s gigantic!” Darnton exclaimed.

A digital repository was also created – it was called DASH – which contains the scholarship of Harvard professors and is completely free and available to the public. “It’s a way of democratizing access to knowledge and you can do it from a place that has critical leverage like Harvard.”

The next step was the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which began when Darnton invited a group of foundation heads, the heads of libraries, and computer scientists to come to a meeting at Harvard in October 2010 in order to discuss an idea. “Namely, shouldn’t we try to link up all the research libraries in the United States in a digital system that would make their resources available to all the citizens of the United States and the rest of the world?”

In April 2013, the DPLA opened its digital doors, and since then, its exponential growth has produced 18 million objects (books and other things) available free of charge to everyone. “It’s used very widely by readers in every country in the world! Except North Korea and Chad,” Darnton said.

“For me, one of the great causes: democratizing access to knowledge in my own life. It’s something that I think has been crucial for my work as the head of the Harvard library, but it’s also something that echoes my interest in books and the way books were a democratizing force in the 18th century.”

Provost of Harvard University Alan Garber joked at Darnton’s farewell ceremony that it was Darnton’s endless energy that generated so much success for the cultural historian and librarian, so much so that he’d be sending very articulate emails to his colleagues late into the night.

This manner of devoting himself to his various crafts, whether it was spending countless summers bunkered down in archives or managing and making available to the public Harvard Library’s vast resources, has brought him a long way.

Now 78, Darnton still spiritedly expounds on the history of French books between 1769 and 1789 and can’t help but describe the subject as “inexhaustibly fascinating.”