Even more strongly than Darnton's previous investigations of 18th-century French letters (The Business of Enlightenment, The...


THE GREAT CAT MASSACRE And Other Episodes in French Cultural History

Even more strongly than Darnton's previous investigations of 18th-century French letters (The Business of Enlightenment, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime), these six loosely linked essays suggest a promising fusion of disciplines: bibliography, literary criticism, anthropology, old-fashioned Kultur-geschichte, Annales-style cultural demography. The subjects range from fairy tales to the Discours preliminaire of the EneyclopÉdie, and each is explored by means of an odd but provocative combination of analytical tools. Thus an anonymous bourgeois' 1768 account of his home town--Montpellier--is not examined for the demographic insights it might supply; rather, it is probed like a novel or poem for such implicit evidence as the metaphors in which the author chooses to present the civic order, or the unstated incongruities in his attitudes toward the failings and virtues of the citizenry at different social levels. Some of Darnton's admittedly experimental mixtures of methods are more successful than others. He is perhaps at his best in the opening discussion of French fairy tales (from 19th-century collections of oral versions) as anthropological and social documents of quite literal rather than Freudian import: ""The human condition has changed so much that we can hardly imagine the way it appeared to people whose lives really were nasty, brutish, and short. That is why we need to reread Mother Goose."" Equally illuminating is an examination of the art of reading (and addressing readers) in a moment of startling historic transition--as illustrated by the many cris du coeur received by Rousseau from readers of La nouvelle HÉloïse, and by the correspondence of one particularly avid fan--a Protestant silk merchant of no great intellectual pretensions--with a Swiss book dealer. Less successful is the title essay, an account of a bizarre revenge carried out by an ill-paid, overworked crew of printer's apprentices and journeymen against their master and mistress through a mock trial of the well-fed family felines. There and elsewhere the mixture of modes seems cumbersome and self-conscious, repetitiously cobbled together rather than internally fused. Still, there's no mistaking the ring of an intelligence striking a new sort of pay dirt.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1983

ISBN: 0465012744

Page Count: -

Publisher: Basic Books

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1983