THE LITERARY UNDERGROUND OF THE OLD REGIME by Robert Darnton

THE LITERARY UNDERGROUND OF THE OLD REGIME

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Darnton's The Business of Enlightenment (1979) afforded a remarkable glimpse into an episode of publishing history that brought Diderot's EncyclopÉdie to a very large reading public in a comparatively cheap edition put out by an improvised French-Swiss publishing consortium. The primary fund of material mined in that work--the luckily preserved records of the Swiss partner, the SociÉtÉ typographique de Neuchâtel (STN)--is also widely drawn on in most of the six articles collected here. Though a lay reader may need the help of a good general history of prerevolutionary France to piece together some parts of the picture, the general outlines are more than accessible. Darnton repeatedly argues that the structure of restrictions on publishing under the old regime inevitably created a thriving demi-monde profiting from the idiocy of the law--as well as an inkslingers' underworld schooled in the lessons of not only political but literary injustice. Among the human marginalia he turns up are a bogus bookdealer who (on the strength of a few knowledgeable-sounding letters) persuaded the STN to advance him some 2,400 livres' worth of books; a scrivener who bombarded the STN with proposal after proposal for grandiose histories, critical analyses, and anti-clerical compendiums of Cistercian breviaries (depending on the market); and--more unexpectedly--Brissot de Warville, the ill-fated Girondist leader, who in 1784 was nothing but a failed philosophe and pamphleteer, obliged to buy his way out of the Bastille by agreeing to turn police informer. Other articles comment on: the contrast between the sanctioned canonization of the more august prophets of reason (Voltaire, d'Alembert) and the walls of repression and exclusion penning most would-be-philosophes into the confines of Grub Street; the day-to-day records suggesting ""that preindustrial work tended to be irregular and unstable, craft-specific and task-oriented, collective in its organization and individual in its pace""; and the certainty that--no matter what the 18th-century French public read--the regime's very perception of books was deformed by a screening system that merrily classified pornography, political commentary, and works of atheism as livres philosophiques: i.e., forbidden books. Though the present, composite work is inherently specialized, Darnton's lucid efforts to present books as evidence of labor history, economic structures, and political institutions may justly be called pioneering.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1982
ISBN: 0674536576
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press