An irresistible tour of 18th-century oddities and overviews.
“Everything about the 18th century was strange, once you examine it in detail,” writes Princeton historian Darnton (The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, 1995, etc.) in this collection of articles that make fuel for a merry bonfire of historical curiosities and trends. What he’s doing is cutting the Enlightenment down to size, humanizing it, sticking a pin in the puffery that has inflated the age into a dirigible of unsmirchable brilliance and moral rectitude. He wants to show what made elements of the Enlightenment, in particular the French Enlightenment, tick, what the history of mentalities was that served as roots of a movement that sought to change attitudes and institutions. Engagement was one key—activism—as many of the ideas about natural law, skepticism, toleration, and freethinking were already in circulation. And circulation, too, is a major concern for Darnton, who sees it as the age’s own information highway: the Tree of Cracow of Paris, the taverns and salons and reading groups through which the community of Europe, and by extension what was to become the US, exchanged ideas and gained its hallmark cosmopolitanism on the one hand and epicureanism on the other. For the belief that life on earth was something to be enjoyed—“happiness” is an important word of the time—was a part of the whole civilizing process that statesmen understood as common sense. We may look back on these men as colossi, but they were also pamphleteers and tobacco farmers, slave owners and churchgoers. Making them human is one result of Darnton’s binding together all the oddments he does, from revolutionaries who may have been police spies to George Washington’s inability to gnash his teeth to the strange twists that led Rousseau to “the contradiction of the social system.”
Sharp perspectives, adroit observations, vivid historical consciousness. (17 illustrations)