Description - The Literary Underground of the Old Regime by Robert Darnton
Robert Darnton introduces us to the shadowy world of pirate publishers, garret scribblers, under-the-cloak book peddlers, smugglers, and police spies that composed the literary underground of the Enlightenment. Here are the ambitious writers who crowded into Paris seeking fame and fortune within the Republic of Letters, but who instead sank into the miserable world of Grub Street-victims of a closed world of protection and privilege. Venting their frustrations in an illicit literature of vitriolic pamphlets, libelles, and chroniques scandaleuses, these Rousseaus of the gutter desecrated everything sacred in the social order of the Old Regime. Here too are the workers who printed their writings and the clandestine booksellers who distributed them. While censorship, a monopolistic guild, and the police contained the visible publishing industry within the limits of official orthodoxies, a prolific literary underworld disseminated a vast illegal literature that conveyed a seditious ideology to readers everywhere in France. Covering their traces in order to survive, the creators of this eighteenth-century counterculture have virtually disappeared from history. By drawing on an ingenious selection of previously hidden sources, such as police ledgers and publishers' records, Robert Darnton reveals for the first time the fascinating story of that forgotten underworld. The activities of the underground bear on a broad range of issues in history and literature, and they directly concern the problem of uncovering the ideological origins of the French Revolution. This engaging book illuminates those issues and provides a fresh view of publishing history that will inform and delight the general reader.
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(235mm x 155mm x 19mm)
Harvard University Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
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Book Reviews - The Literary Underground of the Old Regime by Robert Darnton
US Kirkus Review »
Darnton's The Business of Enlightenment (1979) afforded a remarkable glimpse into an episode of publishing history that brought Diderot's Encyclopedie 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 Societe typographique de Neuchatel (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. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Robert Darnton
Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian at Harvard University.