Les Bouquinistes and the Enlightenment’s Literary Underground

Book cover of "The Literary Underground of the Old Regime" by Robert Darnton (1982)In my chat with the BBC producer, I suggested that he talk with Robert Darnton, the eminent historian of the history of books and publishing in 18th-century France. Darnton wrote a trilogy of books about the literary underworld that thrived on the banks of the Seine.  The books are: The Business of Enlightenment (1979), The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982), and The Forbidden Bestsellers Of Pre-Revolutionary France (1995).  Darnton’s project was writing a social history of the ideas of the Enlightenment, not from a lofty Olympian perspective, but from the bottom up..

His research was based on a voluminous archive of business papers of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. This is how Darnton described his work:

While working through the archives, dossier-by-dossier, letter-by-letter (there are 50,000 letters in the Neuchâtel collection), I was constantly struck by the impression of a life looming up from obscurity, taking on a distinct, personal shape, and playing itself out while writing, printing, or peddling books. It is an extraordinary sensation to open a dossier of fifty or a hundred letters that have lain unread since the eighteenth century. Will they come from a Parisian garret, where a young author is scribbling away, his vision suspended between Parnassus and the threats rising from the landlady on the ground floor? Will they recount the travails of a papermaker on a remote mountainside as he curses the weather for spoiling his size (finish) and damns the ragpickers for missing deliveries? Perhaps their semilegible scrawl will have to be read aloud so that the ear can pick up messages that baffle the eye, and the outline of a smuggling operation will come into focus. They may take you into a printing shop where workers heave at presses, or under counters where seditious books are stocked, or around circuits where salesmen spread Enlightenment from horseback, or down great rivers to entrepôts like Amsterdam and Marseille and far-flung literary marketplaces: Lisbon, Naples, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Warsaw, Budapest, Moscow.

The letters could come from anywhere and reveal anything, for they often take you by surprise. Just when you think your author is about to snare a dowry, he is run out of town by lettre de cachet. Just when a crate of books is due in port, it is seized by privateers. Your businessman turns into a confidence man; your philosopher becomes a police spy. Humanity keeps changing shape under your eyes as you watch the publishers’ speculations unravel and the wagon-loads of books rumble across the continent. (The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, p. vii)

It is that sense of “life looming up from obscurity” that I want to find among the bouquinistes as I finger the bindings and thumb the pages and smell the bouquet of funky old books.

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