I did my undergraduate work at Harvard, where I studied mostly American history, philosophy and literature. After graduating in 1960 I went to Oxford, and there I worked with some really splendid historians, the most famous of whom were Richard Cobb, who was a leading expert on the French Revolution, and Robert Shackleton, a leading expert on the Enlightenment. I found myself working simultaneously on the Revolution and the Enlightenment, and this made a big impression on me. I earned my D. Phil. in history and came back to the United States. I worked for a brief spell as a journalist, but soon I discovered that I didn't want to be a journalist--I wanted to be a historian. I was very fortunate to be elected to the Society of Fellows at Harvard, which is in effect a small research center where you are given three years to do whatever work you want. I came to Princeton in 1968 and I've been here ever since.
Early in your career you wrote that you were setting out to write the history of the Enlightenment "from below." What did you mean by that?
The notion of "history from below" hit the history profession in England very hard around the time I came to Oxford in the early 1960s. This was really the first time that historians of England had attempted to understand a whole society, and especially the people at the bottom; obviously this approach contrasted with the kind of history that concerned itself with kings, queens, generals, and aristocrats. History from below was more about the texture of everyday life as lived by ordinary people. I arrived from Harvard, where I had studied philosophy and the history of ideas, with a bias toward literature and formal thought. Now, how do you do a history of ideas from below? I began asking different kinds of questions about the Enlightenment in France. I didn't focus on the famous philosophes, who had been studied thoroughly. Instead I asked about all the other writers working in France in the 18th century. Who were they? How many were there? What did it mean to be a man of letters? How did you launch a literary career? How did you make ends meet?
By pursuing these simple-looking questions, I began to discover very interesting and striking tensions within the literary world of late-18th-century France. The Enlightenment had become a coherent intellectual and political movement in the mid-18th century, and by the 1770s the great philosophes--Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau--enjoyed a nearly godlike status. The next generation of writers grew up with the ambition to become great men of letters as well. But by the 1770s and '80s these young writers found their way blocked because the philosophes and their immediate protégés had completely taken over the literary establishment; they held most of the seats of the French Academy and they had a stranglehold on the journals and the patronage system that supported writers. So a generational tension developed in which these younger intellectuals sought to turn certain ideas of the Enlightenment against the establishment. This produced a large and often very angry body of literature attacking the establishment, for instance, in terms of equality and social privilege. I bring many of these ideas together in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982). Two points are worth drawing out. First, I think that it was in this context--in 18th-century France, under the Enlightenment and the Revolution--that the intellectual first emerged as a social type. Second, in the process of this work I developed an approach to social and intellectual history that I refer to as the "social history of ideas." That is, the point is not simply to understand the formal arguments of philosophers, but to see how the ideas resonated in society and how the intellectuals themselves fit into the social order.
Was there a connection between these angry young writers and the Revolution?
Oh yes. There is a long list of frustrated young writers who went on to become Jacobins. Their careers had stalled, and when the Revolution came they saw an opportunity. Many of the pamphleteers and polemicists of the Revolution came out of this French version of Grub Street. Some people read my early arguments on this subject as psychological arguments: these people became terrorists because their literary ambitions had been frustrated. Now in many cases that may have been true, although I don't think we as historians can identify such factors in any rigorous way. I was actually making a sociological argument, one that has much in common with the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, who later became a good friend of mine. These writers, individually and in groups, were competing for dominance in the literary world of France, what Bourdieu calls the "champ littéraire." I do believe it is possible to map out the literary landscape of a society, or the cultural landscape more broadly.
Probably your best-known book is a collection of essays called The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984). What is it about?
To answer your question properly I should first say something about Clifford Geertz. In the 1960s I was very much interested in a French variety of history called the "history of mentalities." In this approach, the historian was trying to get at the worldview of whole societies or large groups of people. The point was not to understand formal thought but rather attitudes and the way that attitudes hung together. These French historians had developed a whole set of methods, mainly statistical, to deal with this seemingly diffuse subject matter. One well-known French historian in this group, for instance, wrote a book about attitudes toward death and the afterlife by analyzing a statistical sampling of thousands and thousands of wills. Soon after I arrived at Princeton in 1968 I got to know Clifford Geertz, a formidable anthropologist at the Institute for Advanced Study. At the time I was teaching a class called the "History of Mentalities" and experimenting with research along similar lines. I told Cliff what I was doing and he said, "That sounds like anthropology." I drafted him to teach the class with me and soon I was reading voraciously in anthropology. To make a long story short, through my collaboration with Geertz I found myself converted to an anthropological vision of history. The Great Cat Massacre is an attempt to do something quite like what the French had in mind with history of mentalities, but my methods were anthropological, not statistical. I wanted to get inside the attitudes and worldview of people living in 18th-century France in much the same way that an anthropologist tries to work his way inside a system of meaning.
What does the title refer to?
For a long time I have been fascinated by things like folktales, ceremonies, rituals, proverbs, and slang. I tried to bring all these elements together in this book. The title is taken from one of the essays. I was reading a very interesting document, an autobiography of a printer who lived in France in the 18th century. At one point he describes a curious incident from his career in which all the apprentices and journeymen at the printing shop in Paris where he worked decided one day to slaughter all the cats in the neighborhood. But they didn't just kill them. They bashed them over the head with sticks, piled up the half-dead bodies in a great heap in the courtyard of the printing shop, and decided to try the cats. They appointed among themselves a judge, a prosecuting attorney, a confessor, and a public executioner. They tried the cats and then they hanged them, one by one. And they found this uproariously funny. Later they would reenact the trial in a kind of pantomime in the shop. Now what's so funny about torturing animals? How do you get that joke? I argued that killing these cats in this ritualized way expressed all kinds of meanings, and that I as a historian centuries later could decode these meanings, given enough material. I believed that I had pieced together enough of the surrounding information--for instance, the symbolic meanings of cats, the rituals of trials and public executions, current forms of street theater--to understand what they thought they were doing.
In doing historical research you always stumble upon things that confound you and take you by surprise. Insofar as I have a method, this is an important part of it: as soon as you encounter something that to you is opaque, you are in the presence of an opportunity. It is worth pausing over this thing that you can't understand, because it may be an avenue into a mental world that is really different from ours. One of my basic convictions is that people in the past lived in a mental world radically different from our own.
You have spent a great deal of time studying the history of books and the book trade. How did you develop this interest, and why is it important?
I came to study the history of books--which I really think is one of the most exciting areas in the humanities today--quite by accident. After I joined the Society of Fellows at Harvard, I decided to write a book about Jacques-Pierre Brissot, one of the leaders of the French Revolution. While still a graduate student in Oxford, I had come upon a footnote indicating that some unpublished letters of his might be housed in the municipal library of Neuchâtel Switzerland. I wrote to the staff of the library and they wrote back and confirmed that in fact they had 119 of Brissot's letters, and they sent me a copy of one, a letter he had written to the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), a Swiss publishing house that had published most of his writings. Just this one letter was enough to substantially revise what we knew of Brissot's life, so in 1965 I went to the library in Neuchâtel to use the archives of the STN. When I got there I discovered that those 119 letters were surrounded by 50,000 other letters dealing with every aspect of the book trade--everything from orders by booksellers to the manufacture of paper to the smuggling of books into France. Before long I decided that the history of books was more interesting than Brissot and I set aside the biography. Since then I have spent 15 summers in Neuchâtel reading my way through the STN archive, and I have now read just about every one of those 50,000 letters.
Why is the STN so important? In 18th-century France there was a huge state censorship apparatus, a book police, and a monopolistic booksellers' guild. All fully legal books had to have a royal privilege, something like the king's seal of approval. Books without a privilege or some other kind of approval were illegal and had to be printed outside the country and smuggled in. Almost anything that was moderately innovative, never mind radical, was illegal. I have estimated that roughly half of what was being read in France in the decades before the Revolution--that is, current literature of all kinds except professional books, devotional works, and almanacs--was printed outside the kingdom: in Brussels, in Amsterdam, in the Rhineland, in all the cities in Switzerland. And through these illicit channels came an interesting mix of forbidden literature: Enlightenment philosophy, atheism, radical political writing, and salacious fiction. The STN was one of the biggest publishing houses in Switzerland, it dealt heavily in illegal books, and it is the only one of these publishers for which there are surviving archives. Thanks to the STN archive, I have been able to reconstruct in great detail what the French were reading during the 18th century, and I have discovered a whole substratum of very widely read illegal books that historians knew almost nothing about.
Has this mapping of the literary underworld of 18th-century France led you to think differently about the period?
A surprisingly large percentage of this illegal literature belonged to a genre that the French called libelles: defamations of prominent people. These were typically scatological biographies of famous people, including the king. They were often racy and obscene and also deeply political. Louis XV appears in this literature as a dirty old man; there is nothing impressive about him except his sexual appetite. Louis XVI has no sexual appetite at all, since he's presented as impotent, and so Marie Antoinette appears as sexually frustrated and promiscuous. Taken as a whole, the libelles consistently portray the monarchy as despotic, while historians tend to see it as struggling ineffectively to reform itself. In the period before the Revolution, there was a running fight over fiscal policy between the crown and the parlements; these were about a dozen judicial courts distributed around the country. Most historians would say that the tax programs proposed by the crown at this time were sensible and progressive, and that those in the parlements who resisted them were merely defending their own privileges. Yet somehow the parlements mobilized tremendous public support at crucial moments. Why? To put it much too simply, I think the public already had a worldview, a schematized notion of contemporary history and politics, that prepared them to oppose the crown, and I think this worldview was basically derived from the forbidden literature, as well as other forms of communication. Before the end of my career I would like to write a history of the fall of the Old Regime and the outbreak of the Revolution that puts the media at the center of the story. I believe that the history of books, enlarged to include other forms of communication, can bring us into a new understanding of a classic historical question: Why was there a revolution in 18th-century France?