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Awards & Honors: 2011 National Humanities Medalist

Robert Darnton

In 1964, Robert Darnton was writing for the New York Times, something nearly everyone in his family has done. He was covering the New York City crime beat, but found himself doing odd things like bringing the 1860 historical masterwork The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt into police headquarters, concealing the book from New York’s finest inside more acceptable reading matter—a copy of Playboy. “After writing all these crime stories, covering rapes and murders and armed robberies, I just felt I’d rather do history,” he says. “I loved doing the research and found it endlessly interesting.”

By then, Darnton, a cultural historian, had already earned his doctorate in history from Oxford, where he had matriculated as a Rhodes Scholar and wrote his dissertation on trends in radical propaganda on the eve of the French Revolution. Luckily, the eminent historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who had advised Darnton’s undergraduate thesis at Harvard in 1960, nominated the young scholar to be a junior fellow at Harvard’s rarefied Society of Fellows, and he got three years of unfettered time to pursue his deepening scholarly interest in eighteenth-century France.

In a library at Neuchâtel, Switzerland, Darnton found a trove of virgin material that no one had seen in two centuries: “Fifty thousand letters by everyone who had anything to do with books,” he says. “There were authors, of course, and booksellers and publishers—but also printers, smugglers, people who made the ink, made the paper, pulled the bar of the press. It was a whole world to be explored.”

Indeed it was, and Darnton built his career on it, returning for “fourteen summers and one winter,” he says, to read each of those fifty thousand letters. In the process, he cultivated the two main currents of his scholarship: Eighteenth-century France, and a new discipline he helped create, the history of the book. “The basic idea is not to just assume that a book is a vehicle of ideas, but to understand how it’s a force in history,” Darnton explains. “To ask how is it produced, how is it diffused, how deeply did it penetrate into society, and then—this is tough—how was it read? What was its effect? Looking at the printed word makes you reassess some classical questions—in my case, questions about the origins of the French Revolution.”

Censorship and other factors meant that pre-revolutionary France did not have newspapers carrying genuine news. So information-hungry French subjects scoured various back-channel sources, like the “totally illegal” books published nearby in the Low Countries and Switzerland. “There was a vast underground for producing and distributing these books,” Darnton says, “and the details of how it operated were in the archives in Neuchâtel, and in Paris.”

Darnton’s books (he has published more than two dozen, two of them in French) like The Literary Underground of the Old Regime and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-revolutionary France explicate this interplay of books and history. The latter title won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1995. Darnton’s own best-seller is The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, which, using ethnographic methods, details a bizarre killing of neighborhood cats by Parisian printers’ apprentices in the late 1730s, along with other culturally revealing vignettes. It has been translated into sixteen languages. The French appreciate his love of their culture, and named him a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1999.

Darnton taught European history at Princeton for nearly forty years, beginning in 1968. In 2007, he returned to Harvard as Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library. His leadership position at the world’s largest academic library lets Darnton express his love for books in very practical ways, and to consider not only their historical past, but their role in the digital future.

Works like The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future bring a historian’s perspective to the questions that digital technology raises for publishing. “People oversimplify by dramatizing the contrasts between digital and analog modes, as if they were opposite extremes,” he says. “In fact, you can use both. Lots of scholars are creating hybrid books, for example.”

Currently, Darnton and Harvard are spearheading the creation of the Digital Public Library of America, an effort to digitize collections from libraries, museums, and archives nationally, and make this material available to all free of charge, “to the smallest community colleges in North Dakota and Alabama, to senior citizens in retirement homes, to K–12 schools. We want to shape this digital future for the public good instead of it being taken over by commercial interests.” The ambitious effort started up in 2010 and plans to be online by the spring of 2013. As Darnton says, “It’s tomorrow!”

By Craig Lambert
Craig Lambert is Deputy Editor of Harvard Magazine.