Return to main page

[Journal of Modern History 66.3 (1994), 521-38]


This Is Not a Book Review:

On Historical Uses of Literature

In terms of disciplinary interaction, Lynn Hunt's The Family Romance of the French Revolution(1) represents a genuine advance in an important area, namely readiness to rely on existing literary studies where they seem to address matters of immediate interest to an historical argument. Too often such work has reflected an implicit asymmetry. Historians, even those working in the "cultural" field and drawing frequently on literary theory, have too often had no time for scholarship produced by literary specialists, sometimes in consequence setting out to discover de novo features of texts that had been well established in the critical literature. When Robert Darnton launches into readers' responses to Rousseau's novel Julie, he mentions several critics who make use of reader-response theory and even four "examples of work concerning Rousseau"; but these are all lumped together into the first footnote, and that is the end of it. It is not enough to acknowledge in this way that literary studies exist; some use has to be made of them. The letters he cites from the Neuchâtel archive are interesting enough, but the kind of reader reactions he purports to discover in them had long been well documented.(2) The problem is not so much ill will as a certain patronizing attitude toward research of a literary nature, which, it is conceded, might be relevant but is not thought likely to be useful; it implies that while one must be scrupulous in consulting and citing historical scholarship, the same respect need not be accorded to work done elsewhere.

This dialogue is presented in the spirit of what Pierre Bourdieu called "a new genre, a free scientific confrontation: objections are put forth, to which the author agrees to respond."(3) It is hardly a new genre if one remembers the kind of lengthy exchange that used to characterize journals in the philological tradition, with give and take on particular points and much more detailed comment and debate than today's standard book review allows. Since Robert Darnton characterized such a procedure as the inherently American (or "Anglo-Saxon") way -- "we practice a frank kind of criticism and name our adversaries"(4) -- I will consider him fair game; but principally my commentary will address Lynn Hunt's recent book. My intention, however, isn't adversarial. It is in the nature of this format that she will get the last word, but that is all right since the objective is not to win but to generate serious discussion. I write, therefore, not to propose counterinterpretations but to problematize, not to refute but to suggest some of the pitfalls of a practice that is on the whole desirable -- namely, the cross-fertilization of the traditional disciplines, specifically history and literature, in which historians like Darnton and Hunt have indeed pioneered. The point is not to banish cultural-historical investigations but to contribute to making them better.

To begin with, an epistemological question necessarily arises insofar as imaginative literature is, though not devoid of referentiality, not referential in the same manner as the usual kind of historical document. Symbolic reading of the type practiced by Darnton in The Great Cat Massacre calls into question the necessity and even the validity of distinguishing fact from fiction. His analysis of folk tales deals entirely with fiction, or rather tries to extrapolate from it to a body of existential fact; but the methodology of that particular exercise is so mottled that it cannot usefully be pursued as a model. In the pivotal essay on cats, where symbolic interpretation works well, what is invisibly sacrificed -- even in Darnton's extensive defenses of this piece(5) -- is material reality. I am referring not only to the problem raised by Roger Chartier about whether the source document (Nicolas Contat's Anecdotes typographiques) is being treated as text or as witness to a real event,(6) but also to the fact that in analyzing the joyous massacre as virtual event Darnton misses the ground-level, concrete gratification some men might have taken in killing real cats: in his "massacre" only symbolic cats, heavily overdetermined, seem to die. What remains to be explained or understood is that, if this event took place in anything like the form reported by Contat, these workers hated cats in a visceral way not wholly accounted for by their association with their masters. The distinction is not too important so far as La grise, a house pet, is concerned; but what Darnton sympathetically calls "the ritual slaughter of a defenseless animal"(7) probably took as its victims scruffy, half-wild animals scavenging in the refuse-ridden streets, teeming in the alleys and on the housetops: they are not pussycats, and perhaps it is important to see too that people occasionally might have enjoyed having a pretext to be rid of them.

Then there is the matter of national and temporal specificity, implicitly raised in practice by both Darnton and such literary scholars as the New Historicists. Since cultural artifacts presumably can express at one and the same time both local or transitory modes and more universal forms of experience ("human nature," etc.), it is inherently problematic to isolate some aspects and not others as historically pertinent to a given time and place. Darnton has argued, for instance, in The Great Cat Massacre, for the peculiarly French character of certain folk tales -- a quality he dubbed "Frenchness" -- despite the existence of a transnational tradition of very similar tales. Such an approach leads one not only to consider all distinctions between neighboring versions of the tales as significant but also to lend an ethnic character to all such differences.(8) Although he declined, under Roger Chartier's questioning, to defend the term "Frenchness," characterizing it rather as an afterthought ("a jest, a provocation, and an interrogation"),(9) Darnton nonetheless stuck by its essence: there is a particular style that in some ineffable way distinguishes France's culture from its neighbors'. He calls to witness the stock type embodied in such clever folkloric characters as Scapin, Figaro, and Robert Macaire only one of whom, unfortunately, is ostensibly "French."(10) His book on the mentalité of Ancien Régime France is, moreover, graced with illustrations (mostly of cats) by Gustave Doré, Hogarth, Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865), and Manet. What, one sometimes has to ask, is the subject? Stephen Greenblatt for his part sometimes alternates sides of the Channel as if no cultural shock were to be incurred in transit.(11) Almost anything can be grist for the symbolic argument, which is thus, in the scientific sense, hard to control.

This sort of problem came up not long ago in an historical discussion group I attend during a consideration of The Return of Martin Guerre. The interpretive historians present were perfectly content to analyze the symbolic content of the story without undue concern over its factuality. Their attitude, certainly a liberal and liberated one with respect to positivistic historiography, still left me uneasy: I suspect, indeed, that what allowed them to relegate the story's objective status to secondary importance was precisely their own (external) awareness that the events were genuine.(12) In the absence of that assumption, a real chasm might open up under the historian, fictions of all stripes holding equal validity with historical documents. For if factual reality is omitted as a criterion, why should Martin Guerre be examined as a privileged fiction, somehow more authentic than other roughly contemporaneous works -- say, the Heptaméron or Pantagruel? And if fiction is admitted, why not poetry? Are historians ready for Ronsard's sonnets? At this point one is quickly sliding towards intrinsic literary criticism, which is fine with me but not, I think, where historians really want to be. All of the more or less anthropological examples of "ethnographic history," or whatever else one wants to call it, invoked by Darnton(13) would be very difficult to make use of in a more closely reasoned form of history: mythology, like literature, can symbolize many things, and, worse, tends even more than literature to possess a quasi timeless essence. It is not that literature necessarily constitutes autonomous domain, nor that creative writing is ahistorical; but no such concessions will obviate the fact that the referential status of fiction is always in doubt. While it would make little sense to discuss the noble ethic, say, without reference to Corneille and some of the important studies of his work,(14) evidence derived from literature about specific historical change in the short term is inherently problematic.

Poetry indeed is not necessarily an extreme case, since a categorical distinction between poetry and other forms of fiction cannot be sustained. But it helps to situate the point where the historical conscience begins to feel intimations of quicksand: "Historians feel more comfortable in prose," confesses Darnton.(15) Anyone can relate a poem to its historical context to some extent: one can infer a few generalizations about court life from Ronsard and about modern Paris from Apollinaire. But how about formal and structural study of literature: What political or social understanding is to be drawn from the proliferation of the sonnet in the sixteenth century or of free, unpunctuated verse in the twentieth? This is in part the kind of inquiry Hunt is raising; thematics, another of her subjects, may be a different story, but not one free from difficulties.

A cautionary example might be the sometimes overrated business of gendering political symbols. Whether an allegory is masculine or feminine is not without interest, but it needs to be considered very carefully when in the context of a language that, unlike English, is grammatically gendered. This subject has attracted a fair amount of attention since Lynn Hunt launched it in her discussion of certain feminine versus masculine icons of the Revolution; but it is, I am afraid, something no one ever seems to get right, and this failure frequently manifests itself in heady overinterpretation.

The basic point, yet one that many anglophone critics miss, is that an allegory cannot be neutral/neuter and that its gender is linked to that of a noun.(16) Since it is pretty strictly determined thereby, a notion like Liberté simply cannot be represented as anything but a woman, however optional the complementary details of such representation. Largely for this reason, Liberté, Nation, and République(17) (not -- please -- "Marianne," which is not a Revolutionary moniker and indeed did not become current until at least the middle of the nineteenth century)(18) sometimes cannot be distinguished with any certainty. It follows that feminine figures play a role in allegorical iconology roughly proportional to the ratio of feminine to masculine nouns in the allegorized lexicon. It also happens that this lexicon is itself strongly oriented toward the feminine by the large number of abstract nouns that are feminine in Latin,(19) reinforced by the powerful influence of certain authorities, especially Cesare Ripa's Italian Iconologia, first published in 1593: and this has nothing whatever to do with the actual social or even psychic role of women at a particular time. Iconology is largely independent of social fact; indeed, in principle it excludes it altogether.

Inspired, no doubt, by Hunt's more measured example, Londa Schiebinger plunges intrepidly into this quagmire, attributing enormous significance to the fact, for example, that the Encyclopédie frontispiece portrays science and its branches theology, physics, chemistry, and so on as women, with scarcely a thought for the fact that Scientia and all her sisters are feminine in both Latin and French.(20) If Ripa and all his emulators "portrayed each of the sciences as a woman," it is because they were, like all learned people of their time, imbued with Latin.(21) This fact even explains many of what Schiebinger supposes to be exceptions: Art, though masculine, for instance might sometimes be a woman in French iconology (as it is in Ripa) because it is a feminine noun in both Latin (ars) and Italian (arte); similarly, Value (f.) could be masculine because valor (like valore in Italian) is masculine.(22) I have no idea why Schiebinger makes a point of the idea that Intelligence, Instruction, Natural Instinct, and Price are masculine: it is not even clear what she means by "natural instinct"(23) or "price" (unless it be premio 'reward', which is a masculine noun; prix as 'recompense' is likewise masculine in Boudard). Instruction is masculine because in Ripa the source word is ammaestrammento (m.); and "intelligence," as far as I can tell, is always represented as a woman. In any case, one would have to know what the Italian (or other specific) noun being allegorized really was: the citing of an ostensibly anomolous example here and there is unhelpful. So if "Lady Science . . . is always portrayed as a woman," it is simply because scientia/scienza/science had never ceased to be feminine.(24) To refuse to deal with the practical etymology of such devices is unhistorical. Instead of wisely trusting Voltaire's (thoroughly reliable) instincts on this subject, Schiebinger judges him "rather literal-minded in these matters" and airily dismisses his assumption "that gender in the language determined gender in the allegory."(25)

To go on listing ever more striking examples of the feminine, as Schiebinger does, is thus plain tautology; one does not invent at will substitutes for the best established notions. She can find important the fact that "for Ripa and his followers, the world was highly gendered" only because she apparently has no idea what it is like to function in a language in which, in one sense, the whole world is gendered and yet, in another, it does not always matter all that much (which is doubtless the reason it is American and not French scholars who have so belabored the subject). Images do not stand alone, but Schiebinger thinks they do: "The fact that language dictates a feminine Scientia does not mean that a feminine image must be used." This is nonsense. You must first understand the words and how they are used in order to attempt this kind of analysis. If in the 1790s "the feminine icon had lost its former brilliance" that is because traditional iconology as a whole was clearly in decline. With Schiebinger's approach, no real sense can be made of the overwhelmingly logical but "perhaps too easy" correlation of gendered nouns with gendered icons: "Even so, the fact that gender is deeply embedded in most European languages merely pushes back one step the need for explanation: why, after all, is Scientia, or 'science,' or 'Wissenschaft' feminine in the first place?" Good question, but it hardly suits the scope of her inquiry: to reach back eons into some proto-historic unconscious is not a useful approach to grasping the specificity of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century history. Such a level of investigation could go on endlessly: Why are "life" and "death" both feminine? Why are "penis" and "vagina" both masculine? Why is "sun" feminine and "moon" masculine in German when the reverse is true in the Romance languages? Does anyone really think serious historical statements can be derived from such ominously trivial facts? The game thus played is irreducibly futile, and one should take pause at the fact that people who speak the language natively will have nothing to do with it. As Nietzsche said, "We divide things according to genders; we designate the tree [Baum] as masculine, the plant [Pflanze] as feminine: what arbitrary metaphors!"(26)

And this has something serious to do with interdisciplinary communication. A person who writes such things has colleagues who know better: so why not ask them? I am in no way calling into question Schiebinger's points about the contrast between the allegories and the real scientific practitioners; but it is unfortunate to mar intelligent insights with specious evidence.

This is not to deny that figures chosen for primarily allegorical reasons may take on the kind of connotations that Hunt attributes to them in her seminal discussion of the brute force implied in the Hercules images of 1793-1794.(27) Moreover, the gender alone of the substantive certainly does not dictate the specific form of either male or female figure (Hercules as opposed to any number of other masculine possibilities) that was deemed suitable for the purpose. Hunt avoids overinvesting her argument in the business of gender, but it still needs to be underscored that the shift she posits from feminine to masculine images had to be pegged to a noun transfer: though Hercules is all the things she says he is, he becomes a possible choice only through foregrounding the noun Peuple (m.), which is taking over some of the ideological ground formerly occupied by Liberté and her sisters. Even then, the introduction of Hercules betokens more a shift of emphasis than a wholesale substitution. There are specific instances, it is true, of simple replacement where only one emblem had to be chosen, as on the seal of state; but Hercules starts showing up as early as 1790 (specifically in the context of the taking of the Bastille), and Liberté/République, Raison, and other figures continue to play a significant public role alongside Hercules even at intensely republican celebrations like the first anniversary of the republic on 10 August 1793.

I would have to question in the same light Regina Janes's insistence on the exclusive feminization of the guillotine ("she was always female"),(28) not to discount an impressive preponderance of feminine labels nor their potential implications (vagina dentata) but to inject a few complicating factors. First of all, the argument seems undermined at the start by Janes's recognition that the gallows too had been called la veuve; moreover, the masculine échafaud (scaffold) continued to be used even after it had a guillotine mounted atop it. While la veuve could have referred to la potence 'gallows', it is not certain that it designated the structure employed at all.(29) Quite possibly la veuve rather means la mort with her numerous other feminine associations (e.g., la faucheuse, the necessarily feminine counterpart to the English grim reaper), and she can be "espoused" in any number of ways. Second, it is hard to see how any machine and the guillotine definitely symbolized, as well as the republican vengeance, the application of modern mechanical precision to a particular political process could have taken on any name but a feminine one.(30) Janes goes on to draw a symbolic conclusion that the French allegories simply will not support: "In the family drama taking place on the scaffold, the authority masked by feminization is masculine. It is not mother up there, going chop, chop, chop, but father. It is the state."(31) The language and its overdetermined symbol literally will not allow inference of a masculine function (le père, l'État) from the feminine allegory if we are to be at all consistent in our reasoning: at this point Janes is freewheeling without reference to, or support from, the allegories' specificity.

One should always be wary of equivalencies or even connotations based on simple grammar or the imagined history of language. In the expression "la reine des garces" Hunt sees, for example, a "gender blurring" on the grounds that garce and garçon have the same root.(32) This is, unfortunately, preposterous, because in that case any epithet that has separate masculine and feminine forms (they go back, in this case, at least to the twelfth century) becomes a potential gender blurring. Would a noun with a common form for masculine and feminine "blur" genders any less?(33)

Hunt's new book, like her previous ones, is an effort to "establish the objects of historical study as being like those of literature and art."(34) It is not to be objected in her case that pertinent literary resources are not put to use; but I nonetheless feel it necessary to question some of the ways she does so, consistent with her own polemical invitation: "I do hope to offer an account of the links between family images and power that will prompt others to examine their own sources in new lights."(35) She is "targeted" in the rest of this inquiry only because she seems to be the only person who has gone so far in putting together this particular type of argument; it is because her theory is ground-breaking that it is important to examine it with some care.

Let me say at the outset not only that I have no desire to stand Hunt's arguments on end but also that I am not particularly uncomfortable with her "family model of politics," even with its rather uncomplicated appropriation of a general Freudian schema.(36) Its seductive powers may lead her to construe ambiguous evidence in ways compatible to it; but this happens with many theories, and even without Freud, or without René Girard, though their theoretical framework obviously provides a structure for the underlying symbolism, the lines of the progression could be much the same. (Freud and Girard nonetheless have quite different ways of explaining crisis situations, not the least of which is that Freud's is individual and familial whereas Girard's is wholly societal.) Whether stated in a pseudo-psychoanalytic framework or not, it seems plausible that one does not kill the king/father (it was called "parricide") without producing enormous ripple effects throughout the polity, ones that might well be thought to impact on the individual psyche as well as on the collective imagination. My concern is rather the matter of evidence.

Principal among the problems with arguments that adduce sweeping cultural changes is that of ascertaining just when they "occurred." Hunt builds two important aspects of her overall argument on reportedly broad transformations, both of which have to be questioned: (1) the invention of the "good father" in the decades just preceding the Revolution, which in its way undermines the king's traditional type of authority; and (2) the tide of novels and plays about children in the mid-1790s, which betokens a newfound preoccupation with the (now fatherless) family.

Point one: "The rise of the novel and the emergence of interest in children and a more affective family went hand in hand."(37) Problem one: when did the novel "rise," and do the two progressions here linked actually match up? Both of these questions are very nearly unanswerable. Ian Watt did not have any doubts when he wrote The Rise of the Novel (which acknowledges the existence of the French novel only immediately to remand it "outside the main tradition of the novel," whatever that might mean): for him, the novel rose about 1720.(38) This assumption has never been plausible to French literary historians and no longer satisfies the English ones either. Not to belabor the point here, suffice it to say that there was already a rich tradition of novels in France and elsewhere by 1720. Problem two: the statistical evidence. Hunt's supporting assertion that "the intensity of concern with family conflicts . . . is reflected in the sheer number of novels that were produced"(39) is valid only if the premise about the correlation is itself true; otherwise, it is shown only that the number of novels increased, and this is nothing new.

But even the dimensions of that phenomenon are not well established. Since nothing remotely as complete as the "MMF" (Mylne, Martin, Frautschi) bibliography(40) for 1751-1800 exists for the first half of the century, progressive data may be unreliable. Hunt's source is Jacques Rustin,(41) whose figures in turn come from the only bibliography for the earlier period, S. Paul Jones's A List of French Prose Fiction from 1700 to 1750. But one thing the MMF "continuation" of Jones revealed was how hopelessly incomplete his list really was, and the authors (minus the much-regretted Vivienne Mylne) are now preparing a replacement.

The particular statistic in question concerns the increase in annual novel production from eight (in 1701) to fifty-two (in 1751) to 112 (in 1789). For the argument's purposes, however, there would need to be a narrower surge somewhere coinciding with some particular phase in the upswing of the affective-family population. If the novel was simply "rising" in terms of its commercial success and expanding readership the whole century long, then the demonstrative value of its corroboration of an equally long and slow rise of affective families is not very powerful. And there are certainly other constructions of what the "rise" of the novel went hand in hand with: the most canonical one features the emergence of a bourgeois perspective on the individual against society; J. Paul Hunter has recently invoked the urbanization of existence with its consequent loneliness and other period-specific social phenomena.(42)

Counting new novel titles, which we should some day be able to do with something approaching completeness, will still leave us, inevitably, with only partial understanding about the cultural phenomenon the numbers represent. It is not just that such numbers cannot measure readership literally, since that objective is intrinsically beyond our grasp, but that they are incomplete even as a gauge of book sales. We have no way of knowing what the press runs were, and, more important, a large proportion of printings as opposed to new titles were reeditions: continuous readership of earlier works is itself a major ingredient in the cultural soup, and one of the indicators of changing taste if not mentalité might be the points at which the market for previous favorites begins to tail off. Faute de mieux, we usually proceed as if a tally of editions can provide a satisfactory index of the relative success of literary works; we just do not happen to know whether this is really a defensible assumption.

We then come to a more restricted development within the overall argument -- something about which it would seem a positive conclusion could more readily be advanced, but it does not necessarily turn out that way when it is examined a bit. "Most critics seem to agree that the good father only emerged in force in novels after 1750."(43) I am not sure who "most critics" are, although I do not doubt the sincerity of the attestation, since, as I conceded, Hunt does try to use existing scholarship responsibly. But I doubt any such consensus exists. There are some strong and affectionate surrogate fathers in several of Prévost's novels from the late 1720s to the early 1740s; and in Le philosophe anglais (1731-1739) a monstrous father (Cleveland's: Cromwell) passes quickly from the scene to be replaced by a wonderful father (Fanny's: Axminster), who plays a much larger role. (How exactly should we fit mentor figures into the father equation, thus accounting, for example, for the immense, sustained reputation the whole century long of Télémaque?) Lynn Hunt knows that in the works of authors like Prévost, Marivaux, and Voltaire one must try to take into account a variety of family relations, some of which "tended to be tragic or at least filled with obstacles."(44) I do not want to prove her "wrong" on this point but simply to show that almost any straightforward interpretation of this spotty and confusing data will be to some degree tendentious. One can never possess exhaustive information, and yet there is always the risk that even a single counterexample, not to mention a whole lot of ambiguous cases, will spoil the neatness of one's generalizations. It would be tempting to hypothesize that fathers in novels are typically not so much hostile as simply absent: think of La princesse de Clèves (1678), Gil Blas (1715-1735), La vie de Marianne (1731-1742), Le paysan parvenu (1734-1735), etc., right through to Les liaisons dangereuses (1782), Paul et Virginie (1788), and most of the novels of Restif and Sade. What conclusion would one then draw? Yet the "effacement" of the father at the end of the century will be for Hunt another significant step in the evolving "romance."(45)

Why, moreover, should novels be a category unto themselves? Fathers, if scarce in novels, were plentiful in plays. The theatre will figure prominently in Hunt's argument about the 1790s but for some reason does not count in the emerging good-father paradigm of the mid-century. Tragedy is full of hostile fathers, and always had been since ancient times; so is comedy, although they are not exclusively antagonistic. Good fathers too are to be found much earlier: in Molière's Les femmes savantes (1672), for example; and how much nicer can a father be than Monsieur Orgon (1730) who says to his daughter, "il faut être trop bon pour l'être assez"?(46) Good family feeling is a staple as comedy slips toward comédie larmoyante in the 1730s, witness Le préjugé à la mode (1735)(47) and many other sentimental titles such as L'école des mères, L'école des enfants, La femme fidèle, etc. So when exactly did fathers "become" good?(48)

When Hunt then sees, again by consensus, these emergent fathers as inherently unreal, we have to wonder on what grounds: "Literary critics seem to agree that real, biological fathers began to disappear from novels in the last half of the eighteenth century and that the fathers that were portrayed were depicted as new-model fathers relying on affection and concern rather than unquestioned authority."(49) What can a "real, biological" criterion possibly mean in fiction? Such an assertion assumes that an implicit filter in the reader can separate out the "real" in literary representation and thus establish a different ontological status for one type of father (or novel) over another. It is by no means clear to me that affectionate fathers in any way belong to a different register of reality, including their relative statistical verisimilitude, than severe ones. It is precisely the absence of a key that calls such use of literature as historical evidence into question.

Almost every step along this temporal progression would be subject to the same or similar qualifications. For example:

Good fathers apparently did not make for compelling drama. First, the obstinate tyrants were domesticated as good fathers, even as fathers made to suffer by their children. Then, almost as soon as they were established as virtuous and emotional figures who cared for their children in a new way, fictional fathers began to be effaced: they were lost, absent, dead, or simply unknown. Whatever the father's status in any particular novel, in almost all cases fathers were ambivalent and ambiguous figures, not unlike Louis XVI himself on the eve of 1789.(50)
Yet Sedaine's Le philosophe sans le savoir (1765), Diderot's Le père de famille (performed in 1761; triumphant reprise in 1769), and Mercier's La brouette du vinaigrier (1775) are all examples of powerful and dramatically successful plays built around loving, generous fathers who are loved in return. Fathers were ambiguous: aren't they always? Weren't mothers? We are hurriedly if amiably swept right into the lap of the great Weak Father of 1789 with scarcely a pause for breath or reflection. It is not even possible to make the other pieces of this puzzle dovetail into a coherent picture.

The problem is really just a variant of a more general one concerning the relationship of any cultural phenomenon to political events. If one could demonstrate that the average marriage age in France had diminished by two years between 1789 and 1791 (a purely arbitrary hypothesis), or vice versa, what would this prove? Similarly, any drift in the subject matter of literature, even assuming that it could be demonstrated to everyone's satisfaction, would remain somewhat questionable in its implications. Hunt concedes the difficulty of adducing the very kind of evidence that she will in fact use: "Anyone who works on the revolutionary period knows how difficult it is to use art-historical and literary materials."(51) Thus I am not trying to trap her in a spate of naïveté but to pursue her own implicit query about what evidence is useful, and in what ways.

Hunt further wants to show that her overall "romance" plot is corroborated by the dramatic numerical increase during the 1790s of novels and plays about children. This argument too seems to me flawed by the subjectivity of the categorizations that make it possible and the weak causal formulations necessary to accommodate the imperfect rigor of the data. Subcategories discovered in order to prove a point in literary history are dangerously tendentious. This is especially evident in the kind of subcategory Ian Watt invoked in asserting that "Defoe and Richardson are the first great writers in our literature who did not take their plots from mythology, history, legend or previous literature,"(52) for -- aside from those many qualifications -- there is no history of "great" writers: they belong to the same literary history as all the others. This is sleight of hand, rarely noticed by a reader. Hunt's solicitation of history is not nearly so egregious, but it still does not altogether avoid a taint of subjectivity. Although there were books for and about children, we are told, "hardly any of the children's books published before the 1780s incorporated much in the way of child psychology. Unsystematic collections of stories, dialogues, and plays are presented in a constantly moralizing tone; the children's ages and characters are depicted very vaguely; and much of the children's speech is obviously artificial."(53) Although I do not contest the gist of this assertion, an attenuation such as "much in the way of" is as fatally vague as "obviously artificial" is undemonstrable. A reasonably neat definition of what will pass for authentic childish speech would be required in order to decide at what point it can be judged to make its first genuine appearance in literature. How can we distinguish with any degree of finality those works in which children existed but "still functioned primarily as metaphors for something else"(54) from ones where they were somehow certifiably only themselves?

At such critical junctures arguments are often prudently expressed in terms of loose correlations the recognition of childhood actions "went hand in hand with a diminution of the father's traditional patriachal role"(55) because, really, there is no choice. "Hand in hand" evades an assertion of causality, but anything more precise would fail to stand up to close scrutiny. Moreover, the diminution of the father or "his absence altogether (as in Paul et Virginie)" falls into an enormous basket of broader (and older) literary traditions: romance, for example (to which Paul et Virginie can in some ways be assimilated),(56) where the father is quite frequently absent. Similarly, the fact that Lolotte, Fanfan, and Alexis, three characters in novels analyzed by Hunt, "all turn out to be nobles by birth" might be taken as evidence that they owe a lot to the tradition of comedy, which frequently ends on such felicitous discoveries conventionally called reconnaissances. And the "possibility of incest, whether real or metaphorical" that is found to run "like a red thread through the eighteenth-century novel"(57) is also from ancient times a staple of tragedy and comedy.

"Thus, on the eve of the Revolution, fathers are very much at issue in literature. Paul and Virginie come to a tragic end because they do not have fathers; Lolotte, Fanfan, and Alexis reach happy endings when they find their fathers"(58): this general statement attempts to resolve into a single purport examples that appear instead to lead in opposite directions. A plethora of texts from many periods would fit into an argument this flexible because fathers have always been very much at issue in literature: ask Oedipus (whose father too was absent, or so he thought). Orphaned, or just apparently orphaned, children are everywhere in literature. The literature produced at a specific historical moment is always rife with the traits of particular genres or literary filiations per se.

In the discussion of the 1790s, two uses of literature are in play: singular, or the reading of particular texts offering exemplary value; and plural, in the form either of predominant usage or of aggregate numerical evidence (how many novels were written, or the prevalence of certain subjects or of certain words in their titles). Darnton comes down schematically in favor of the singular: cultural artifacts are qualitatively different from the objects of "serial" study and should be "read, not counted."(59) Hunt does some of both, at times pausing to analyze a particular (and, implicitly, significantly representative) work, at others characterizing the movement of a whole body of literature.

The singular reading poses a less urgent methodological problem insofar as interpretation is based upon the plausibility of a certain construction of the text, and this (leaving intentionality aside) can be argued on its own grounds. Thus, for example, Chartier's objection that in "Workers Revolt" Darnton may have put too much literal weight on certain fixed expressions having to do with sorcery: it is "doubtful that this culture was really playing with the full repertory of diabolical and carnival motifs that Darnton attributes to it."(60) Contestation is still possible as to whether the particular work is a viable example of one development rather than another: Put schematically, is it on the side of a rising trend or a declining one? Is it being sollicited for the author's purposes? Is it really typical? And so forth.

The plural aspect, which relates to the collective category, is rather more problematic. What counts as statistical evidence in the patchy data of literary history? In what way do the numbers matter? What can they reasonably be understood to show? An example of this quandary is the decline in numbers of novels published in the early 1790s and subsequent increase in the post-Terror years. Is it, once more, meaningful in the first place to isolate the novel as specifically significant outside a more comprehensive assessment of literary production?(61) Supposing, for example, that numbers of novels and plays were conflated for these years; what then would the figures show? It is certain that plays flourished in the revolutionary years, for reasons doubtlessly related to the importance of public spectacle.

And on a wholly different and practical level, which such a cultural approach risks overlooking, book production may be constrained by something as unsymbolic as censorship (admittedly not a factor here) or a shortage of paper (could well be a factor here). In fact what collapsed in the period 1789-1794, according to Carla Hesse, was not novel production but book publication in general, and for this she cites any number of historical factors: "ruthless" deregulation of the book trade, a shift of readership toward more ephemeral, political forms; emigration of part of the reading public and the interdiction of book trade with other countries; the Law of Suspects and other dangers attending publishing during the years of Terror; centralized official patronage of publishing. Even the quantity of journals diminished by half between 1792 and 1793.(62) So what is the particular importance of numbers of novels in all this?

One of the constantly aggravating factors when dealing with artistic meaning of any sort is the depth of tradition and consequently the potential breadth of allusion that is always inherent. Even revolutionary engravings are often based upon themes that are richly allusive literarily. For instance, when Théroigne de Méricourt, in one typical caricature, frightens the army by flashing her res publica(63) (needless to say, there is much antifeminist sarcasm in that allusion), there is an implicit literary model: La Fontaine's "Le diable de Papefiguière," which itself had indeed been illustrated.(64) Since in a work of art anything -- including of course children and fathers but also cats, trees, the wind or whatever -- may be both itself and a "metaphor for something else," we have a continual and inevitable dilemma about historical specificity. Supposing one were to stumble upon a Bourgeois gentilhomme written in 1790 or an École des femmes in 1793: What historically specific conclusions could one draw from them? In essence, one would fall into the kind of conundrum famously illustrated by Borges' hypothesis about a modern re-writing, word for word, but originally, of Don Quixote: Would this be the same Don Quixote, or a subtler, richer and more affected one?(65) So much of even the most original work of art is a re-working or a re-possession and adaptation of earlier models that all certainty about innovation and often even trends must instantly be swaddled in qualifications.

The same dilemma applies to painting. David cannot fail to intrigue and challenge the cultural student of the revolutionary years, but how can one conjure the familiar adage that all paintings owe more to previous paintings than to any imitation of nature (or, mutatis mutandis, any reference to contemporary politics)? While it may be true that David's works of the 1780s "demonstrate a deep worry about the relationship between family and state obligations,"(66) the same could be said of Corneille's plays of the 1630s and 1640s and all kinds of works from various centuries. If David's Sabine Women (1799) is viable evidence of the new postthermidorian family values, on the grounds that he began it in prison in 1794, then it was a swift conversion indeed, for just a few months previously he was passionately at work on the Death of Bara. We would need to know much more about the prethermidorian family to be confident that such a displacement occurred at all, and even then David's particular position within the movement would be open to dispute.

The problem of proof is at issue again in the chapter about the postthermidorian rehabilitation of the family: "The most striking family figure in French novels and plays after 1794 was the orphan, the child without a family."(67) Examples are such works as L'enfant du carnaval, Victor ou l'enfant de la forêt and Cúlina ou l'enfant du mystère, all published between 1796 and 1798.(68) It is not clear in what way this was a new phenomenon, if indeed it was at all: one would have to see whether the works cited differ in significant ways from any number of earlier novels about untutored children such as L'élève de la nature (1763), Imirse ou la fille de la nature (1765), and the rest of what was written about enfants sauvages.(69) Several of Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni's novels in the 1760s and 1770s feature orphans. On the theatrical front, Le fils naturel (1757) and many other plays of the drame movement of the 1760s and 1770s must be very nearly a match, when it comes to effusiveness of family ties and other bonds, for the sentimental works of the 1790s. Many of these probably owe a good deal to the steadily rising influence of Rousseau, who in Émile (1762) invested childhood with a plethora of new meanings.

This presumed novelty is made by Hunt to coincide with, and thus reinforce, that of melodrama, which "took shape in the 1790s," attended by the introduction of particular trademarks: "Dungeons, underground passages, conspiracies, intrigues, battles, double identities, robbery, and murder were all staples of the genre."(70) The trouble is that these traits are certifiably also trademarks of le romanesque in general -- they are almost all to be found, for example, in Challe's Les illustres Françaises of 1713 -- and are equally prominent in a whole body of stories and plays by writers like Baculard d'Arnaud in the 1760s and 1770s. (It is not for nothing that one series of stories by Baculard was entitled Les épreuves du sentiment.) Even the name of mélodrame dates from 1771. In other words, one cannot easily judge from the fact that a thematic phenomenon exists what its relative importance is, and one certainly cannot conclude that it exists uniquely at, and as a function of, that particular moment. Melodramatic effects may be more prominent, or more intense, or more something else, in this particular decade than at any time previously, but this is not evident and awaits further demonstration.

Nor indeed can one inherently trust even contemporary witnesses, given that they too represent a point of view. To believe along with Carla Hesse that novels, perceived as running rampant, were in the process of destroying taste and values at the end of the century(71) is to credit with too little questioning voices of despair over contemporary culture that are to be found, in all likelihood, at all times; there were many such, similarly decrying the novel's pernicious influence, in the 1720s and 1730s.(72) On the other hand, if "the literary form sets language free and therefore challenges the categories that reign elsewhere in the culture,"(73) then what kind of historical evidence do they constitute, anyway? That is, since literature may testify as much to the counterculture, or to an explicit challenge to reigning cultural banalities, as to the passively accepted norm, how can it ever be relied upon, per se, as proof of anything?

In short, none of the major points that Hunt supports by dint of literary history is a convincing test case for that strategy; for either the productions cited as telling do not appertain precisely enough to one particular stage of historical development and no other, or the data at best require careful control and perhaps nuancing. These doubts are probably similar to those that beleaguered the Ariès thesis on childhood,(74) for we do not have any general agreement on the kind of statistical evidence that would be required to establish a preponderance or even a trend. Long-term evolution, on the other hand, may be so slow or so irregular that it can never be demonstrated adequately in a compressed timeframe.

This leaves us with a methodological dilemma, for it is not my purpose to insist that this kind of work should not be done, nor that only literary scholars are equipped to do it. Nonetheless, there remains a question about what it is possible for cultural history to achieve. Perhaps all the arguments questioned here are defensible, but their form needs to be much more focused and specific: what, precisely, happened, and when -- including specifics about edition and version. Less risk, to be sure, attends discrete readings of particular works as practiced, for example, by Dena Goodman in Criticism in Action,(75) which Hunt's almost unexceptionable chapter on Sade more resembles. (Goodman's analyses nonetheless go over ground that is already quite familiar to students of literature.) Even there, however, given that Sade's themes were pretty well adumbrated before 1789, their relation to the impact of the Revolution is not altogether clear, whereas for Hunt's purposes the distance between pre- and postrevolutionary Sade should be important. Quite aside from that, it is a good question whether Sade can be over- or misinterpreted: there are so many possibilities; but historically speaking, consummate polysemia will not quite fit the bill. I hasten to add that much the same hesitations beleaguer literary histories, which of late "deliberately avoid consecutiveness and coherence."(76)

The sections I have singled out here for microscopic examination are but a small part of Hunt's book. Lest this critique of method convey an impression of total disparagement, I wish to stress in closing that it is on the whole a rich and intriguing work that will be welcomed in several fields and for numerous reasons. I allow, moreover, that when I teach I too am inclined to commit the kind of generalization that I have scrutinized here. I do of course believe that sensibility changes over time; and if some of the changes Hunt describes were not in fact taking place, we could not talk at all about the birth of Romanticism in the postrevolutionary era. So it is indeed my view that cultural history is worth doing. But it is still in its early stages, and the question -- still -- is how it can best be done.

Return to beginning of article


1. Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1992).

2. Robert Darnton, "Readers Respond to Rousseau," in his The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1984).

3. "Un genre nouveau, une libre confrontation scientifique: des objections sont avancées, auxquelles l'auteur accepte de répondre" (Pierre Bourdieu, Roger Chartier, and Robert Darnton, "Dialogue à propos de l'histoire culturelle," Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales 59 [1985]: 86-93, 87).

4. "Nous pratiquons une critique franche et nous nommons nos adversaires" (ibid., pp. 87-88).

5. Ibid.; and Robert Darnton, "The Symbolic Element in History," Journal of Modern History 58 (1986): 218-34.

6. "It is clear that for us it remains a massacre in writing. Thus we need above all to decipher its function in the text" (Roger Chartier, "Text, Symbols, and Frenchness," Journal of Modern History 57 [1985]: 682-95, 692; cf. Bourdieu, Chartier, and Darnton, p. 92).

7. Darnton quote from The Great Cat Massacre, p. 77.

8. I am using this term in a general way; Darnton rejects the more overarching and tendentious notion of "national character" in favor of a sort of national cultural style.

9. "Une boutade, une provocation, et une interrogation" (Bourdieu, Chartier, and Darnton, p. 88).

10. Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre, p. 64. Scapin, Crispin, and Scaramouche are "Italian" types imitated from the Commedia dell'Arte, and Gil Blas and Figaro are "Spanish."

11. See, esp. chap. 3 in Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988); and David Perkins' comments on Greenblatt's "arbitrary choice of context" in Is Literary History Possible? (Baltimore, 1992), pp. 148-52.

12. External, that is, to the narrative provided by Natalie Zemon Davis and/or the film, outside of which exist the real trial documents.

13. For Darnton's discussion of this notion, see "The Symbolic Element in History," pp. 223-26.

14. In particular, see, on Corneille, Paul Bénichou, Morales du grand siècle (Paris, 1948); and Serge Doubrovsky, Corneille et la dialectique du héros (Paris, 1963).

15. Darnton, "The Symbolic Element in History" (n. 5 above), p. 220.

16. Exceptions exist but are genuinely unusual. In the Gravelot/Cochin Iconologie par figures all the seasons (each masculine in French), with their associated divinities, are feminine; and liberties could sometimes be taken with nouns that were not fixed by tradition (for there was after all continual flux in iconography). In such instances one encounters apologetic explanations such as, "On a cru pouvoir représenter le secret par une femme d'un maintien grave" (Hubert François Gravelot and Charles Nicolas Cochin, Iconologie par figures ou traité complet des allégories, emblèmes, etc., 4 vols. [Paris, n.d. (1791)], 4:83).

17. Patrie might figure too in this constellation, but it resists iconographical institutionalization by virtue of its unusual linguistic status: it is a feminine word but it means 'fatherland'.

18. These facts concerning Marianne are confirmed by a recent book by Maurice Agulhon and Pierre Bonte called Marianne: les visages de la république (Paris, 1992). Although they find the possible beginnings of Marianne in a Provençal song of 1792 ("La garisou de Marianno"), they conclude that for the next half-century that name continues only to "circuler obsurément dans le midi" and finally after 1850 "se répand peu à peu hors du pays d'origine, mais de façon discrète" (pp. 18, 32-34).

19. Vico too noted such a practice "in respect of spiritual things, such as the faculties of the human mind, the passions, virtues, vices, sciences, and arts; for the most part the ideas we form of them are so many feminine personifications, to which we refer all the causes, properties, and effects that severally appertain to them" (The New Science, trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch [Ithaca, NY, 1948], sec. 402, p. 115).

20. Londa Schiebinger, "Feminine Icons: the Face of Early Modern Science," Critical Inquiry 14 (1988): 661-91; all the passages to be quoted in text are on pp. 664 and 672-73.

21. Schiebinger is thus puzzled (ibid., p. 672) by the fact that feminine German allegories may be consistent with Latin feminine (i.e., pax) rather than the German masculine (Friede).

22. Yet the Gravelot/Cochin Iconologie par figures follows the French feminine of valeur. In Boudard, Art is masculine; the flexibility arises from the fact that "art" was not a standardized allegorization, although the separate arts were (J. B. Boudard, Iconologie tirée de divers auteurs [Bienne, 1766]; originally published in Parma in 1759).

23. Istinto is after all masculine in Italian, and is rendered in the masculine in Boudard under Instinct, au naturel.

24. Sometimes an allegory was further conflated with the figure of an ancient god or goddess representing the same attributes; e.g., sapientia (also feminine) might be confused with, or overdetermined by, Minerva, goddess of wisdom.

25. Voltaire does not "explicitly state" this, as Schiebinger asserts, but he does take it for granted. In suggesting probable French reactions to Milton, he describes Satan's incest with his daughter Sin to bring forth Death, and simply observes that if Sin were masculine in English, "as it is in all the other languages," the allegory not only will not work, it will appear ridiculous. He notes in passing another difference, namely, Milton's representation of Death as masculine (An Essay upon the Civil Wars of France . . . and also upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations from Homer to Milton [London, 1727; reprint, Gainesville FL, 1970], p. 115). This essay was written in English and later served as the basis for his French Essai sur la poésie épique; cf. Florence Donnell White, Voltaire's Essay on Epic Poetry: a Study and an Edition (New York, 1915); and David Williams, "Voltaire's 'True Essay' on Epic Poetry," Modern Language Review 88 (1993): 46-57.

26. Truth and Falsity in an Ultramoral Sense, trans. Mazemilian A. Mügge, in Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 2:177.

27. Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984), pp. 87-119.

28. Regina Janes, "Beheadings," Representations 35 (1991): 21-51, 38-39.

29. The expression épouser la veuve has been used at least since 1628 (Robert dictionary) and is defined in dictionaries as 'être pendu' or 'être guillotiné', but I have not seen an isolated instance of veuve that would settle this point.

30. This model is very common in French, e.g., tondeuse 'lawn mower', perceuse 'drill', imprimante 'printer'.

31. Janes, p.

32. The Family Romance (n. 1 above), p. 115.

33. Although it is only a detail, it does not really make any sense, either, to say that Restif de la Bretonne's Le pornographe is "significantly titled" (ibid., p. 137), inasmuch as it was he who invented the word pornographe, from which the modern word pornography derives.

34. Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1989), p. 17.

35. Hunt, The Family Romance, p. 15.

36. Her title alludes to Freud's Familienroman der Neurotiker, an essay published by Otto Rank in 1909, and to other titles that imitate his (cf. Hunt, p. xiii n. 1).

37. Ibid., pp. 21-22.

38. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957; reprint, Berkeley, 1971), p. 30.

39. Hunt, Family Romance, p.

40. Angus Martin, Vivienne G. Mylne, Richard Frautschi, Bibliographie du genre romanesque français, 1751-1800 (London, 1977).

41. Jacques Rustin, Le vice à la mode (Paris, 1979); S. Paul Jones, A List of French Prose Fiction from 1700 to 1750 (New York, 1939).

42. J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels: the Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction (New York, 1990).

43. Hunt, The Family Romance, pp. 22-23.

44. Ibid., p. 23.

45. "Fathers had not played a major role in most novels written by women, and by the end of the eighteenth century even novels written by men began to efface the father" (Hunt, The Family Romance, p. 22, my italics).

46. "The only way to be good enough is to be too good" (Marivaux, Le jeu de l'amour et du hasard, 1.2).

47. Le préjugé à la mode is by Nivelle de la Chaussée.

48. Nor is this subject area wholly unexplored; cf. e.g., Geoffroy Atkinson, The Sentimental Revolution: French Writers of 1690-1740 (Seattle, 1965).

49. Hunt, The Family Romance, p. 25.

50. Ibid., p. 23; my italics.

51. Ibid., p. 15.

52. Watt (n. 38 above), p. 14.

53. Hunt, The Family Romance (n. 1 above), p. 27.

54. The quote is from ibid., p. 26.

55. For quote, see ibid., p. 27; my italics.

56. Clifton Cherpack discusses pastoral aspects of the novel, e.g., in "Paul et Virginie and the Myths of Death," PMLA 90 (1975): 247-55.

57. Quotes can be found in Hunt, The Family Romance, pp. 33-35.

58. Ibid., p. 34.

59. Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre (n. 2 above), p. 258.

60. Chartier (n. 6 above), pp. 691-93.

61. Chartier's "history of cultural productions" (see Bourdieu, Chartier, and Darnton [n. 3 above], p. 88).

62. Carla Hesse, Publishing and Cultural Politics in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1810 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1991), pp. 128-30, 200.

63. Hunt, The Family Romance, p. 116.

64. Notably by Charles Eisen in the "Fermiers généraux" edition of Contes et nouvelles envers (Amsterdam, 1762), but there is also an anonymous illustration in an edition of 1778 and one by Fragonard that was unpublished until the twentieth century.

65. Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," in his Labyrinths (New York, 1962), pp. 36-45.

66. Hunt, The Family Romance, p. 37.

67. Ibid., p. 153.

68. Ibid., pp. 172-73.

69. L'élève de la nature is by Gaspard Guillard de Beaurieu (The Hague and Paris, 1763, 2 vols.; vol. 3 added in 1771); this work went through over a dozen editions. This narrator of this story too is "untutored": although observed, he never knows other humans until he is twenty. Imerse ou la fille de la nature is by Henri Joseph Du Laurens (Berlin, 1765).

70. Hunt, The Family Romance, pp. 184-85.

71. Hesse n. 62 above), pp. 201-3.

72. A good number are cited in Georges May, Le dilemme du roman au XVIIIe siècle:étude sur les rapports du roman et de la critique (1715-1761) (New Haven CT, 1963).

73. Lloyd Kramer, paraphrasing Dominick LaCapra, in "Literature, Criticism, and Historical Imagination," in Hunt, ed. (n. 34 above), The New Cultural History, 97-128, 113-14.

74. Philippe Aries, L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime (Paris, 1960).

75. Dena Goodman, Criticism in Action: Enlightenment Experiments in Political Writing (Ithaca NY, 1989). Goodman, too, makes extensive use of literary scholarship, but unlike Hunt concentrates on the discourse of individual texts rather than employing them in the service of a diachronic argument.

76. Perkins (n. 11 above), p. 3.

Return to top of notes
Return to beginning of article