Robert Darnton

Shelby Cullom Davis '30 Professor of European History, Emeritus; Senior Historian

Professor Darnton, the Shelby Cullom Davis ‘30 Professor of European History, studies 18th-century France with special interest in the literary world, censorship, and the history of books. He graduated from Harvard University in 1960, attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, and earned a Ph.D. (D. Phil.) in history from Oxford in 1964. After working briefly as a reporter for the New York Times, he was elected to the Society of Fellows at Harvard University (1965-68). He joined the Princeton History Department in 1968. Throughout his career Professor Darnton has concerned himself with the literary world of Enlightenment France, often focusing not on the philosophes but on writers outside the first rank and the material they produced. Using the archives of an 18th-century Swiss publishing house he has brought to light a vast illegal literature of philosophy, atheism, and pornography that was smuggled into France in the decades before the Revolution. In the course of this work Professor Darnton has developed an influential anthropological approach to history, has advanced novel interpretations of the French Revolution, and has helped to create the field known as “the history of the book.” He also has a longstanding interest in electronic books, Web publishing, and other new media. His books include Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968), The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie (1979), The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982), The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (1989), Revolution in Print: the Press in France 1775-1800 (1989, Daniel Roche coeditor), Edition et sédition (1991, written in French, not available in English), which won the French Prix Médicis, Berlin Journal, 1989-1990 (1991), and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Prerevolutionary France (1995), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Professor Darnton has been the recipient of the Leo Gershoy Prize of the American Historical Association (for The Business of Enlightenment), a MacArthur Fellowship (1982-87), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (for The Great Cat Massacre), Princeton University’s Behrman Humanities Award (1987), the Gutenberg Prize (2004), and the American Printing History Association Prize (2005). In 1999 he was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, the highest award given by the French government, in recognition of his work.

Current Project

Professor Darnton is currently working on two books: a study of the libelles, a genre of scandalous books involving defamation of government officials and prominent people that flourished in France in the second half of the 18th century; and a large-scale history of publishing and the book trade in late-18th-century France. Eventually he plans to write a new history of the origins of the French Revolution.

Teaching Interests

Professor Darnton has taught European history courses at Princeton since 1968. In recent years he has taught an undergraduate survey course on France (1685-1800) emphasizing different modes of historical analysis, and an undergraduate seminar on the history of the book, which includes hands-on work with 18th-century printing techniques. He offers graduate-level courses in the social history of ideas and on 17th- and 18th-century France. He is the director of the Center for the Study of Books and Media.

Area of Interest
Book History
Home Department & Other Affiliations
17th & 18th Centuries