Sign in  |  Register

The New Criterion

Quite simply, the best cultural review in the world
- John O’Sullivan


January 1983

Grub Street to revolution

by Robert Nisbet

A review of The Literary Underground of the Old Regime by Robert Darnton.

Robert Darnton The Literary Underground of the Old Regime.
Harvard University Press, 258 pages, $16.50

In The Literary Underground of the Old Regime Robert Darnton introduces us to an eighteenth-century French Enlightenment most of us are unaccustomed to, one populated by libelists, hack writers, and pornographers who, although scorned by the illustrious philosophes and others in French literary society, committed themselves all the same to the values of Diderot, Rousseau, and d’Alembert and carried those values up to the very outbreak of the Revolution. A gamy lot for the most part, denizens of a full-fledged Grub Street, they were as quick to betray one another to the police as to pen a piece of scurrility on any of the leading lights of the Old Regime. Nevertheless, they composed a formidable group in the war against church, nobility, monarchy, and the academies.

Darnton’s book is a collective portrait of these Rousseaus du ruisseau, or “Rousseaus of the gutter,” as they were often called. He has done with the Enlightenment what other historians have recently done with the Revolution; he has studied it from below, through its underground. What has made this possible was Darnton’s discovery some years ago in Neuchâtel of an enormous cache of papers from the large eighteenth-century Swiss publishing house, the Société typqgraphique de Neuchâtel. It was an “historian’s dream,” for the Societé was one of the many publishing houses that grew up around France’s borders to fill the constant demand for pirated and prohibited books. Following the leads provided by these papers, Darnton made his way to complementary documents in France—archives of the police, the Bastille, and the booksellers’ guild. Darnton’s first yield from these researches was The Business of the Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800 (1979). Now he has turned his attention to the large number of books of the Enlightenment that expressed hostility to the Old Regime by means of pornography, libel, obscene caricature, and the relentless mongering of every possible rumor or supposition concerning the monarchy and aristocracy. Though we rarely if ever see mention today of their titles and authors in our histories of eighteenth-century French literature, the works of this underground were very widely read by the French of all classes and sections.

Darnton takes us in a variety of portraits and landscapes to France’s Grub Street, habitat in Paris of hundreds of libellistes. They had been drawn to Paris from the provinces by the glittering reputations of Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert, Rousseau, and others and by a simple desire to become philosophes themselves in the work of spreading the gospel of natural law, rights, and liberty and of subjecting the grand monde to unrelenting ridicule and invective. Alas, there was no room for them among the philosophes, most of whom had become incandescent figures themselves in the grand monde, in its salons and lustrous academies. Rejected for the most part by the philosophes, who were not eager for competition from the youthful, they decided to carry on the philosophes’ war against the Old Regime in their own way—directly, without subtlety or elegance, using the stiletto of libel and the broad sword of scurrility and pornography.

Charles de Morande was one of the abler writers of the libelles. According to Darnton he could bring shock even to Voltaire. He specialized in ascribing to members of the court and aristocracy all manner of sexual deviation and depravity. Thus, in Morande’s account, the “devout wife of a certain Marechal de France” prefers the “crude caresses” of her “robust” butler to those of her husband; elsewhere, “The Count of Noail— having taken some scandalous liberties with one of his lackeys,” is knocked over “with a slap that kept his lordship in bed for eight days.” And at one point

the public is warned that an epidemic disease is raging among the girls of the Opera, that it has begun to reach the ladies of the court, and that it has even been communicated to their lackeys. This disease elongates the face, destroys the complexion, reduces the weight, and causes horrible ravages where it becomes situated. There are ladies without teeth, others without eyebrows, and some completely paralyzed.

According to Darnton, Morande’s chronicle of decadence in high places reads “as an indictment of the social order .... He associated the aristocracy’s decadence with its inability to fulfill its functions in the army, the church, and the state.”

The philosophes’ characterizations of these gamy libellistes of Grub Street could be savage. Mercier thought them no better than “famished scribblers” and “poor hacks.” Voltaire was much more savage, placing them at a level below that of prostitutes and calling them “the dregs of humanity,” the “ragged rabble” and “riff-raff of literature.” Such invective notwithstanding, Voltaire and others were not above using these pauvres diables for their own purposes, mostly by encouraging them (with information and money) to attack in the underground press the philosophes’ ideological enemies.

The Grub Street hacks were helped greatly in their so-called philosophical tracts and their various other forms of writing by the gradual disappearance through death of the great philosophes and by the conspicuous impotence of the self-styled philosophes who in the 1780s supposedly took the places of the Voltaires and Rousseaus. These latter had also come to Paris in search of fortune through writing. But unlike the Grub Street lot, they had a flair for insinuating themselves into the good graces of the old philosophes and others of importance in French society. Darnton’s portrait of Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard is revealing. Suard had come to Paris in search of patronage and “protection” by the illustrious writers of the day, and he was singularly successful. “He toed the party line of the philosophes,” Darnton writes, “and collected his reward.” He and his wife entertained the notable and were entertained by them in turn. In pensions and other secure sources of state largesse he netted between ten and twenty thousand livres a year.

It is the Suard types that complicate the relation of the philosophes to the Revolution. The great philosophes were dead by the early 1780s. In any event it is a long step from the abstract tomes and articles of Diderot and Morellet to the fierce radicalism that flared up on so wide a front in 1789. Rousseau may well be considered a continuing link between the Enlightenment and the outbreak of the Revolution; he seems to have been read more widely than the others during the fateful decade of the 1780s. But the fact is that in the main, as Darnton writes, “with the death of the old Bolsheviks, the Enlightenment passed into the hands of nonentities like Suard: it lost its fire and became a mere tranquil diffusion of light, a comfortable ascent toward progress. The transition from the heroic to the High Enlightenment domesticated the movement, integrating it with le monde and bathing it in the douceur de vivre of the Old Regime’s dying years.”

Enter now the riff-rafF. They are, as Darnton demonstrates, the true carriers of Enlightenment values to 1789. The recognized philosophe-successors to Voltaire—who had himself become very wealthy through speculation and investment and had been virtually canonized by the Old Regime before his death—were fat and complacent. No spirit of revolt bubbled in their veins. But the men of Grub Street were different indeed: their minds had been steeped from boyhood in the more revolutionary sentiments of the Old Guard of philosophes; from adversity of every kind they felt their hatred of the Old Regime grow almost exponentially from year to year. Darnton writes:

And while [the philosophes] grew fat in Voltaire’s church, the revolutionary spirit passed to the lean and hungry men of Grub Street, to the cultural pariahs who, through poverty and humiliation, produced the Jacobinical version of Rousseauism. The crude pamphleteering of Grub Street was revolutionary in feeling as well as in message. It expressed the passion of men who hated the Old Regime in their guts, who ached with hatred of it. It was from such visceral hatred, not from the refined abstractions of the contented cultural elite, that the extreme Jacobin revolution found its authentic voice.

It was probably the insensate resentment, envy, and sheer hatred of those above them socially that made anything like a formal revolutionary program impossible on Grub Street. “Morande cried out for liberty,” Darnton points out, “and in fulminating against aristocratic decadence he seemed to have advanced bourgeois standards of decency, if only by contrast. But he did not defend any clear set of principles.” Nevertheless, in the attacks on the moral depravities of their chosen subjects, starting with the Queen, the libellistes communicated a moral order, one easily assimilated by those unable to read Rousseau. “So, if the libelles lacked a coherent ideology, they communicated a revolutionary point of view.” In the large their message was indeed “gutter Rousseauism.” Rousseau seems to have been the philosophe that Grub Street adored. He was, they felt, at bottom one of them; they were merely broadcasting in explicit detail his central message.

But, as Darnton stresses in his chapter on the famous libelliste Brissot (“A Spy in Grub Street”), many of the rabble—hatred of the Old Regime notwithstanding—were only too willing to become police informers, saving their own necks and making a little money while they continued their work as philosophes of the demimonde. Brissot, who would become a prominent and prosperous editor during the Revolution, held all the correct Rousseauian ideas in the 1780s and burned with all the appropriate sentiments on the corruption of the Old Regime and its need of early demise, But “when [the government] imprisoned him and confiscated his works, he came to an understanding with its police.” He was far from being alone in this.

Darnton’s primary interest in this book is not the substance of the ideas which flourished during the Enlightenment and made their way to 1789 but rather the means by which the ideas were diffused to so many parts of French society. As he points out, the underground was very important when the police and other agencies of government sought to contain the utterance of heterodox ideas. The underground managed for the most part to elude police and censor. But how? “Historians know very little about the way legal literature was printed, distributed, and read under the Old Regime. They know still less about prohibited books. Yet most of what passes today for eighteenth-century literature circulated on the shady side of the law in eighteenth-century France.” And here booksellers became vital to the cause.

In a chapter on “a clandestine bookseller in the provinces” we gain a vivid picture of the significance of such book dealers as Mauvelain in Troyes in spreading the ideas of both the high and the low Enlightenment throughout France in the 1770s and 1780s. It was of course the Enlightenment of the low road that had the greatest appeal to readers. Mauvelain’s clients, Darnton tells us, had virtually no interest in theory. “The works that sold best of all in Mauvelain’s repertory were the libels (libelles) .... They resembled chroniques scmdaleuses in their emphasis on scandal, but they also had political ‘bite.’ They probed the sensitive area where private decadence became a public issue, and by slandering eminent individuals, they desecrated the whole regime.” The word philosophy obviously had great elasticity in the Enlightenment. In a letter from a bookseller in Poitiers to his supplier in Switzerland there is this: “Here is a short list of philosophical books that I want. Please send the invoice in advance: Venus in the Cloister or the Nun in a Nightgown, Christianity Unveiled, Memoirs ofMme la marquise de Pompadour, Inquiry on the Origin of Oriental Despotism, The System of Nature, Theresa the Philosopher, Margot the Campfollower.

One of the merits of Darnton’s book is the clarity with which the age-old liaison between pornography and revolt is set forth. As Darnton makes evident, the Grub Street pornographer concerned with salaciously limning the personal lives of the eminent was just as surely working at destroying the foundations of the Old Regime as was the tractarian concerned with court or parlements. It is impossible to separate politics and morals, and the uses of moral depravity are very great when the object is the overthrow of a government or social order. Thus, in declaring a majority of the two hundred colonels in France fit only for homosexual gaieties, only able “to sing little songs” and “wear lace and red heels,” and in announcing that the “King’s confessor was disgraced for having been discovered flirting with some pages,” a libelle was at once appealing to a traditional moral code and declaring a social order so rotten that extermination through revolution was the only hope for national salvation.

Without doubt the most lasting contribution Darnton has made in this book is his demonstration of just how the Enlightenment led up to the Revolution. For a long time a substantial number of respected historians of the Revolution have poured scorn on the proposition that the ideas of the Enlightenment played a powerful role in bringing on 1789 and the astonishing amount of radicalism found in this first year of the Revolution. What power, these historians ask, could abstract dissertations of D’Holbach, Diderot, and Rousseau, the satire and humor of Voltaire, and the philosophy of nature shared by the Physiocrats and most of the Encyclopédistes have in them to carry developing passions of the 1780s to the causes of the Revolution?

The answer is, very little. But that doesn’t by any means end the matter. For, as Darnton shows convincingly in this book, many of the central ideas of the old philosophes were gleefully incorporated in the works of the Grub Street regulars, and of one thing we may be sure, given Darnton’s scholarly discoveries: a great many people in France read Grub Street’s literature. In sum, the intellectual origins of the Revolution “may be understood better if one descends from the level of the Encyclopédie and re-enters Grub Street, where men like Brissot produced the newspapers and pamphlets, the posters and cartoons, the songs, rumors, and libelles that transformed personal quarrels and factional rivalries into an ideological struggle over the destiny of France.”

And when the Revolution began, the inherent conflict between the denizens of Grub Street and the Suards, Marmontels, and Morellets—who had managed to achieve philosophe status in le monde and to acquire a stake in the Old Regime—could not be capped any longer. The new philosophes, so-called, were stripped of income and status while the Brissots, Prudhommes, Louvets, and Marats of the literary proletariat took on new and often well-paid existences as editors and members of government. As Darnton writes in the final sentence of his book: “The counterculture called for a cultural revolution—and was ready to answer the call of 1789.” Not only were the pillars of the Old Regime that the old philosophes had disliked brought down suddenly, but so were a good many pillars—-academies, liberal salons, booksellers’ organizations, etc.— that the philosophes had found highly agreeable. Such, commonly in history, is the fate of intellectuals who choose the high road to revolution.

Robert Nisbet

more from this author

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 January 1983, on page 74

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion |

E-mail to friend

add a comment

Leave this field empty

The New Criterion

By the author

Goodbye to all that

by Robert Nisbet

A review of A Personal History by A. J. P. Taylor.

Tocqueville revisited

by Robert Nisbet

A review of American Journey by Richard Reeves.

You might also enjoy

Most popular

view more >

Subscribe to our newsletter!

* indicates required


The Walter Duranty Prize for Journalistic Mendacity
On May 5, 2014, The New Criterion and PJ Media presented the second Walter Duranty Prize for Journalistic Mendacity. The award is given to highlight egregious examples of dishonest reporting. Also awarded this year was the Rather, a new award for lifetime achievement in mendacious journalism.
The Duranty Prize is named after Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow corresponded in the 1920s and 1930s who whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s forced starvation of the Ukrainians (the Holodomor) and many other aspects of Soviet oppression. Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his efforts. It has never been revoked.
Audio copyright Ed Driscoll,

Introduction to The Kennedy Phenomenon
Roger Kimball introduces The Kennedy Phenomenon, a conference presented by The New Criterion on Tuesday, November 19.

The Kennedy Phenomenon: "Watching the Kennedy Train-Wreck"
Roger Kimball reads Peter Collier’s paper on oft-overlooked unsavory details of the Kennedys' lives. Much of the paper is drawn from Collier’s book, coauthored with David Horowitz, The Kennedys: An American Drama.