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October 18, 2005

George Washington's False Teeth - Robert Darnton

Posted by Jeremy Black

George Washington's False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century
by Robert Darnton
Pp. 192. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003
Hardback, £16.95

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - reviews Robert Darnton's George Washington's False Teeth.

George Washington's False Teeth is characteristic Darnton. It is not so much a book as a collection of essays based on articles published between 1985 and 2002. Darnton claims that they were conceived as parts of a general argument that extends from the early Enlightenment to the French Revolution, and they concentrate on four interrelated themes: Franco-American connections, life in the Republic of Letters, modes of communication, and ways of thought peculiar to the French Revolution. To Darnton, each of these themes offers a way into the remote mental world of the eighteenth century, but each also has some affinity with contemporary issues. Indeed, in an arresting engagement with the latter, Darnton claims that his book is intended to break through a protective wall of erudition that he suggests cuts off professional history from the general public. Instead, he wishes to provide historical perspectives to such current questions as:

Does the adoption of the euro challenge notions about the identity of Europe? Has the Internet created a new information society? Can the obsession with the private lives of public figures expose fault lines in political culture?.
To Darnton projecting those questions against an eighteenth-century background provides fresh insights on both periods. In short, the scholar as educator is a public figure, a concept a world away from the nature of professional behaviour proposed by British research assessment exercises.

This is a praiseworthy project spoiled by a somewhat self-indulgent style. Rather than summarising all the essays, it is useful to cite Darnton at length. The amusing and valuable employment of Washington's dental history to make points about icons includes the following:

Icons are for worshiping, but the iconic Washington worshiped in the United States is the one that looks out at us from the dollar bill.

Now the cult of the dollar may not be all bad. Its emotional range is limited but not lethal. Unlike nationalism, it inspires self-interest rather than self-sacrifice, investment rather than bomb throwing. And for all its crassness, it is ecumenical; one man's dollar is as good as another's. That principle also derives from the Enlightenment, the branch that runs through Mandevile and Adam Smith. Enlightened self-interest may not be as lofty as Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; but it made a new life possible in the New World for millions of immigrants, and it may ultimately renovate Russia, where the dollar has become the effective currency.
The presentation of Paris as an early information society is more successful, as is the linkage between the pursuit of happiness by Voltaire and Jefferson, as presented in Candide and the American Declaration of Independence. Rousseau, Condorcet and Brissot are also profitably discussed. Darnton argues that Rousseau invented anthropology, as Freud invented psychoanalysis, by doing it to himself. He suggests that a rereading of Rousseau provides an opportunity to understand what it is to live the contradictions of a cultural system and to overcome them by understanding culture itself. Darnton locates this reconsideration by arguing that a regrouping of the human sciences has encouraged an interest in the workings of symbolic systems. For Darnton, the first half of Rousseau's Confessions takes readers through all the strata of a highly-stratified society, but also outside this hierarchy and into the floating population of the Old Regime. He argues that Rousseau had learned to recognise symbolic forms of power, and that, although he expressed his insight in old-fashioned moral rhetoric, the moral of his story was really very modern.

The craze for America in the Paris of the 1780s is considered through the perspective of Condorcet and Brissot. The former thought that America offered an opportunity to derive politics from abstract principles of justice and natural rights, while Brissot played an active role in championing the themes of the Gallo-Americans. Pressing for the abolition of the slave trade, he founded the French Society of the Friends of the Blacks in 1788.

Brissot also appears in another essay, where the theme of self-advancement so pervasive in his letters is considered. Darnton argues that Brissot was probably a spy. His pamphleteering also took him directly into the struggles that brought down the ancien régime. This essay provides Darnton with an opportunity to consider the difficulties of biography with particular reference to his changing views of Brissot:

I now think that Brissot really was an idealist, a true believer in Enlightenment, and when he lied, he believed in his lies … the authentic memoirs of a Grub Street hack caught up in a revolution that was partly of his own making. God rest his soul. God have mercy on all of us.
Darnton closes by considering how the different ways in which he can treat Brissot reflects the troubling way in which historians play God. The last sentence of the book is arresting:
The historian knows, but imperfectly, through documents darkly, with help from hubris, by playing God.
In all this is an enlightening collection, but not a major new statement on the eighteenth century.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).


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