Robert Darnton: Melville’s Emerson, Book History, and Censorship

In this episode of Houghton75 we welcome Professor Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian, Emeritus, to discuss the experiences which led him to study the history of books. It all started with Herman Melville’s personal copy of Emerson’s Essays, housed at Houghton Library and on display in our current exhibition, HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library (through April 22, 2017).

Music by Les Délices

Episode Transcript

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.

[end music/title sequence]

James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years and in the future.

HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit for more information.

[background music: Sonata pour le Hautbois: Prelude by Louis-Antoine Dornel. Performed by Les Délices, Debra Nagy, director. Track 8 on their CD The Tastes Reunited]

JC: The history of the book is relatively young for an academic discipline. Started in the late 20th century, it focuses on books as objects; how they were made and used. One of the early American works in the discipline was Robert Darnton’s 1979 book, The Business of Enlightenment.

HF: This episode we welcome Professor Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian, Emeritus, to discuss the experiences which led him to study the history of books.

JC: It all started with Herman Melville’s personal copy of Emerson’s Essays, housed at Houghton Library and on display in our current exhibition, HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library.

[end music]

Robert Darnton (RD): So I spent a lot of my teaching time dealing with the history of books. It’s a new field that has evolved. But my own interest goes back to a time when I was a freshman. I’d just arrived at Harvard. I’d never been in a rare book library, but there was a rumor that you could actually walk into Houghton Library and ask to see books. So I took my courage in my hands. I walked in.

I was then a passionate admirer of Melville and I still am for that matter. So I said “I’ve heard you’ve got Melville’s copy of Emerson’s Essays. Could I possibly see it?” Well to my amazement within I think five minutes there was the actual copy that Melville had owned of Emerson’s Essays and I began reading through it. The idea was to try to read Emerson through Melville’s eyes to try to get some sense of how my hero, Melville, would have reacted to this famous philosopher. Those days I was rather down on Emerson. He seemed too optimistic and facile. You know this was the 1950s, a beginning in literary scholarship of fascination with blackness and evil and suffering and so on.

Anyhow I came upon this passage in one of Emerson’s essays where there is a big X in the left hand margin and then an X at the bottom of the page in which Melville comments on the actual passage. Now the passage basically says it’s a good world, the world spirit hovers over the entire globe and even in the rough parts of the globe such as Cape Horn where you get banged around by the tides and the waves and the storms, the sailors are all the better for it. So Melville writes next to his X in the bottom of the page “To one who has weathered Cape Horn as a common seaman, what stuff this is.”

I was just thrilled to read that because you could see how Melville, from very modest beginnings who had actually been through this terrible experience and many other such experiences, reacted to the kind of rather lofty transcendental philosophy. And that’s a point I think any visitor to this exhibit or to rare book rooms in general needs to take in. By seeing actual copies, seeing marks in margins, studying all of their physical aspects, we can learn a great deal about the meaning of books and how books were actually experienced by readers.

HF: It isn’t something that we always think about, but books really can teach us much more than just what was originally written or printed between their covers. Professor Darnton explained how he progressed from an undergraduate with an interest in marginalia to a pioneer in the study of book history.

RD: So the history of books really didn’t exist as a discipline when I first began doing it. In fact I did it without knowing I was doing it in my very first years and then I later discovered it had a name, not in the US where it didn’t really exist but in France: histoire du livre – history of the book. Well that was a long time ago, 1965, when I first began working in manuscript sources that had to do with the production and diffusion of literature in France in the 18th century. And of course that’s related to the really big questions in history: How do ideas travel? How deeply do they sink into society? What books transmitted these ideas as vehicles? How were they read –  very tough question. And ultimately what connections does the diffusion of books and the reading of books have with the creation of public opinion and in turn the outbreak of the French Revolution?

So you can’t make a linear argument that goes from the printing of a book, to the selling of a book, to the reading, to the creation of public opinion, and an event. But without a linear argument about the causality you can recreate the mental world in which the event occurred or part of the mental world. So the history of books, I think, is a subject that is enormously rich, not just in itself but for its implications concerning the really big questions of history.

[musical interlude: Sonata pour le Hautbois: Fugue by Louis-Antoine Dornel. Performed by Les Délices, Debra Nagy, director. Track 9 on their CD The Tastes Reunited]

RD: In working into this field which is now called “History of Books,” I went to the archives in Paris and in the French provinces and then later in French Switzerland and I tried to understand the way the state tried to develop and control this new force: the printed word. Well, from the mid-16th century until the French Revolution, there is a long history of attempts by the state to control the printed word. It mattered to the state and I was trying to follow this in the case of the Enlightenment because the Enlightenment is basically prohibited in France. Virtually every book of the Enlightenment was printed outside of France and smuggled into France because of the censorship and also because of the monopolistic power of the booksellers and printers guild. And there were inspectors of the book trade who would raid bookshops and so on.

So I got deeply involved in following censorship. Not just as sheer repression but rather an attempt by the state to understand and control this thing, the printed book. And the deeper I got into the memos exchanged among censors, the more surprised I was because they were saying things such as “we must defend the honor of French literature.” Now, do you expect a censor to be speaking that way? And if you read their reports, they’re positive and they’re recommending books for the royal stamp of approval which is something called a privilege. And they recommend books for their style, how much they teach you about botany or travel or geography. One of the censor’s reports said “this book is just a good read. I couldn’t stop reading it.”

So I began thinking, “Wait a minute!” Censorship is not sheer repression. It fits into the old regime into this peculiar society in certain ways. And of course the censors were not presented with the texts of the philosophers of the Enlightenment because they would go straight to Amsterdam or Geneva. They would never submit to censorship because they knew they couldn’t get through. My point is that censorship turned out to be quite more complicated, more interesting, more unexpected in lots of ways than I had imagined.  

And then in the year 1989, I was in Germany and the Wall fell and I got to know some German censors. It’s a long story but basically I wound up in their offices in East Berlin and we had a discussion about what censorship was for them. They gave me documents. I went back to the papers of the Communist Party and spent a huge amount of time reading through the actual work of censors as it as it really took place in communist East Germany.

So I had kind of two studies and the third study was 19th century India; the British Raj and the way the British tried to control native literatures. So I use these three as case studies of the way censorship actually operates. And the conclusion was, it varied from place to place and time to time. There is no simple formula or some easy way to summarize it, but it fits into an authoritarian society and you need to understand the nature of that society and the political forces in it. So it’s a kind of anthropological approach to censorship.

JC: Censorship can manifest in many forms, and the censors often had noble motivations. They believed they were guiding the people toward books that would educate them, protecting them from works with no perceived intellectual value.

HF: It can be difficult to understand from our modern, Western viewpoint, but authoritarian censors were often working to ensure the quality of their national literature. To them, censorship wasn’t necessarily the withholding of information, but the promotion of the highest quality information.

RD: These people were not stupid. They were often highly intelligent and they believed in what they were doing. In the case of the French they were defending the honor of French literature. I mean, they were upholding quality standards. So they would turn down books not because they had some subversive message but because the quality wasn’t good enough. And similarly in East Germany, when I asked one of the censors to say how he basically understood censorship, he replied in one word: planning. Books must be planned, like everything else in a socialist system. It’s a kind of social engineering. So he then gave me a copy of the plan. It was the plan for all East German literature in the year 1990.  It was astonishing to read it because it was all laid out there. And then he gave me some more documents, which were the reports that the censors gave to the heads of the Communist Party, justifying the plan; what they’re trying to do to shape the mentality of the reading public in Germany. They thought this was a good thing! And they thought that they were doing a much better job than the open market in the US, which they claimed was full of garbage: vulgar things, sex books, just trash as they put it. And I saw them just after the Wall fell and they said, “You’ll see. We are going to be invaded by a tidal wave of trash from the West,” meaning West Germany and it happened. I mean, I went to bookshops in East Germany a few months after the fall of the wall and there was just a lot of junk there.

[musical interlude: Sonata I, La Pucelle, by François Couperin. Performed by Les Délices, Debra Nagy, director. Track 1 on their CD The Tastes Reunited]

HF: No discussion of censorship will last long before progressing to the Freedom of the Press. How does censorship relate to the freedom of the press, and what are our responsibilities as critical readers?

RD: I don’t think freedom of the press is automatic. It’s being negotiated at this very minute. Every time there’s an interview with someone in power, every time an editor modifies the text there can be an element of censorship that takes place. And I think governments, including our own government, they want to control the message that gets out. So, in my view, the job of the reporter is to be skeptical of the kind of message that the government wants to get out, and to challenge it, and to come up with opposing points of view and so on. I used to be a newspaper reporter so I’ve been through this and I’ve learned to be skeptical about anything someone in authority says. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, but whether it’s the Gutenberg Bible or a press release from the White House, texts have spin on them. In my view, nothing comes as if you can see it through a clear window with no distortion and it is self-evidently true. It seems to me everything needs to be interpreted and you’ve got a world of competing interpretations rather than absolute truths. And students often see things very differently. That’s one of the pleasures of teaching a freshman seminar in the history of books.

JC: Teaching students to read critically and recognize spin is so important. But that’s not the only thing Professor Darton teaches in his book history courses. Some of his lessons are far more concrete, focusing on the book as an object.

RD: When I gave a seminar, we began by actually setting type. Each student had to set not much type, but a little bit of type, pull the bar of the press, ink it, go through the whole process, and then I found that in later sessions, when they actually held books that had been produced manually before the mass production techniques of this century and last century, they responded to these books in quite a different way. The sheer physicality of it. The feeling of the paper. And of course the letters are embedded in it. They’re not just printed on top of it. So when you take an old book you can feel, tactically you can get a sense of, how the actual characters are pushed into the soft surface of the paper. So the physicality of the books give you a sense, maybe it’s an illusion, of contact with a past that is utterly different from the world of the Internet and iPhones and all the rest of it.

I think that’s part of the attraction of the history of books for undergraduates because of course they were born digital. They’ve known iPhones and all kinds of devices before they could even read, and to go and actually set type, pull the bar of a press, and then look at the results as produced on ordinary books but also some famous books – the Gutenberg Bible, the Shakespeare First Folio – we can bring out all of that material, show it to them, but not with the expectation they would simply stand back and gape. When I present the Gutenberg Bible to them, I ask them to come up to look at the pages. Why is it that the rubrication is twice as big here as it is there? That means something. And you know then they begin looking at the design of a book in order to understand how it’s articulated and how that articulation has to do with the meaning.

 [background music: Air des Sauvages, by Jean-Féry Rebel. Performed by Les Délices, Debra Nagy, director. Track 4 on their CD Myths & Allegories]

HF: Thank you to Robert Darnton for sharing his research and teaching experiences with us today. His perspective on censorship and freedom of the press has been especially thought provoking.

JC: In this episode, you heard french baroque music from Les Délices. Find out more at That’s l-e-s-d-e-l-i-c-e-s-dot-org. Special thanks to Emily Walhout, who plays viola da gamba for the group, and has been a staff member and colleague at Houghton for many years. Thanks so much, Emily!

HF: To view Melville’s marginalia as well as the other items in Houghton Library’s current exhibition, go to or come visit us in Harvard Yard.

JC: Whether you are tuning in from near or far, we hope you will join us for the next episode of Houghton75.

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