The best academic writers tread a fine line. On the one hand, they must be meticulous and careful, buttressing claims with close readings and archival findings. On the other hand, they should aspire to engage readers and spark interest by providing innovative syntheses and contributing to ongoing debates. This feat is made more difficult by the vogue for case studies. Like a scholarly politique de bascule, there seems to be a reaction underway against the previous generation’s enthrallment with grand theories; call it the “new positivism.” Although admirable, the sheer volume of information produced by positivists can feel distracting to readers, raw and indigeste. The books reviewed here reflect the excitement of archival discovery, but they prove more challenged by the scholar’s duty of marshaling accumulated evidence to prove a point. Their stores of knowledge are a wonder to behold, yet the minutiae sometimes overwhelm. A bit of pruning might have shaped this work to better effect, and saved a few trees as well.
In an arresting opener, Michael Sonenscher states: “This book is about the sans-culottes and the part that they played in the French Revolution” yet a footnote to this first sentence warns: “It is also an attempt to correct some of the gaps or mistakes” in three earlier publications by Sonenscher. “It is also a book about Rousseau,” Sonenscher continues, “and, no less centrally, a book about salons,” whose aim is to “open up a way towards the real political history of the French Revolution”: in other words, how ancient republican politics conjoined with modern debt-based economics so that the latter became seen as the means to revive the former (1, 3, our emphasis). This breathless overture, which confidently takes on a number of seemingly unrelated and extremely complex topics, is emblematic of Sonenscher’s style. Sonenscher’s insights into the moral and economic history of pre-revolutionary France are wide-ranging and extremely well-documented; few can rival his breadth. Some of his findings, for example, on Robespierre’s proto-socialist ideas of using public finance to reimburse citizens for contributions to political life, cast revolutionary politics in surprising new lights (53). But there exists so much detail that the narrative movement sometimes runs aground.
A sense of energy emerges also from Jean-Clément Martin’s aptly entitled volume, La Révolution à l’œuvre. In stressing the artisanal way that scholars craft their research into print (à l’œuvre means “at work,” as in a workshop), Martin sets the stage for an erudite overview of trends in revolutionary history, especially political, institutional, international, and art history. Coining the term transversalité to underscore these cross-currents, Martin’s introduction describes eighteenth-century studies in France today. Most surprising to Anglo-American readers will be the sense of newness, even trepidation, that French scholars express about approaching topics that we consider mainstays of intellectual discourse, particularly gender studies and colonial relations.
Of the three books reviewed, Rolf Reichardt and Hubertus Kohl effect the most successful synthesis of detail and argumentation in their co-written Vizualizing the Revolution. The book’s exquisite production value—with 187 illustrations, 46 in color—its luxuriously heavy paper stock, and extensive bibliography make this volume a must for anyone seeking new insights into the pictorial culture of 1789-99. Moreover, where most art historians (such as those reviewed by Bordes in La Révolution à l’œuvre) focus on a single genre, artist, or political tendency, Reichardt and Kohl’s “communicative and discursive” approach allows them to reveal the interplay between a dizzying variety of works, especially “lower” forms of art such as prints, and the elite, religious, and folk traditions from which they emerged. By zeroing in on icons such as Hercules, martyrs, and the new man, the authors pull off an amazing synthesis that demonstrates the continuity between Old Regime and Modernity, and proves the importance of “popular” art in that transition.
Although our scholarly infatuation for the trees of detail and minutiae remains strong, with guides like the authors reviewed here, the revolutionary forest is assuming startling new contours that should inspire more travelers to venture within. A bon entendeur, salut!
From review essay by J. Douthwaite, “On Seeing the Forest through the Trees: Finding a Way through Revolutionary Politics, History, and Art,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 43, 2 (Winter 2010): 259-66.
Jean-Clément Martin, ed. La Révolution à l’œuvre: Perspectives actuelles dans l’histoire de la Révolution française. Rennes. Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005, 375pp. 22.00 €
Rolf Reichardt and Hubertus Kohle, Visualizing the Revolution: Politics and Pictorial Arts in Late Eighteenth-Century France. London. Reaktion Books, 2008. 294 pp. $45.00
Michael Sonenscher, Sans-Culottes: An Eighteenth-Century Emblem in the French Revolution. Princeton. Princeton University Press, 2008. 493pp. $45.00