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Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature

Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature

by Robert Darnton

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“Splendid. . . . [Darnton gives] us vivid, hard-won detail, illuminating narrative, and subtle, original insight.”—Timothy Garton Ash, New York Review of Books

With his uncanny ability to spark life in the past, Robert Darnton re-creates three historical worlds in which censorship shaped literary expression in distinctive ways.



“Splendid. . . . [Darnton gives] us vivid, hard-won detail, illuminating narrative, and subtle, original insight.”—Timothy Garton Ash, New York Review of Books

With his uncanny ability to spark life in the past, Robert Darnton re-creates three historical worlds in which censorship shaped literary expression in distinctive ways.

In eighteenth-century France, censors, authors, and booksellers collaborated in making literature by navigating the intricate culture of royal privilege. Even as the king's censors outlawed works by Voltaire, Rousseau, and other celebrated Enlightenment writers, the head censor himself incubated Diderot’s great Encyclopedie by hiding the banned project’s papers in his Paris townhouse. Relationships at court trumped principle in the Old Regime.

Shaken by the Sepoy uprising in 1857, the British Raj undertook a vast surveillance of every aspect of Indian life, including its literary output. Years later the outrage stirred by the British partition of Bengal led the Raj to put this knowledge to use. Seeking to suppress Indian publications that it deemed seditious, the British held hearings in which literary criticism led to prison sentences. Their efforts to meld imperial power and liberal principle fed a growing Indian opposition.

In Communist East Germany, censorship was a component of the party program to engineer society. Behind the unmarked office doors of Ninety Clara-Zetkin Street in East Berlin, censors developed annual plans for literature in negotiation with high party officials and prominent writers. A system so pervasive that it lodged inside the authors’ heads as self-censorship, it left visible scars in the nation’s literature.

By rooting censorship in the particulars of history, Darnton's revealing study enables us to think more clearly about efforts to control expression past and present.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Alberto Manguel
…what exactly is censorship? This is the question with which Robert Darnton, the foremost historian of the book and the art of reading, begins his enthralling new volume, Censors at Work. "Rather than starting with a definition and then looking for examples that conform to it," Darnton writes, "I have proceeded by interrogating censors themselves." The censors Darnton has interrogated belong to three very different historical settings…Darnton spoke with the German censors in the flesh, and with the ghosts of the French and British ones through the vast archives they left behind. Thankfully for Darnton, thankfully for his readers, the one incontrovertible fact about censors is that they love paperwork.
Publishers Weekly
Darnton (The Case for Books), director of the University Library at Harvard, examines the complex relationship between central government censorship and authors, particularly how attempts to control communication and information have both improved and challenged the field of literature. He focuses on three distinct periods: 18th-century France, 19th-century India, and 20th-century East Germany. An intriguing story emerges as censors are presented as both a necessary evil and an authoritarian measure, working with authors as much as against them, and helping to—at least in the censor’s mind—improve literary works even as they force them to conform to certain standards. Acting as voices of the state, as editors, even as coauthors, censors are sometimes subversive and sympathetic, sometimes arbitrary and unyielding. Darnton’s argument is a mixed message, both upholding censors for their influence and bringing them to task for their part in enforcing stricter measures enacted by unforgiving governments. The writing is drily academic and the material often dense and abstract, as he struggles to assign a definition to the murky and wide-ranging concept of censorship. However, the story comes alive when Darnton interviews several former East German government censors to glean their experiences. While the material is sometimes arcane, it’s still a thought-provoking look at a controversial subject. (Sept.)
Lynn Hunt
“There is no better guide to the inside story of censorship in the past or present than the internationally renowned historian Robert Darnton. He makes the most prosaic encounters come to life…Darnton brings all his skills and passions for books to this fascinating study of censorship in three different times and places and draws a number of conclusions that will be of interest to readers everywhere.”
David Blackbourn
“This is history at its most compelling, superbly researched and written with panache. Robert Darnton's three case studies cast censorship in a new light.”
Michael Roth
“Darnton has written a lively, insightful account of the 'human system' of censorship. His comparative approach uncovers the specificity of censor-author relations while also revealing some of the broad similarities that emerge when those in power try to filter what persistent authors are determined to say.”
Alberto Manguel - New York Times Book Review
Jonathan Yardley - Washington Post
Felipe Fernández-Armesto - Wall Street Journal
“A vivid, fascinating study of would-be controllers of literary output.”
Felipe Fernández-Armesto - Wall Street Journal
“A vivid, fascinating study of would-be controllers of literary output.”
Library Journal
In another rigorous, exciting literary history, Darnton shows that in three eras—18th-century France, India under the British Raj, and late 20th-century East Germany—censorship shaped and even promoted the creation of literature. Catnip for smarties.
Kirkus Reviews
Darnton (History/Harvard Univ.;The Case for Books, 2009, etc.) takes an ethnographic approach in this deeply researched comparative history, examining how censorship functioned in three authoritarian regimes: 18th-century monarchal France; 19th-century India under the British Raj; and 20th-century East Germany.The author’s surprising discoveries complicate the definition of censorship as repression by a ruling class in its effort to control social order. In Enlightenment France, censors acted as collaborators with authors, taking on the role of peer reader or copy editor to make a manuscript viable for royal privilege—i.e., an official stamp approving publication. These censors, often authors themselves, assiduously carried out their role, and authors often willingly revised their work. “Despite the occasional disputes,” writes Darnton, “censorship…drove authors and censors together rather than apart.” The British in India, in an effort “to understand the Indians, not merely to defeat them,” were intent on gathering information: “Everything was surveyed, mapped, classified and counted, including human beings….The catalogues of books belonged to their effort to catalogue everything.” By monitoring publications, they could detect signs of rebellion. Not until the British noted “explosions of nationalism” in the early 20th century did surveillance lead to police repression and legal prosecution. Authors, publishers and printers were arrested and tried according to newly created laws. In Germany, Darnton talked with two censors and had access to considerable archival dossiers. The censors claimed their job was to publish works that fit into the government’s overall plan: “Censorship as they understood it was positive. In some ways, it was downright heroic—a struggle against heavy odds to maintain a high level of culture while building socialism.” Dossiers reveal the details of that struggle: manuscripts purged of references to individualism; dire restrictions on travel, even within the country; and outright violence. Censorship in East Germany, as elsewhere, involved an interlaced system of authors, editors, bureaucrats, publishers and, not least, readers themselves.In the current climate of debate over national surveillance, Darnton’s vibrant history takes on particular relevance.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author

Robert Darnton is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and the director of the University Library at Harvard University. His honors include a MacArthur Prize, the National Humanities Medal, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and election to the French Legion of Honor. He is the author of The Great Cat Massacre and The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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