George Washington's False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century

George Washington's False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century

by Robert Darnton
     
 

A master historian's excavations into the past unearth a world that is unexpected and compelling.George Washington was inaugurated as president in 1789 with one tooth in his mouth, a lower left bicuspid. The Father of His Country had sets of false teeth that were made of everything but wood, from elephant ivory and walrus tusk to the teeth of a fellow human. With…  See more details below

Overview

A master historian's excavations into the past unearth a world that is unexpected and compelling.George Washington was inaugurated as president in 1789 with one tooth in his mouth, a lower left bicuspid. The Father of His Country had sets of false teeth that were made of everything but wood, from elephant ivory and walrus tusk to the teeth of a fellow human. With characteristic learning and bracing insight, Robert Darnton shows us that the Enlightenment had false teeth also—that it was not the Father of Our Modern World, responsible for all its advances and transgressions. In restoring the Enlightenment to human scale, Darnton locates its real aims, ambitions, and significance. So too with the French Revolution, another icon of the eighteenth century, approached here through the gossip, songs, and broadsides that formed the political nervous system of Paris in the Old Regime. Figures we think we know—Voltaire, Jefferson, Rousseau, Condorcet, even historians themselves—emerge afresh in Darnton's hands, their vitality, if not their teeth, intact. 17 b/w illustrations.

Author Biography: Robert Darnton is the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of European History at Princeton University. His many books include The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Darnton has an impressive facility for switching gears from the down and dirty particulars of social history to the more rarefied circles of the philosophes. A fine intellectual historian, he has an easy command of ruling ideas of the day. He provides a welcome reminder that Americophilia was once all the rage among French thinkers. America so captivated the mind of the Marquis de Condorcet that he made it into the antithesis of everything he deplored in France -- inequality, censorship, stifled opportunity. But Darnton is quick to remind us that these French enthusiasts exaggerated if not romanticized the virtues of the new American nation -- proof, if anything, that the style of French intellectuals has little changed in 200 years. — Matthew Price
The New York Times
Each of the eight essays in George Washington's False Teeth looks at a distinctive 18th-century mode of communication -- oral, manuscript or print -- that shaped public opinion in the years preceding the French Revolution. — David Walton
Publishers Weekly
As Princeton history professor Darnton notes in his introduction, "everything about the eighteenth century is strange, once you examine it in detail." His pleasingly eccentric book of essays offers many surprising supporting examples. But this isn't a mere laundry list of oddities; Darnton is thoughtful and engaging in his historical analysis of the Enlightenment, and his narrative, in which he occasionally appears in the musing, professorial first person, will absorb the educated lay reader. In "The News in Paris," Darnton considers how news was disseminated in the city in 1750. It was not, he says, through newspapers, "because papers with news in them-news as we understand it today, about public affairs and prominent persons-did not exist. The government did not allow them." He traces the complicated methods by which court gossip and political machinations spread throughout the Parisian populace, concluding that 21st-century Washington resembles 18th-century Paris in its focus on "political folklore" and the private lives of leaders instead of the platforms they espouse. In "The Great Divide," Darnton records Rousseau's early picaresque adventures and then shows how the great philosopher (and "first anthropologist") came to regard civilization as a "process of corruption," and later to champion a patriotic civil religion. Throughout, Darnton uses the 18th century to provide "historical perspective to current questions"-about, for example, the shifting of European identity and the Internet's influence on information sharing-and openly ruminates about the problems of being a historian. This is a well-researched and sharply intelligent book, and Darnton is a knowledgeable and delightful guide to the time period. 17 b&w illustrations (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This is a refreshing and stimulating collection of essays by one of the preeminent historians of the 18th century. Intended for informed lay readers and academics alike, the collection teaches us as much about writing and approaching history as it does about the specific period under review. Darnton (history, Princeton; The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France) mostly focuses on the Enlightenment and French Revolution, giving us what he calls an assortment of "field reports" from the front. Overall, these reports organize themselves around four main themes: the connections between France and America at this time; life among the cosmopolitan elite during this so-called Republic of Letters, a cosmopolitan age when the nation was not yet a fundamental unit of existence or identity; ways in which the ideas of the time were communicated and disseminated; and ways of thought, or "mentalities," common to the French Enlightenment (such as the idea of happiness). Showing both the connections and the divergences between those times and our own, his account is full of fascinating snippets, such as the omnipresence of toothache in the 18th century and detailed demonstrations of how songs, gossip, and a vast underground of illegal literature helped to diffuse the values of the Enlightenment. Highly recommended.-Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An irresistible tour of 18th-century oddities and overviews. "Everything about the 18th century was strange, once you examine it in detail," writes Princeton historian Darnton (The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, 1995, etc.) in this collection of articles that make fuel for a merry bonfire of historical curiosities and trends. What he’s doing is cutting the Enlightenment down to size, humanizing it, sticking a pin in the puffery that has inflated the age into a dirigible of unsmirchable brilliance and moral rectitude. He wants to show what made elements of the Enlightenment, in particular the French Enlightenment, tick, what the history of mentalities was that served as roots of a movement that sought to change attitudes and institutions. Engagement was one key—activism—as many of the ideas about natural law, skepticism, toleration, and freethinking were already in circulation. And circulation, too, is a major concern for Darnton, who sees it as the age’s own information highway: the Tree of Cracow of Paris, the taverns and salons and reading groups through which the community of Europe, and by extension what was to become the US, exchanged ideas and gained its hallmark cosmopolitanism on the one hand and epicureanism on the other. For the belief that life on earth was something to be enjoyed—"happiness" is an important word of the time—was a part of the whole civilizing process that statesmen understood as common sense. We may look back on these men as colossi, but they were also pamphleteers and tobacco farmers, slave owners and churchgoers. Making them human is one result of Darnton’s binding together all the oddments he does, from revolutionarieswho may have been police spies to George Washington’s inability to gnash his teeth to the strange twists that led Rousseau to "the contradiction of the social system." Sharp perspectives, adroit observations, vivid historical consciousness. (17 illustrations)

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393057607
Publisher:
W W Norton & Co Inc
Publication date:
04/19/2003
Edition description:
First
Pages:
208
Product dimensions:
5.72(w) x 8.57(h) x 0.83(d)

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