Style Notes: Robert Darnton

One thing that I think blogging can usefully do that historians don’t often do in other, more formal writing spaces is think about the basics of writing style in history.

It’s actually the kind of thing that many of us – I suspect – do all the time in the pub, over coffee, or even in reading groups and seminars, not to mention when we are teaching.

Yesterday, for instance, I was running an MA seminar on ‘Research in Action’, an opportunity for me to rediscover my awe for Robert Darnton.


I had given the students a draft of a chapter about folk tales from the book I am working on, and had them compare it with Darnton’s opening chapter from The Great Cat Massacre, a chapter that also uses folk tales to explore the world view of the ‘peasantry’.

Now, I don’t agree with his approach to history in this piece, and I don’t agree with his findings much either. Who would use the word ‘peasant’ without some kind of scare quotes today?

In a way, the book appeared at just the wrong time.

Here was Darnton, cresting the wave of cultural history, just as postmodernist ideas were threatening a tsunami. I remember, as a student, first coming across and appreciating the well-known set of responses from critics who saw this chapter (in particular) as essentialist and outmoded.


Well, so much for the content… but it’s beautiful prose.

Ok, perhaps it isn’t for everyone. I don’t know if historians really need words like ‘exegete’, and some of the students I discussed the piece with today felt like the whole tone of the chapter is quite domineering, authoritative, History Professor.

But I am also struck by how playful it is, even how relaxed Darnton’s writing can be. I’m not just talking about colloquialisms, but about how much space he gives the tales he is analyzing to breathe.

Right at the start of the chapter he reproduces a whole version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, and all the way through, he lingers on the tales he tells, really giving the reader time to digest, and understand.

He’s not afraid of deploying his wit, either.

A favourite, for me, is the sentence where he mocks psychoanalytical interpretations of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ by pointing out the key details that the psychoanalysts highlighted are not even present in many versions of the story. He could have said that in as many words, but he prefers the oldest trick in the comic’s toolbox, repetition:

‘Thus [Fromm] makes a great deal of the (nonexistent) red riding hood as a symbol of menstruation and of the (nonexistent) admonition not to stray from the path into wild terrain where she might break it. The wolf is the ravishing male. And the two (nonexistent) stones that are placed in the wolf’s belly, after the (nonexistent) hunter extricates the girl and her grandmother, stand for sterility, the punishment for breaking a social taboo.’ (p.11)

Or look at this sentence, which needs no gloss:

‘The density of monographs can make Frnech social history look like a conspiracy of exceptions trying to disprove rules.’ (23)

And look at the imagery he develops to criticize the psychoanalysts. He talks of one critic treating tales ‘so to speak, flattened out, like patients on a couch’ (13). That’s a beautiful sentence, that starts with one idea (flattening out) and then manages to link it to the archetypal image of the psychoanalysts, the patient on the couch.

At times his sentences are downright serpentine, languid, bordering on the excessive and the accumulative (for example, see p.22).

And at times they are two words long, as when he assures us (and I remain unconvinced) that ‘Frenchness exists’ (61).

Best of all, the rhythm of those sentences works when you read them aloud. A long tumble of ideas, building to a crescendo… and then the reader brought up short, deflated, punctured: ‘They are stories.’


I enjoyed breaking some of these ideas down with our MA students.

And then I got home and started thinking about it again.

Perhaps the hubris and the wit are one and the same.

Perhaps the rhythm and the fluidity reveal answers that are too easy.

Perhaps the style I enjoy here is no different from the substance I dislike

… but I don’t think so.  I honestly just think this is cracking writing.

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4 thoughts on “Style Notes: Robert Darnton

  1. Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword (Harvard UP) use0s a survey of writing from across all disciplines to think about the ways we write & what we might do to escape some of our worst excesses.

    Liked by 1 person

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