On “A New View of Event History”
To the Editor:
I enjoyed Robert Darnton’s article proposing a “new” view of event history, which is indeed an important enterprise for these eventful historical times. However, I was troubled to see that Professor Darnton did not acknowledge another, relatively recent theorization of the historical event, centered on the exact historical moment he is studying in his new book: the outbreak of the French Revolution. I refer to William H. Sewell Jr.’s essay “Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille,” in his collection Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005). In this essay, Sewell uses the case of the attack on the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, 1789, which was quickly interpreted as the beginning of a revolution in the modern sense of the word, to show how historical events rearticulate structures and transform culture; characterizing events as spatial and emotional as well as temporal, he calls them “acts of collective creativity.”
For his project, Professor Darnton might want to familiarize himself with such innovative theoretical and historical work from more recent years, rather than referring exclusively to classic works published before 1980. While I look forward with interest to Professor Darnton’s new book on the eventful year of 1788 in France, I do hope that it will recognize the very rich body of scholarship that has been published—in both French history and social theory—in the decades since his own major contributions to the “cultural” turn in history.
ROBERT DARNTON RESPONDS:
I did indeed read William Sewell's excellent essay and his other work, including a study of Abbé Sieyès, which I much admire. Historiographical comments were removed from the article because Perspectives has a strict word limit and does not include footnotes. I am sorry if I gave the impression that other historians have not discussed similar issues, and I hope to build on their work.
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
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