THE LIFE OF AN UNKNOWN: The Rediscovered World of a Clog Maker in Nineteenth-Century France

Alain Corbin, Author, Arthur Goldhammer, Translator , trans. from the French by Arthur Goldhammer. Columbia Univ. $27.50 (272p) ISBN 978-0-231-11840-8

In recent years, social historians have examined the lives of ordinary people by focusing on the experiences of individuals. The most popular example of this "microhistory," Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre, was later put on celluloid. Corbin (The Foul and the Fragrant) pushes the envelope by writing the "biography" of Louis-François Pinagot—a forester and clog maker whose life spanned much of the 19th century. There are scarcely any documents about him, and the resulting limitations lead to generalizations (e.g., Pinagot likely drank because "clog makers liked to gather in taverns") that, while understandable, may frustrate some readers. Yet by relying on his abundant historical knowledge and his equally expansive imagination, Corbin, a professor at the Sorbonne, is able to conjure up Pinagot's world. He first traces the difficult daily existence of the oft-impoverished Pinagot, his family and his milieu. Then Corbin deftly shows how Pinagot likely experienced the major political events of his time, including the restoration of the monarchy and the two invasions by Prussia. Increased democratization is a major theme: by the end of his difficult life, the likely illiterate Pinagot was able to vote, and he lived to see his son run for local office. While some readers may find that the volume assumes too much knowledge of French history, Corbin has achieved a scholarly triumph. (July)

Reviewed on: 06/11/2001
Release date: 06/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
Hardcover - 271 pages - 978-0-231-11841-5
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