Philippe Ariès and the Politics of French Cultural History

Article excerpt

Philippe Ariès and the Politics of French Cultural History. By Patrick H. Hutton. [Critical Perspectives on Modern Culture.] (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 2004. Pp. xxvii, 304; 20 illustrations. $80.00 clothbound; $24.95 paperback.)

Philippe Ariès was a major figure in historical scholarship in the last half of the twentieth century, known principally for Centuries of Childhood (1962; French edition 1960) and The Hour of Our Death (1981; French edition 1977). These were key works in opening up new areas for historians: the history of family, popular culture and "mentalities," the shifting balance between public and private spheres. Patrick Hutton's intellectual biography combines probing analyses of Aries' scholarship with a careful treatment of the social, political, and professional contexts that shaped the man and his work.

Hutton's major thesis is that Aries' mature work as a scholar echoes commitments and concerns that come out of his royalist past. In the early chapters of his book he shows us Ariès as a student in Paris working within a network of friends and associates tied to Action Française and its leader, Charles Maurras. France's defeat by Germany in 1940, followed by the Vichy years, constitute a turning point in Aries' life, as they did for all of the French who lived through these catastrophic events. Hutton pays particular attention to Aries' time as a teacher at the École des Cadres at La Chapelle, an institution designed to train a new generation of French élites. For Hutton this was a crucial event, although one that Aries apparently passed over quickly in his own memoirs. At La Chapelle Aries' work as a history instructor led him to move away from political narrative as the basis for organizing our knowledge of the past, in favor of "the neglected histories of ordinary people in their everyday lives" (p. 42). These concerns show up as well in the columns that Aries contributed to La Nation Française, the royalist paper he wrote for in the 1950's and 1960's. His royalism, and his failure to win a university position, left Aries on the margin of French intellectual life until the 1960's. The enormous success of the English translation of his work on childhood led in turn to his acceptance by a later and less ideologically oriented group of French historians, such as Roger Chartier. …