Elizabeth Eisenstein (1923–2016) passed away on January 31, 2016, at the age of 92, after more than forty-five years of membership in this Society and a long and productive career as a historian of eighteenth-century France and of the impact of printing. Her best-known book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) and its abridgment, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (1983, 2nd ed 2005) argued that historians had not paid enough attention to the way printing transformed major developments of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Scientific Revolution. Eisenstein favored the macro-scale grand narrative in which printing is viewed as a communications revolution that changed the impact and interaction of many other historical movements. She argued for the role of print in fostering fixity, standardization, and diffusion, but she was also attentive to the new social interactions that resulted, both locally in the printshop and across the great distances covered by the distribution of printed matter. Eisenstein joined Lynn White and Joseph Needham in emphasizing the role of technology in history; thanks to her work printing holds still today a prominent position in the now well-established field of the history of technology. Her strong claims proved more controversial among specialists and book historians, but motivated a great deal of productive discussion and study, among readers in English and the many languages into which her work was translated, and across a wide spectrum of academic disciplines from literature and history to technology studies and print culture studies, the term with which she self-identified most often.
Eisenstein earned her BA at Vassar College in 1944 and her PhD at Radcliffe College in 1953 with a dissertation entitled "The evolution of the Jacobin tradition in France, the survival and revival of the ethos of 1793 under the Bourbon and Orleanist regimes," supervised by Crane Brinton. She developed one of its chapters into her first book: The first professional revolutionist: Filippo Michele Buonarroti (1761–1837) (Harvard University Press, 1959) in which she traced the career of this Italian transplant to revolutionary Paris. She returned to the history of France after her books on printing, in her Lyell Lectures published in Grub Street Abroad. Aspects of the French Cosmopolitan Press from the Age of Louis XIV to the French Revolution (1992). Eisenstein excelled at close readings of the works of other scholars, engaging both with the evidence they provided and with their arguments. Her earliest article, published in The American Historical Review (1965), attacked Georges Lefebvre's Marxist interpretation of the source of French revolutionary initiative in 1789. Lefebvre had died some years before, but her article triggered rebuttals from two scholars to whom Eisenstein replied in turn, with sharp judgments. Similarly Eisenstein conceded nothing to her critics in the debates that accompanied the reception of her arguments about printing, notably in a forum of the American Historical Review in 2002.
Eisenstein's prophetic focus on printing, first visible in her articles in History and Theory (1966), the Journal of Modern History (1968) and Past and Present (1969), originated from a position of marginalization within the profession. She encountered a sexist job market in the 1950s when she sought employment alongside her physicist husband on a variety of campuses. When the family settled in Washington DC, she held a part-time lectureship at American University starting in 1959. In 1975 she was offered the University of Michigan's Alice Freeman Palmer Chair of History—appropriately named after a great champion of women’s higher learning—which she held until 1988. Throughout her fifty-seven years of residence in Washington, DC (including years of commuting to Michigan), Betty Eisenstein was an active participant in the activities of the Folger Library and the Library of Congress. In 1973 she directed one of the first semester-long seminars at the recently founded Folger Institute, entitled “Early Printers and Cultural Change (1470–1570)." In 1999 she directed a second such seminar on what became the topic of her last book, Divine Art, Infernal Machine. The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending (2011). Three participants in that Folger seminar, inspired by her work and mentorship, went on to coedit a volume of essays in her honor: Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein (University of Massachusetts Press in association with the Center for the Book, Library of Congress, 2007). That collection of twenty essays attests to the broad reach of Eisenstein's work across multiple disciplinary and geographical specialties and includes a full bibliography and detailed interview in which Eisenstein reflected on her remarkable career and the many strands of work in book history and print culture studies, which she did so much to inspire. Her energy was boundless, as is evident from her distinguished record in senior women's tennis and her infectious enthusiasm for learning new things and conversing with younger scholars at conferences. She received many honors and awards, including the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction (2002), an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Michigan (2004), and the Gutenberg Award from the City of Mainz in 2012.
Julian Eisenstein, her husband of 68 years, followed her in death on April 27, 2016. They are survived by a son, Edward Eisenstein, and a daughter, Margaret Eisenstein DeLacy, and their families. A joint memorial service will be held at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, in late summer.