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The Image of America in Montaigne, Spenser, and Shakespeare: Renaissance Ethnography and Literary Reflection.

William Hamlin begins by comparing Poor Tom's diet from King Lear - "the swimming frog, the toad, the rod-pole, the wall-newt, and the water" - to the diets of Native Americans, as described in several early accounts. The accounts often present these diets as evidence that Native Americans are bestial or near-bestial; if the Indians are fully human, the accounts suggest, then they are a species of "unaccommodated man," humanity without culture. Yet, in the same period, other accounts and literary works such as Montaigne's "Of custom" represent strange diets not as evidence of a lack of culture but simply as features of different cultures. Montaigne fatuously suggested that those cultures may even have something to teach Europeans. Thus, just as Lear describes Tom as both "a poor bare, forked animal" and a "noble philosopher," early modern Europeans were capable of seeing Native Americans as "both natural man without a cultural overlay and cultural man with wisdom to impart" (xx). In The Image of America, Hamlin explores the tension between these views by allowing the "metaphor of unaccommodation to assist in a study of the ways in which the concepts of savagery and civility . . . evolved through specific historical and literary examinations in the Renaissance" (36).

Although Hamlin fails to show the "evolution" of these very large concepts, he does succeed in illuminating the complex ways in which the concepts operate in the three authors who are the main focus of his study. Hamlin's readings of Montaigne and Spenser are particularly interesting for their refutations of both older and more recent readings. Hamlin carefully shows, for example, why Montaigne is not, as some post-structuralist critics have claimed, an anti-essentialist. He also demonstrates that Montaigne is not, as Arthur O. Lovejoy claimed, a primitivist or proponent of the noble savage myth. By looking closely at "Of coaches" and "Of cannibals," as well as other essays, Hamlin demonstrates that Montaigne's "constant readiness to point to the limitations and follies not only of human customs but of the human traits that give rise to these customs thoroughly undermines any illusion that he is convinced of the innate nobility of human beings" (53). Hamlin's examination of the pastoral episodes in Book Six of The Faerie Queene is similar in showing that Spenser is neither the primitivist nor "the representative of a monolithic anti-primitivism that he sometimes has been taken to be" (95).

In his final chapter, Hamlin turns, inevitably, to The Tempest. His nuanced reading of Shakespeare's Caliban closely resembles his reading of Montaigne's native Brazilians: both Montaigne and Shakespeare offer "portrayals of beings who are at once savage and civil, at once fully human and distinctly non-European" (123). As he does with his readings of Montaigne and Spenser, Hamlin "contextualizes" this reading within the discourse of Renaissance ethnography, especially the discourse on Native Americans. His procedure is largely the New Historicist one of juxtaposing narratives of cultural encounter with more familiar "literary" texts; but in his opening chapter, which also provides a fine critique of Tzvetan Todorov's Conquest of America, Hamlin tries to separate himself from New Historicist and, especially, cultural materialist critics. Hamlin says these critics often produce crude, politicized readings because they have abandoned all idealist philosophy. He proposes that taking Kant's epistemological skepticism seriously will produce more sophisticated readings. Certainly, it has produced sophisticated readings in this book, which should be useful to anyone interested in the Renaissance encounter between Europe and the Americas.

ROBERT VIKING O'BRIEN California State University, Chico
COPYRIGHT 1997 Renaissance Society of America
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:O'Brien, Robert Viking
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Words:578
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