The Image of America in Montaigne, Spenser, and Shakespeare: Renaissance Ethnography and Literary Reflection.
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
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|Author:||O'Brien, Robert Viking|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1997|
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