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Democratizing Sir Thomas Browne: "Religio Medici" and its Imitations & Adam and Eve in Seventeenth-Century Thought. (Reviews).

Daniela Havenstein, Democratizing Sir Thomas Browne: "Religio Medici" and its Imitations.

(Oxford English Monographs.) Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. x + 232 pp. $70. ISBN: 0-19-818626-6.

Philip C. Almond, Adam and Eve in Seventeenth-Century Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. x + 240 pp. $54.95. ISBN: 0-521-66076-9.

Both of the books under review are presented as exercises in intellectual history, although the methods adopted by each author differ greatly. Daniela Havenstein invokes notions of pervasive "seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century mentalities" (3) in her introduction, but limits her historical analyses to stylistic comparisons between Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici and three subsequent, purported imitations. The bulk of her book is actually a sustained encounter with one of Browne's most influential critics, Stanley Fish, whose chapter on Browne in Self-Consuming Artifacts initiated, in Havenstein's opinion, a steady and unjust devaluation of Browne. Philip C. Almond, on the other hand, not only asserts the investigation of "a foreign mental world" as his goal (and takes the scholarship of Robert Darnton as a model), but indeed ranges widely over seventeenth-century--and not a few sixteenth-century -- treatments of the beginning chapters of Genesis. Despite these differences in approach, and despite so me genuine discoveries along the way, the resulting studies share unfortunate characteristics, such as infrequent acknowledgment of the political significances of the texts under scrutiny.

Havenstein, in fact, blames much of the recent neglect of Browne's prose style on what she terms "interest in the 'religious politics' of Religio Medici" (1). In response she largely removes Browne from politics (except in the occasional footnote), finding any clear trace of a political agenda a sign of inferiority in Browne's imitators. What Havenstein means by her title, however, is not the appropriation of Browne's texts for democratic -- or the Good Old Cause's, or proto-Whig -- purposes: "Democratizing," for her is synonymous with debasing and cheapening, regardless of the politics involved. Her chapter on George Mackenzie's Religio Stoici (published in 1663) documents that author's militant conservatism in order to distinguish it from Browne's subtler, less overt version. In dealing with Religio Bibliopolae, Havenstein examines traces of Religio Medici in the 1691 work, only to lament the depredations of Grub Street on its source materials. Every difference from Browne is ascribed to the deleterious eff ects of the book trade, since its compilers and publishers were attracted "by easy sales figures" (159) and intended only to capitalize on Browne's popularity": the work was "fabricated to meet the commercial interests of its authors" (70) and was thereby doomed to artistic failure. Dr. Johnson, a slightly later product of the book trade and Grub Street, would certainly take issue with such assumptions -- even though he might concur with the ultimate aesthetic judgments against this book and also against Richard Burridge's 1712 Religio Libertini.

Temporarily dismissing Browne's imitators, Havenstein then takes on Stanley Fish, not only defending Browne against Fish's animadversions (which are generally apolitical, it must be said), but also "resurrecting" -- her term -- both the stylistic criticism of Morris Croll and quantitative stylometrics, neither of which seemed useful to Fish. Here, Havenstein avails herself of recent developments in computer technology to amass data challenging several of Fish's (and Croll's) assertions about Browne's style and the habits of thought it expresses. In so doing, though, she acknowledges that her stylometric formulae have benefitted from Fish's trenchant comments on the sometimes arbitrary categorizations and, frankly, incomprehensible results of earlier experiments. The Browne that emerges from her computations is, perhaps not surprisingly, more adept than his imitators and is also, more tellingly, clearer in syntax and sharper in making distinctions than the "complacent" image advanced by Fish would suggest. Eve n so, Havenstein does not answer the larger question raised by the Reader-Response criticism that Fish championed: is the reader's experience of style determined, rather than shaped, by purely formal and syntactic characteristics? Her own response to the styles at work in Browne's imitators has certainly been affected by more than word classes, patterns, and coinages.

What "Grub Street" is to Havenstein, "Puritan" (and sometimes "Presbyterian") is to Almond. Authors with puritan sympathies consistently appear here as obtuse, vindictive, and repressed, except when Almond approves of the ideas found in the passages he cites: in these cases, we are not reminded that, say, Thomas Goodwin is a puritan. Authors with other sympathies are generally not labeled as to their religious or political beliefs. Only a brief section on "Kings, Levellers, and Diggers" -- a far from comprehensive list in itself -- consistently addresses the political meanings of Genesis. What emerges is a view of the seventeenth-century "mentality" that is predominantly English (there are few Continental voices heard) and that further defines "mainstream" English thought rather narrowly.

The exuberant variety of materials that remains for Almond to bring together, however, goes far in offsetting such interpretive limitations. The centrality of Adam, Eve, and Eden in the world-views of the writers he discusses, the intensity with which they interpret Genesis and its traditions, and the urgency with which they share their interpretations often make for engaging and instructive reading. The competing geographies, zoologies, and sexual attitudes derived from the scriptural account are thrown into lively juxtaposition. In the opinion of many writers, for example, prelapsarian Adam and Eve resided in a Paradise shut off from the rest of Eden, from the animals (though perhaps not the birds), and from sexuality altogether; Milton famously rejected all three assertions in his Paradise Lost, although few of his contemporaries, apparently, shared his opinions. I say "apparently" because there is little indication that Almond has been systematic in his selection of sources or his treatment of them: passa ges are quoted from references in secondary sources (with special reliance on Keith Thomas and Antonia Frasier); the importance of contemporary translations of Continental works is frequently overlooked (even when those translations are used, such as Sylvester's Du Bartas); and rather obvious primary materials, from Andrew Marvell's "The Garden" and Mower poems to John Selden's Uxor Hebraica, go unconsidered. Almond's other lapses include accepting uncritically A. L. Rowse's laborious identification of Aemilia Lanyer as "Shakespeare's Dark Lady" and transforming the inclusion of Milton's early verses in his 1645 collected Poems into evidence that the poet composed "Naturam non pati sentium" (from his Cambridge days) in that year.

Havenstein's and Almond's books can complement each other in revealing ways. Both draw heavily from the career of John Dunton, the indefatigable publisher responsible for the Religio Bibliopolae and also the Athenian Gazette, which was devoted to presenting philosophical problems in ways accessible to a popular readership. While Havenstein tends to dismiss Dunton's productions as cheap imitations of worthier enterprises, Almond recognizes that an idea's appearance in one of Dunton's compilations indicates a fair amount of intellectual currency. Both consider the vexed issue of non-coital human reproduction, which not a few commentators saw as one of the lost blessings of Paradise and which Browne claims he would prefer, in a passage from Religio Medici (2.9) that earned quick and lasting notoriety. Havenstein and Almond alike attribute Browne's sentiment to his being unmarried at the time of its writing; both document the witty derision the passage provoked. Neither, however, investigates either the intellect ual or textual contexts for Browne's statement of preference. His claim can best be situated not only within his age's restless attempts to imagine an unfallen human condition, but also within the section in Religio Medici that most directly meditates on Paradise in connection with the virtue of Charity. Finally, neither takes very seriously the possibility (argued by later critics) that Browne himself is not entirely serious here -- that he intends to be witty, whimsical, and elusive. One of the dangers both of comprehensive views of "mentalities" and of close analysis of verbal texture is a loss of perspective. Without it, we can miss the Garden for the trees, the trees for the Garden.
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Author:Buhler, Stephen M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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