Elizabethan Publishing and the Makings of Literary Culture.
Kirk Melnikoff's study of the cultural agency wielded by Elizabethan publishers is not, in any narrow sense, an exercise in the history of the book. "At issue throughout," Melnikoff explains, "is Elizabethan literary culture. This book insists that neither its development nor its particularities... can be fully appreciated without taking the activities of publishers into account" (6). Publishers were, to coin a phrase, agents of change in literary life; and Melnikoff's task as a literary historian is both to classify the various activities that fall within the protean category of "publishing" and to narrate the developments they helped bring about. Building on the seminal work of Peter Blayney and Zachary Lesser, among others, Melnikoff charts "the rise of the publishing bookseller" (17-19)--as distinct from that other agent, the printer, more often studied by the New Bibliography--and shows how these varied figures registered and shaped market demand, helped engender and define new vernacular genres, translated and altered the texts they acquired, and collaborated with authors, printers, and all the other participants in the complex socioeconomics of the printed literary world.
After an introduction which sets out these central concerns, Melnikoff's first and longest chapter functions as a veritable primer on the various functions fulfilled by the publisher, from the different means of acquiring copy to the numerous kinds of compilatory, editorial, and commercial agency he then wielded in bringing texts to market. The longest section of this chapter (36-57) offers a virtual typology of Elizabethan printed paratexts, very much in the manner of Gerard Genette's seminal work of that name. This will be a useful and reliable introduction to the subject for those new to the study of early modern print culture; while there is little that is new or surprising in the general categories Melnikoff posits, the particulars with which he exemplifies them are engaging and instructive. Toward the end of the chapter Melnikoff stresses the extent to which publishers tended to specialize, which gives rise to an important part of the book's wider argument, namely that "Elizabethan publishers can"--and, Melnikoff implies throughout, should--"be differentiated by the particularities of their practice" (74).
What follows, accordingly, are four case-studies of publishers whose varied commercial work exhibits special kinds of literary agency. Chapter 2 examines the bookseller Thomas Hacket, who was both publisher and translator of several travel narratives in the 1560s, and who thereby, Melnikoff argues, helped expand the readership for such texts beyond specialists in navigation and trade. This chapter is both confident of its argument, placing Hacket squarely between the better-known figures of Richard Eden and Richard Hakluyt "in the cultural history of England's slow emergence as a colonial power," and necessarily constrained by the evidential difficulties in correlating individual agency with large-scale cultural change. Melnikoff carefully states that Hacket's work "helped prepare the way" for later colonial imagery, that "Hacket was possibly the first to articulate an aesthetic of wonder as a desirable end in and of itself," and that "Hacket's products and ideas ... may have directly influenced the figurative dimension of the 1570s' most popular work of fiction: John Lyly's Euphues" (97; my emphasis). Such quiet and responsible qualifications appear throughout the book, ensuring that what cannot always be demonstratively proved is at the very least suggestive and stimulating.
Chapter 3, on Richard Smith, is perhaps the most consciously revisionist part the book, with interventions that will be welcome to scholars of George Gascoigne in particular. It opens with a useful distinction between lyric collections that prioritise textual coherence and authorial authority, and those that are more multivocal (101). Smith is revealed as a publisher with a consistent commitment to such multiplicity, exploiting and cultivating a paradigm of "reading as browsing" (115) even as he "underscor[ed] his own agency as compiler and as literary authority" (104) in the various projects he took on. Melnikoff argues, in opposition to the work of Adrian Weiss and George Pigman, that Smith himself was the writer of the letter from "The Printer to the Reader" in George Gascoigne's pioneering and complex miscellany A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573), a letter which is normally assumed to have been written by Gascoigne. There is no single piece of evidence that clinches the case, but Melnikoff s re-attribution supports a cogent and persuasive reading of the book. A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres' paratexts delight in mystification about the agents who shaped the volume's origins and production, and thereby exemplify Melnikoff's underlying argument that the roles and nomenclature of the early modern book scene--publisher, printer, stationer, author, and so on--were highly labile categories. The later sections of chapter 3 identify further instances of Smith's predilection for multivocality and browsability, first in his translation and publication of Robert Henryson's Scots version of Aesop, and then in his two distinct editions of Henry Constable's Diana in 1592 and 1594.
The more speculative, but nonetheless insightful, fourth chapter concerns a record in the Stationers' Register in 1600 of the draper, bookbinder, and occasional publisher John Flasket's right to publish a one-volume edition of John Dickenson's Arisbas and Christopher Marlowe's and Thomas Nashe's Dido Queen of Carthage (both originally published in 1594). Flasket inherited the rights to this joint-title edition from his erstwhile collaborator, the stationer Paul Linley. Melnikoff judges it most likely that this was to be "a partial reissue" of unsold copies of the first editions inherited from Thomas Woodcock, "with a new general title page and a cancel title page for Arisbas" (144). The crucial point here is the literary sophistication it implies in Flasket and Linley, who had already been significant publishers of the fashionable Ovidian texts of the 1590s. Melnikoff shows how far both the Sidneian Arisbas and the superficially Virgilian Dido make use of an Ovidian cocktail of sex, irony, and allusiveness, and argues that Flasket and Linley recognized this affinity. Nevertheless, this dual volume was never, apparently, produced; it is thus perhaps straining a little too far for conclusiveness to say that Flasket and Linley "invested in" the idea, "speculating that a two-title volume ... would find a motivated cadre of Elizabethan bookbuyers" (154). Again, we are reminded of the difficulty of Melnikoff's appointed task in inferring agency from slippery and incomplete evidence.
The final chapter concerns the publisher Nicholas Ling, who in the 1590s and 1600s, Melnikoff shows, published several texts with a strong interest in republican ideas about "governance, counsel, and political virtue" (157)--texts that include the first quarto of Hamlet. Melnikoff largely side-steps questions about Q1's origins, declining to come to a view about the relationship between Ling and James Roberts, to whom Hamlet was entered in the Stationers' Register in July 1602, or about the reasons for the notorious state of Q1's text. Instead, he carefully unpicks Q1's several republican elements, most of which are focused in the person of Corambis (Q2's Polonius), who mouths the dicta of humanist and quasi-republican counsel throughout the play. This is always compelling and sometimes convincing, although, as Melnikoff somewhat defensively acknowledges, it necessitates taking seriously a figure whose earnest precepts are more often, and more easily, read as parodic than as components of a viable political philosophy. Nevertheless, Melnikoff's overall case is coherent and attractive. The chapter, which first appeared in Marta Straznicky's edited collection Shakespeare's Stationers (Philadelphia, 2013), was clearly conceived long before the recent work of Andras Kisery and Rhodri Lewis on Hamlet's political and ethical dimensions, or of Tiffany Stern on shorthand note-taking as a means of textual piracy, offering a rival to the textual theory of Q1's memorial reconstruction by an actor. Lack of engagement with such voices, and only the briefest mention, in an endnote, of Zachary Lesser's recent study of Q1, perforce make the chapter already just a little dated. Responsibility for this lies less with the author, of course, than with the vexed temporalities of academic publishing--a fact which only corroborates Melnikoff's own patient and admirable analysis of the overlapping agencies we can uncover in the complex sociology of texts.
Reviewer: MICHAEL HETHERINGTON
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|Publication:||Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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