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Lori Humphrey Newcomb, Reading Popular Romance in Early Modern England.

New York: Columbia UP, 2002. Pbk. xiv + 332 pp. $19.50. ISBN: 0-231-12379-5.

Using Robert Greene's Pandosto as its central text, this study treats the popular prose romance of the early modern period with respect. Lori Newcomb is by turns theoretical, intellectual, and often defensive of her subject(s); all three are to the reader's advantage. She painstakingly proves what scholars have tried to ignore--the snobbery we share with the elitist readers and critics of earlier centuries regarding popular literature. Towards that end, Newcomb reveals how Greene's Pandosto remained a success for two and a half centuries: recommodification. Explaining her new term, she observes that appropriation studies "tend to focus on the negotiation for textual ownership and authority between the seizer and the prior possessor. Recommodification sees authorial names as simply one feature in a wide array of changeable textual markers guiding audience use" (134). Newcomb uses Marx, Bourdieu, and Chartier alongside literary authors and utilizes her bibliographic and historical knowledge to add relevance (and some ephemeral humor) to her claims.

The book is divided into four chapters with an introduction and an epilogue. The two classic literary texts with which Pandosto is connected, Sidney's Arcadia and Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, are used in ingenious ways. The introduction, along with discussions of theory, terminology, and criticism, defends the relevance of Pandosto as first a text worthy of study, then a phenomenon deserving of notice, and finally a significant artifact of early modern culture. She informs us that her "chapters successively reimagine the devalued acts of producing, commodifying, recommodifying, and consuming popular literature in positive terms, as creative collaborations among publishers, readers, and writers who reshaped familiar romances to meet their changing needs" (16).

Producing authorship is an important preoccupation of Newcomb's first chapter (and parts of the succeeding two). In "'Growne so ordinarie': Producing Robert Greene's Pandosto and Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, 1585-92," Newcomb discusses the ways that Greene and Sidney are supposed to have had some control over their authorial persona. She debunks this notion by pointing out the vagaries of early modern authorship and the unique positions of two men who died relatively young. It is the very cultural assumptions made about both authors (canonical and popular) and their texts (manuscript and print) that affects the way we read their work today. Newcomb uses some fascinating bibliographic and historical artifacts to create a picture of the books' provenance and treatment by literary critics.

The next chapter, "Social Things: Commodifing Pandosto, 1592-1640," traces "Marx's assertion that mass production compels consumers to reinscribe economic relations as social" (17) to its conclusion that only "popular" (not "literary") forms of print are commodities. What is particularly clever about Newcomb's use of Marx is how she links his claims to Plato's anti-mimeticism. Both, she shows, "[report] horror at the capacity of things to enact social meaning" (121) and assume the inability of "simple persons" to obtain true cultural literacy. Her "scenes of consumption" (moments in texts that show non-elite readers reading or buying print) from Stuart popular literary forms show how modern critics inexplicably allow ourselves to be manipulated by aspiring authors and intellectuals who sought to elevate themselves by creating objects for conspiratorial contempt.

In "Material Alteration: Re-commodifing Darastus and Fawnia and The Winter's Tale, 1623-1843," Newcomb does some stunning critical and detective work. It is here that she makes the important distinction between current appropriation studies in Shakespeare and her term, recommodification. Amid detailed descriptions of the many forms in which the texts of Pandosto and The Winter's Tale could be found, are fascinating details about both texts and their incarnations. Especially fun is her discovery of a Thomas Chapman who performs in a droll of Dorastus and Fawnia and then portrays Autolycus (Shakespeare's ballad seller) in a later (and unsuccessful) staging of The Winter's Tale (the pun does not go unobserved). There are a variety of illustrative figures that show us signatures, scribblings, and woodcuts in copies of Darastus and Fawnia.

The final chapter, "The Romance of Service: The Readers of Dorastus and Fawnia, 1615-1762," again plays upon the connection between the lower-class reader, the feminine, the erotic, and consumption. Like Marxist scorn of popular culture as a form of indoctrination and subjection, literary critics scorn the popular as culturally bankrupt. Newcomb argues that part of the reason for the degradation of popular reading materials and the popular reader were elite anxieties about freedom of choice and leisure time for the new permanent class of servant women. She takes the historical position of female servants (especially during the late early modern period) and demonstrates how and why the adaptations of Greene's text were so popular: "When readers have little expectation of real advancement, might they not take pleasure in seeing patently fictional wishes come true?" (245)

Newcomb's epilogue was a little disappointing for me, though it was an interesting and well-researched study of popular romance (and Greene's recommodified work) as school textbooks in Ireland. It also tells us something of the ways that the change in printing practices spelled the end of the road for the romances from the early modern period. She does send home the message that the act of reading--"even" romance reading--could be (and was) a political act.


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Author:Eskin, Catherine R.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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