Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England.
Kevin Sharpe has written a rich and well-researched study of politics and the history of reading in seventeenth-century England. Once again he has combined the skills of the historian and the literary scholar to produce a book that will challenge and enlighten scholars in both disciplines. His book is largely based upon the extensive and varied reading notes of Sir William Drake, a learned Buckinghamshire gentleman and wealthy landowner whose more than fifty-four surviving volumes of notebooks, diaries, and annotated printed books span over thirty years of history from the late 1620s to the early 1660s. No other archival resource from early modern England provides such ample materials with which to consider the relationship between an individual's reading and the political circumstances in which he read. Sharpe's cross-disciplinary book is therefore based upon much fresh primary research, as well as more recent work in reading, reception theory, and early modern literary studies. His study is both broad in scope (it addresses large issues concerning the politics of reading in early modern England) and specific in focus (it examines the case of an unusually active seventeenth-century reader who has left abundant evidence of his practices).
This is also a polemical book, vigorously arguing (especially in Part 1) that early modern historians need to be more self-conscious and theoretically engaged about their practices. Like Christopher Hill, Sharpe believes that historians have much to learn from literary scholars, including some of the best (that is, most historically informed) New Historicists. Sharpe laments the failure of historians to read or address adequately the contributions of recent historicist literary critics. 'What instead I want to suggest [...] is that an address to "the textuality of its texts" could sharpen revisionist history, no less than revisionism could aid New Historicism' (pp. 25-26). Sharpe's argument here is more likely to appeal to literary scholars than to historians who continue to resist or ignore 'the textuality of history' (to borrow a New Historicist phrase). If there is a shortcoming in Sharpe's polemic, it is his tendency to value early modern literary scholars at the expense of historians. Some of the best historically oriented literary scholars in the field (for example, Leah Marcus, David Norbrook, Thomas Corns, and Nigel Smith) do indeed undertake extensive research in primary materials (including both printed sources and manuscripts), while also engaging with the work of recent historians, but earlier New Historicists were frequently less rigorous in their uses of primary materials and resorted too uncritically to the theoretical work of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault to explain (often too monolithically) the nature of power and royal authority in early modern England. Sharpe's contribution to the debate is intended to encourage early modern historians to read political texts more as literary scholars do; but he also intends, in a more self-conscious and reflective way, to examine how political texts, 'the texts of authority', were read by contemporaries. Using the voluminous notes of Sir William Drake as his main evidence for active reading practices (including close reading, comparative reading, and glosses) Sharpe examines the experience, independent judgement, and power of early modern readers.
Active reading in the case of Drake involved a process of self-fashioning and preparation for an active and ruthlessly pragmatic life in the tumultuous and contentious political world of seventeenth-century England. Sharpe's account reveals precisely why and how Drake engaged in an extensive programme of reading: he read Machiavelli (one of his favourite authors, along with Guicciardini and Bacon) for cynical and cautious lessons in political ambition, cunning, and strategy; he read classical and national histories in order to understand the world's great empires and current politics; he read classical philosophers and rhetoricians, as well as Renaissance humanist writers, in order to deepen and sharpen his knowledge of religious, moral, and political issues; he collected and annotated proverbs and maxims from ancient and Renaissance sources (for example, Tacitus and Machiavelli) and used these to form his views of society and state. Like his many commonplace books, Drake's personal and political diaries reveal how his reading shaped his Machiavellian worldview towards politics and statecraft in early Stuart England, as well as his Hobbesian view of human nature. As a moderate member of parliament during the 1640s (when he was not abroad), Drake placed his observations on contemporary politics (for example, the trial of the Earl of Strafford) in the context of his studies of history and the often cynical lessons it taught him about men's words and motives in the world of realpolitik. Moreover, Sharpe makes excellent use of some twenty-two volumes of notebooks by Drake from the later 1640s and the 1650s to discern his views towards the dramatic events of civil war and revolution. Here we find much evidence of Drake's digesting and carefully rereading classical and humanist texts, alongside the Scriptures and selected contemporary works (including Hobbes's Leviathan), to address the problems of civil conflict and the necessity of order and stability. Sharpe is particularly interesting on the ways classical texts and authors take on new meanings when Drake rereads them in the context of his factious political world. Thus Drake renders Machiavellian the morality of Plutarch, Seneca, Aristotle, and other classical authorities.
Towards the end of his book, Sharpe extends his discussion of 'reading as politics' to such contemporaries as Jonson, Milton, and Clarendon. He makes astute comments about Milton's Commonplace Book revealing the sort of reading that made Milton into a republican, yet, in asserting that we have no books annotated by Milton, he overlooks Milton's numerous annotations to the tragedies of Euripedes. Nevertheless, Reading Revolutions is a major contribution to the history of early modern English reading practices and enriches our sense of political history itself. While some historians of Stuart England may question Sharpe's enthusiasm for employing recent theories of reading and textuality, they will certainly learn much from the intelligent and rigorous way he examines the copious reading notes of an unusual English gentleman in the context of seventeenth-century politics. Literary scholars, moreover, will appreciate Sharpe's skilful combination of empirical research and historicized theory; by bringing together both he illuminates in new ways the practices and politics of early modern reading. One hopes and expects that Sharpe's fine book will stimulate further studies of reading and politics in early modern England.
<ADD> DAVID LOEWENSTEIN UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON </ADD>
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2002|
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