- The Selected Essays of Donald Greene
Admirably edited by John L. Abbott, The Selected Essays of Donald Greene presents a sampling from the contributions of one of the greatest scholars of the last generation. Donald Greene was a member of the original Executive Board of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and he helped found this publication while he became its first book review editor. This generous volume displays Greene's vast erudition, his love of learning, and an independent cast of mind that helped revitalize and reconstitute eighteenth-century studies. In a career that spanned more than forty years, from post-World War II to the 1990s, Greene saw radical changes in how literature is valued and interpreted. His own critical methods and strong personal statements about readers and texts represent a gold standard for literary scholarship.
Writing about the eighteenth century, Donald Greene never failed to delight in its "exuberance," a word he used frequently to challenge the old platitudes of stodgy Victorians and schoolmarms. In the early days of eighteenth-century studies, some of us may remember the glib postulations and idées reçues of academic textbooks and prescribed "survey" courses, where the pedagogy of English literature consisted in memorizing a neat list generalities and regurgitating them in exams. Greene's revisionist scholarship can never be overestimated when he dispelled those hoary admonishments about our period as frivolous, inferior, or just plain boring, and he made a clean sweep of fusty labels like the Age of Reason, Neoclassicism, and the Augustan Age. For him, the long eighteenth century was charged with an energy he amply documented not only in the literature, but in science, theology, politics, epistemology, music, architecture, painting, and aesthetic criticism. Section I reprints three famous essays on British intellectual history and on genre. Discarding the fugitive systems of Stoicism, Rationalism, Deism, and the like, Greene finds the key dynamic of eighteenth-century England in Orthodox Christianity and the New Science. As he explains, "Augustinianism and Empiricism" are the two powerful interacting, not competing, ideas that fueled an aggressive pursuit of knowledge. The keen eye for detail, the panoply of facts, the commanding breadth of study, the moral rectitude—they are vintage Greene, as is a provocative narrative on the "Sin of Pride," which explores a dominant ethos in the Western canon from Swift and Austen to Flaubert and Tolstoy.
The latter account of pernicious pride ever absorbed Greene for all its representation in literature and resonance in religion and modern psychotherapy. Heir to the British dons who wrote engagingly for a broad public, he referred spiritedly and pointedly to, perish the thought, real life. To Gulliver's Travels he related twentieth-century political history with its wars of bloodshed and torture, to The Dunciad the deterioration in the existing quality of American culture, to The Vanity of Human Wishes the problem of individual human happiness now and at any other time. With some drollery, he apologizes for his breach in scholarly decorum: "If I did not believe these works to be highly relevant to my own life, and that of my students, I would not go on trying to study and teach them, but would endeavor [End Page 577] to find other employment in some honest trade" (54–55). Indeed, his special talent was to attract the common reader, the "sensitive, intelligent" non-specialist without sacrificing scholarly integrity. His lucid and accessible backgrounds text entitled, naturally, The Age of Exuberance, its Preface also reprinted, was compiled particularly for students.
To most of us, Greene is known best for his work on Samuel Johnson. Section II, "Johnson without Boswell," includes three essays that virtually pulverized Boswell's credibility in the Life of Johnson and sent Boswellians' noses out of joint. The Great Cham, Greene argues, sprung full-blown from his biographer's head, and cross-references to Boswell's own diaries, to Mrs. Piozzi and Sir John Hawkins, and to entries in eighteenth-century jest books, show just how unscrupulously Boswell suppressed evidence and made out of...