- Readers and Authorship in Early Modern England
With Readers and Authorship in Early Modern England Stephen B. Dobranski consolidates the reputation he began to build with his 1999 monograph Milton, Authorship and the Book Trade. In both books he moves with ease and sophistication between literary criticism and book history, uncovering their mutual constructions of meaning and never letting one serve as mere background to the other. But this new book has less in common with its predecessor than meets the eye and, indeed, less in common with the subject suggested by its title: it is not so much a book about "Readers and Authorship" (once it has moved beyond the opening chapter's survey of theories and practices of reading and writing) as a study of their interaction in the production and reception of unfinished works during the seventeenth century.
Dobranski argues that Renaissance authors generated literary effects and enhanced their authority not only through ambitious gestures, explicit instructions, and exhaustive treatments but also by drawing on the politics and poetics of omission. He sets out, then, to listen to the moments of "audible silence" (2) in the publications of Sidney, Jonson, Donne, Herrick, and Milton. This makes his approach sound more theoretical than it is. The great theorists of "absent presence," Derrida and Lacan, are quoted in the closing pages, but, as with Wolfgang [End Page 628] Iser and Stanley Fish (the great theorists of readers' responses to textual gaps), their ideas are acknowledged rather than used. Dobranski's methods are resolutely historical, homing in on specific instances of literary omission — unfinished poems in Jonson's 1616 Workes, the 1633 Poems, by J[ohn] D[onne], and Herrick's Hesperides; the poem "A Remedie for Love" that was "restored" to editions of Sidney's Arcadia during the Civil War; and the short addendum, labeled Omissa, that Milton added to Samson Agonistes — and painstakingly recovering the biographical, rhetorical, and political contexts that make them speak volumes.
Dobranski joins other recent scholars in challenging the concluding sentence of Roland Barthes's famous essay "The Death of the Author": "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author." These case studies provide further proof that active reading did not prevent or delay the emergence of authoritative authors but played an important part in the process: "missing pieces" or "blank spaces" provoked the participation of readers as they acknowledged authorial anxieties and established authorial control. By the end of the century a writer like Swift can deploy a phrase such as "Hiatus in MS" to comic effect, but in the work of his forebears such maneuvers tended to be serious business.
A book about Renaissance omissions inevitably prompts its reviewers to identify important texts or issues that it leaves out. The growing importance of ruins and archaeological fragments in Renaissance antiquarian discourse is conspicuous by its absence, as is the parody of pedantic conventions that Swift, Pope, and Sterne would take to new levels. Dobranski himself acknowledges what is perhaps the most consequential omission: "More should be said . . . about the responses of individual readers during the Renaissance." (217). Indeed it should: without them we can only glimpse readers' reactions through the presumed effects of authors' manipulations, a position that leaves us closer to the groundbreaking studies of Iser and (especially) Fish than Dobranski acknowledges, and calls for a more explicit and sustained account of the lessons he has assimilated from them.
But such omissions no doubt helped Dobranski to give his book its admirable focus and — what is even more admirable — to finish it. Given Dobranski's attraction to unfinished writings and his penchant for epigraphs from writers in praise of the unfinished, this could all too easily have become another never-to-be-finished opus: to put "God keep me from ever completing anything" (from Melville's Moby-Dick) at the head of a chapter called "Jonson's Labors Lost" is simply asking for trouble. The fact that Readers and Authorship in Early...