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Reviewed by:
  • Sociable Criticism in England, 1625–1725
  • Mary Waters
Paul Trolander, Zeynep Tenger, Sociable Criticism in England, 1625–1725 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007). Pp. 233. $49.50.

Sociable Criticism in England, 1625–1725 seeks to turn attention away from print criticism, the usual focus for recent studies of early literary criticism, and examines instead how prior to the eighteenth century the “cultural practices and discourses of sociability . . . determined the venues within which critical judgments were rendered, disseminated, and received” (12). Trolander and Tenger’s study traces the power of ideals and customs derived from private manuscript circulation of critical commentary, demonstrating that although criticism rendered in accord with the expectations of sociability could yield wide political, social, and economic rewards, publication of critical judgments lacking such demonstrations of personal familiarity was suspect and unwelcome. In the seventeenth-century literary world, print held only a minor role in disseminating criticism, and criticism itself was governed more by conventions of social activity than rules for interpreting texts. Only after 1700 with the Spectator did Joseph Addison achieve a formula combining anonymous and public critical judgment with some of the practices of sociability to establish a successful formula for print criticism.

Two forms, amendment and vouching, governed acceptable early critical commentary. Within the author’s immediate circle, amendment criticism, or comments meant to free the text from error, dominated. Circulating texts within a small circle allowed for testing reception of the text and appended critical remarks, both of which might later circulate more widely. Evidence that the text had been vetted in this manner confirmed that the views of readers had been appropriately considered while shielding the writer from accusations of arrogance in allowing the text to pass into wider circulation. As the circle broadened, vouching provided assurances of quality that eased the way and affirmed both the worth of the circulating text and the discernment of the critic. Both forms cemented social bonds among writers, readers, and critics, while the dedicatory prefaces, commendatory poems, and poetic epistles of gratitude that accumulated as the manuscripts passed from hand to hand signaled the text’s coterie origins—a demonstration that critical views arose collaboratively, grounded in personal relationships and affirming the taste and prestige of the whole coterie. By the same token, wider circulation, where evaluation slipped away from immediate control by the writer and coterie, carried risks in that it could undermine the political, economic, and social aims that circulation was meant to spur.

The case of Katherine Philips and her circle illustrates how much could at times be at stake in sociable critical practice and how cannily critics might work it to advantage. Trolander and Tenger mark out an intriguing trail where circulating [End Page 593] texts accumulated critical affirmations that generated reciprocal social obligations, thus not only cementing social bonds, but also greasing the wheels of court appointments and bolstering political clout. Philips took advantage of connections built up by the circulation of her writings to move her works into successively more influential hands, whereby she could draw on the bonds circulation created to reestablish family prestige under the violent political oscillations of the Restoration, facilitate attempts to recover appropriated property, and even assist her and her husband to relocate from Dublin to London.

As the century progressed, successive efforts were made to establish a body of judicial critical commentary that evaluated the quality of texts after completion and circulation. Such efforts often ran aground of coterie-influenced values, in which all were considered equally capable of judgment, and strident assertion of a particular view was regarded as self-aggrandizing arrogance that disrupted the smooth geniality of well-mannered sociability. In this world, censure should normally have been a private matter between well-meaning friends. Public censure should have been reserved for grievous offenses or cases where one had been subject to a public personal attack. George Villiers’s comedy The Rehearsal succeeded as public criticism because it played on the role of private criticism as an obligation of friendship. John Dryden, on the other hand, whom The Rehearsal satirized for failure to accept generally agreed on standards of taste, felt the public aversion to critical theorizing. In...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 593-595
Launched on MUSE
2008-07-13
Open Access
No
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