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  • Labor and Writing in Early Modern England, 1567-1667
  • Daniel Gates
Laurie Ellinghausen . Labor and Writing in Early Modern England, 1567-1667. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008. x + 156 pp. index. illus. bibl. $89.95. ISBN: 978-0-7546-5780-4.

Ellinghausen's book focuses on a category of writers she calls "laboring authors," writers who highlight their social position as workers, often both as authors and also in another trade. This study first took shape as a dissertation under the direction of Richard Helgerson and Patricia Fumerton at the University of California at Santa Barbara. One could perhaps see it as a response to Helgerson's [End Page 1399] epochal Self-Crowned Laureates, in that it traces an alternative path to the role of professional author, one that renounces the self-conscious emulation of great national poets. Instead, many of the authors that Ellinghausen examines adopt the humble persona of the hardworking author who writes for profit; she argues that they paradoxically transform their socially marginal status or their exclusion from patronage into the grounds for professional authority as writers. For the five authors she examines —Isabella Whitney, Thomas Nashe, Ben Jonson, John Taylor, and George Wither —the frustrations of life as a writer who must work for a living become the means to develop "professional independence" (62). This argument qualifies the notion of the aristocratic "stigma of print" by demonstrating an alternative tradition in which writers made their social position the grounds for a kind of defensive pride. Not only does this book help to reveal the complex social status of writing for profit, but it also displays a set of values at odds with those of aristocratic culture. Instead of concealing their need to work and aspiring to a style of courtly sprezzatura, Ellinghausen's authors advertise their diligent mental labor and insist on their right to fair compensation.

Not surprisingly, the writers featured in this study represent a wide spectrum of social situations, including a working single woman, an underemployed university graduate, a former bricklayer, an officer of the guild of Thames ferrymen, and an earnest Puritan. This places Jonson in unusual company, and he looks somewhat different when grouped with other writers who shared his intimate experience of working for a profit. Ellinghausen suggests that his ambivalence about court culture, his contentious relationship to Inigo Jones, and his insistence on the primacy of his role in the creation of their masques all reveal his investment in seeing himself as a laborer. Jonson paradoxically insists on his own hard work even as he must distinguish his intellectual labor as a writer from manual labor —or even the more obviously "material" work of Jones's theatrical design. Jonson's antimaterialism is traced through his images of manual laborers, especially blacksmiths and the god Vulcan, in several masques and poems, including The Gypsies Metaphorphos'd and "An Execration upon Vulcan."

Ellinghausen suggests that Vulcan becomes a kind of alter ego for Jonson. In general, her most provocative and interesting readings are of texts in which authors represent themselves and their social situations. The chapter on Isabella Whitney focuses on her second book, A Sweet Nosgay, to emphasize how she moves beyond the persona of a woman disappointed in romance to a more comprehensive picture of alienation that highlights her precarious position as a single woman in London. Similarly, Ellinghausen's discussion of Nashe focuses on satires like The Anatomie of Absurditie, but also on the anonymous Parnassus Plays for their depiction of the alienated university graduate, and she underscores his connections to the character Ingenioso, the disenchanted intellectual who makes a career for himself as a writer. The chapter on John Taylor, "the Water Poet," offers the study's clearest picture of a writer who celebrates the virtue of honest work and his own position as a manual laborer, and who recognizes the democratic potential of print. Finally, the chapter on George Wither focuses on his account of writing as gradual, humble [End Page 1400] toil —"one line a day" —and his claim to own the fruits of his labor, in defiance of the Stationers' Company. Building on Joseph Loewenstein's recent scholarship on Wither's...


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pp. 1399-1401
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Archived 2009
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