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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.1 (2001) 191-233

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Recent Renaissance

Heather Dubrow

A few years ago, having refused a couple of previous invitations because of other commitments, I agreed to write this essay during the year 2000; that date sounded close enough not to seem like another refusal, yet improbable enough not to seem real. The millennium did come, and with it some seventy-five books that crystallize the major shifts in our profession that have variously been hailed as the New Jerusalem and condemned as Armageddon. Apportioning space to those volumes was not the least challenge of this review, and the resulting decisions sometimes do not reflect value judgments. For instance, on the whole I have given less attention to studies by comparatists, historians, and medievalists, despite the exciting connections between their field and early modern literature; I have treated briefly, if at all, reprints that do not involve substantial revision; and I have omitted one indubitably major book received this year, David Norbrook's Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric, and Politics, 1627-1660, because it was reviewed here previously. With a handful of exceptions, within each section of this essay books are alphabetized by author.

The unpredictability of many changes in the profession (which is among the reasons our graduate students should be cognizant of but not driven by professional fashions in shaping their work) emerges when I recall a conversation with a distinguished and indubitably au courant theorist some years ago: discussing shifts in professional interests, he joked, "Well, we've moved from texts [End Page 191] to readers, and who knows, maybe someday everyone will decide to talk about printers," and he and I laughed merrily. Demonstrating the current engagement with materialist investigations, many of this year's studies do indeed focus on printing, on physical objects, and on class, though unfortunately many scholars in this country still substitute broad generalizations about the aristocracy and middle classes for the recognition of the crucial gradations in those groups that the English learn early and indelibly. Although Ireland remains of interest, a number of students of the early modern period are directing their attention to Spain; the renewed consideration of religion that is one of the most positive recent developments in our profession often primarily involves Catholicism. A focus on reading habits, also observed in Anthony Low's review essay in 1997, informs several books. Impelled by the current critical climate, the demands of publishers, and the intriguing if too seldom discussed interplay between those two vectors, a movement away from books on single authors (with Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton partial exceptions) is apparent; one notes, for example, that this year's selections included only two books on John Donne.

Other shifts involve methodologies and ideologies. The most striking characteristic of this year's books, and one of the most welcome as well, is their interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity Lite has not disappeared--literary critics still sometimes raid history or some other field for a citation to back up a predetermined idea--but by and large one achievement of the new historicism and what I elsewhere termed the newer historicism is a more informed interplay between the fields. Thus in this year's cohort one encounters books co-edited by representatives of both fields and, even more to the point, collections with articles that combine the disciplines so skillfully that one is by no means sure in which one their authors were originally trained. A similar and similarly welcome version of hybridity, particularly evident in the work of an impressive generation of younger scholars, is methodological, with the Berlin Wall between feminism and new historicism, long crumbling, now evidently toppled and many versions of historicized analysis often dovetailed in a single study. It is telling that I could not readily group books by their methodology, as a number of previous reviewers have done. This hybridity, however, as yet only occasionally encompasses aesthetic analysis; watch this space for the welcome recuperation of a historicized formalism, heralded by papers at some recent conferences and by a...


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