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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.1 (2002) 173-207
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Recent Studies in the English Renaissance
James Grantham Turner
No single flavor, fashion, or method dominates this year. I am struck by the extraordinary range of projects, though I can detect a rise in studies of religion, allegory, and romance, a fluctuation in the stock of certain authors--lots of Sir Philip Sidney but almost no Andrew Marvell--and a waning interest in high theory. As in the economy, settlement and stock-taking follow a period of delirious speculation. A significant minority of this year's books offer dense empirical documentation or corrective revisions of earlier generalizations. But emergent scholars feel the pressure to theorize, to philosophize, to psychoanalyze, to politicize, which often leads to feverishly exaggerated theses. I still think after reading these ninety titles that they constitute a collective enterprise. Paradoxically, however, what unites us is not so much a common subject as a common drive to fix our ideas in book form--an obsessive and isolating activity that no one in her right mind would undertake. If this review sometimes sounds like a catalog of idées fixes, believe me when I assure you--like the hack author in Jonathan Swift's Tale of a Tub--that I belong in the same institution.
We give the most credit to scholarly monographs from refereed presses, and my review will concentrate on these. (I have omitted a few volumes whose typography and binding look too [End Page 173] amateurish; I admit that the concept of a "vanity press" may be untenable when university presses demand large cuts or massive subventions, but they still maintain high standards of refereeing and copy editing.) We all know that good work is increasingly done in what we might call polygraphs, collaborative volumes and special issues of journals; a healthy crop of these will be noted briefly below, but I am afraid that to review them properly would double the size of this essay. The monograph does demand far higher powers of synthesis, consistency, and argument, so its relative privilege is justified. But it suffers from two dangers, one internal and one external. First, monographia is allied to monomania, and we are often tempted to make excessive claims for the motif we have invested so much time in researching. Second, publishers are undermining the genre by forcing prices up and page-count down, according to the self-fulfilling prophecy that nobody can afford monographs any more.
Unfortunately, I can only make passing reference to what used to be called textbooks, commissioned guides and companions that sometimes elicit the contributors' best work. Three of them should be cited here for the sheer scale of the endeavor, however. L'Epoque de la Renaissance (1400-1600); Tome IV: Crises et Essors Nouveaux (1560-1610), a fifty-six-chapter volume edited by Tibor Klaniczay, Eva Kushner, and Paul Chavy, is part of the UNESCO-funded Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages; though it does end with the late Frank Warnke quoting "Our revels now are ended / La fête est maintenant finie" (pp. 771-2), the fête itself feels like an immense Euro-party where the familiar English faces are lost in the crowd--a useful corrective to Anglocentrism, but unlikely to become an everyday work of reference. Blackwell's Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, edited by Michael Hattaway, looms even larger, with sixty chapters on a truly comprehensive range of topics of interest to the monoglot. And Andrew Hadfield's The English Renaissance, 1500-1620 in the series Blackwell Guides to Literature--lucid little introductions to issues, authors, and texts, aimed at the undergraduate but also useful for Ph.D. students--is remarkable because he wrote it all himself (in the same year that he edited The Cambridge Companion to Spenser).
Biographies are still harder to categorize and review. Monographic in form and focus, often heroic in scale, they nevertheless fall between the categories of original critique and factual reference tool, specialized and general reader, trade and academic publishing (a...