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Jeffrey Powers-Beck. Writing the Flesh: The Herbert Family Dia,logue Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 1998. xiii + 279 pp. $54.50. by Michael Schoenfeldt Flying in the face of lingering presuppositions about the inherently private nature of religious devotion, this erudite and important book imagines the production of religious literature as occurring in a particular social nexus — the family Jeffrey Powers-Beck develops a well-researched case for the Herbert family as both a foil for, and the foundation of, the remarkable literary products of George Herbert's religious imagination. As Powers-Beck argues, Herbert's "poetry is powerful because it enacts a dialogue with a God who is at once a personal and a public figure, a father and a magistrate of his time, a lord, a brother, a mother, and a servant" (p. 5). It is PowersBeck 's particular accomplishment to deepen our sense of the meanings these relationships might have assumed in George Herbert's life and particular family configuration. Throughout his poetry, Powers-Beck argues, Herbert "speaks not just as a child but as an aggrieved family member, one seeking reproachment, correction, or a vital favor" (p. 23). Reminding us that "family" meant more than just the nuclear family of present parlance, Powers-Beck defines the Herbert clan as "a dynamically shifting but cohesive patriarchal group, united by kinship , friendship, and servitude to one another and a wider social network, and dependent upon one another for property, employment , service, and patronage" (p. 25). Importantly, Powers-Beck views the family as the source of friction, contention, and rivalry as well as of support, affection, and contentment. In doing so, he disperses the mists of projected nostalgia that seem to cling in particular to George Herbert's dynamic mother, Magdalen, undisputed matriarch of the Herbert clan. A widow who somewhat scandalously remarried a man young enough to be her son, Magdalen nevertheless achieved a deserved reputation for piety and hospitality. In his well-rounded portrait of Magdalen, Powers-Beck wisely allows her to speak for herself; he quotes in full one of the two letters known to be from her, in order to demonstrate her "confident mastery of the language of patronage" (p. 41). Intriguingly, this letter also displays the intricacies of the patronage network, since it is addressed to Sir George More, John Donne's father-in-law and Edward Herbert's former guardian. PowersBeck suggests that Magdalen Herbert's surviving kitchen account books (originally examined in detail by Amy Charles), testify to the Book Reviews115 ways she "brought together and literally nourished a network of kin" (p. 43). "During George Herbert's childhood," infers Powers-Beck, "he would have known his mother as the manager of an immense, bustling household, and as the cynosure of a very large constellation of kin" (p. 46). Powers-Beck provocatively suggests that this experience may have influenced such poems as Herbert's "The Invitation" and "The Banquet," which invite "all" to partake of an experience at once sensuous and domestic: "Just as Magdalen Herbert had united contraries at her table, serving knights and ladies along with vagrant street musicians ("a Blinde harper and his boy") at her house in Charing Cross, so George Herbert imagines the eucharistie banquet as a form of community that permits social elevation" (p. 51). Magdalen Herbert emerges from this chapter as a remarkable figure in her own right, and as a complex but ultimately enabling influence on the religious imagination of her son George. By exploring in another chapter the surprising amount of advice literature that emerges from various members of the Herbert clan, Powers-Beck provides an illuminating context in which to view George Herbert's abiding attachment to the utterance of sententious counsel. "In this age of advice, the Herbert family was eminent," Powers-Beck writes (p. 67). It is telling that Henry Herbert, the recipient of one of George's letters of advice, is the probable author of "26 pages of Latin verse on the virtues of sobriety, continence, industry, thrift, fortitude, and constancy" (p. 70), and the certain author of a letter of advice to his son Henry, who matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1670. George's elder brother Edward...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 114-118
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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