- Railing, Reviling, and Invective in English Literary Culture, 1588-1617: The Anti-Poetics of Theater and Print by Maria Teresa Micaela Prendergast
In light of the state of political dialogue over the past few years, a book on railing seems quite timely, even if its focus is on early modern English literature. And, indeed, many of Prendergast's insights on the aesthetics and contexts of railing texts may apply to our particular moment. Whereas Prendergast shows how writers like Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey seem to be railing at each other for aesthetic pleasure and competitive bonding, rival news networks (whose audiences are becoming ever more segregated) compete for ratings as [End Page 259] well as apparently revel in the aesthetic experience of conflict itself, as do their audiences. This is particularly true of the opinion shows, and—as in the example of the Poet's War between Ben Jonson, John Marston, and Thomas Decker—this competitive and vicious rivalry does not always appear to run as deep off-air as on. (I recall, for example, the circulation of a photograph of Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity smiling together when they bumped into each other at a baseball game. Olbermann later said that politics stops at the ball field, and some of their fans were disappointed that these figures would cavort with their respective enemies.) Regardless of our twenty-four-hour news networks' hunger for any ratings-grabbing dramas, however, their rhetoric remains in many regards far tamer than that which the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century railers leveled at each other (with the possible exception of the epithets designed to deny the legitimacy of President Obama's tenure in office). It is the scatological, violent, bawdy, erotic, and transgressive nature of railing texts to which Prendergast turns her attention in this book.
In her lengthy introduction, Prendergast demarcates her topic by differentiating railing texts from other forms of polemics and invectives such as satires, libels, squibs, and epigrams, defining them as "texts whose densely packed and hyperbolic insults give a far stronger and more consistent experience of anger and aggression, even as these texts display their authors' playful delight in experimenting with the rich rhetorical possibilities inherent in railing" (13). She further lays out the scope of her project by placing these railing works in the context of print and theater, which, Prendergast argues, spur these writers to seek larger, heterogeneous audiences and serve as sites of aesthetic experimentation for railers. She also introduces the wide range of contemporary theorists—such as Lauren Berlant, Michael Warner, René Girard, and Judith Butler—that she will employ in order to understand the ways that railing controversies make use of an "anti-aesthetics" comprised of metaphors of sexuality, disease, and gender transformation of their opponents (and sometimes themselves) to create aggressive homosocial bonds.
The first two and a half chapters develop Prendergast's thesis that railing texts provide a space for aesthetic experimentation and homosocial, often eroticized, ties between male authors through discussions of the Marprelate controversy, the Harvey-Nashe pamphlet wars, and the theatrical poetomachia involving Jonson, Marston, and Dekker. In the Marprelate controversy, argues Prendergast, the aesthetic experimentation and aggressive eroticism occur through the use of perverse metaphors by both the Martinists and anti-Martinists, which work against their theological arguments as the transgressive language overwhelms the texts and the participants "become implicated in their own erotically transgressive words" (66). The Harvey-Nashe pamphlets contain many of these same elements, though the discursive subject of this railing exchange is rather [End Page 260] trivial, which highlights the railing language even more. In addition, the railing print exchange—which involves writing for a larger anonymous, heterogeneous audience, and which links the writers in rivalrous bonds—is set against the more traditional manuscript and institutionally based male bonds associated with Cambridge University. In the poetomachia these rivalries become even more prominent as the authors figure the creations of their works as the offspring of envious rivalries between men...