Kevin Sharpe. Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England. New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 2000. xiv + 358 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-08152-7.
Reviewed by Michael Mendle (Department of History, University of Alabama)
Published on H-Albion (July, 2000)
Part manifesto, part case study, Kevin Sharpe's Reading Revolutions argues for and seeks to demonstrate the fruits of historians' engagement with "theory" -- the complex of critical perspectives ranging from the New Historicism to various postmodern and postcolonial interrogations of authorship, text, and textuality. Seeking (as he and his frequent collaborator Steven Zwicker recently put it) to map the space vectored by the "interpenetration of the aesthetic and political", Sharpe particularly appeals for reception theory and theory-informed reception history -- which address how texts were read and appropriated -- as keys into a world of political sensibility largely ignored and perhaps inaccessible without them.
Sharpe's long initial chapter confronts both theory and historians' general disregard (as he believes) of it. He may overstate the case. His efforts and those of historians like Malcolm Smuts, Blair Worden, and Derek Hirst along with those of the finest of the critics have by this time sufficiently cross-assarted the disciplinary fields such that many early modern historians do not draw the disciplinary contrasts as starkly as Sharpe suggests, and are not so utterly allergic to textuality or even a light seasoning of critical argot. Equally, even historians receptive to interdisciplinary fertilization may find Sharpe too lenient in his easy absolution of the critics and theoreticians of their sins. There are also practicalities: Sharpe himself ponders whether his call "for a more interdisciplinary praxis" that joins "postmodern theory and reader-response criticism" to the historian's forte, "the capacity for scholarly empirical research," is "to ask too much" (p. 61).
Sharpe replies with the central matter of the volume: a meticulous treatment of the readership of Sir William Drake (1606-1669), a Buckinghamshire gentleman whose vociferous literary appetite is chronicled in his own notebooks, marginalia, and diaries. At the core are fifty-four volumes, mostly commonplace books, in the Ogden Mss. at University College, London. Sharpe also tracked down important Drake manuscripts at the Huntington and the Folger Shakespeare Libraries, and still others at the House of Lords Record Office and the Buckinghamshire Record Office. He identified printed books likely to have been owned by Drake amidst the books in University College, London, and another one, extensively annotated, in the Folger. It is a large body of material, written in Drake's hand or in that of an amanuensis, in English, Latin and Italian, the three tongues sometimes sharing the same page. As with the textual corpus, nothing in the presentation is done on a small scale; Sharpe, who is not known to favor compression, provisions his fourth chapter with 627 footnotes.
So Drake minuted his reading -- but what and how did he read? Since two pioneering articles by Stuart Clark, we have known that Drake was a devot of the masters of Italian prudence -- Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Botero -- as well as widely read in the classical poets and historians, and an admirer also of that earlier English Machiavellian, Francis Bacon. What Sharpe has laboriously and at times brilliantly reconstructed is the lifetime of engagement and re-engagement with favorite authors, as Drake variously commonplaced, proverbialized, and commented upon his texts. He examines how Drake's changing political attitudes -- a reform-minded but not radical critic of Laud and arbitrary rule before the Long Parliament, a man increasingly but very quietly alienated by the parliamentary leadership's and the godly's tactics as war approached and after, a self-exiled MP who was only disabled with Pride's Purge, and finally a partisan of the Restoration -- were both found out in the speculum of his literary meditations and conjured to appear because of them. Among the shinier nuggets in Sharpe's pan is his demonstration how Drake's usually unconditional love of Machiavelli was qualified by Drake's inability to share Machiavelli's approval of popular action, but also how that that reservation was itself breached when, as the Restoration approached, popular monarchism had newly perfumed the rabble (pp. 248-9; cf. 221-2, 228-9, 239, 267).
Sharpe also fits Drake along several axes of reading practices, while stressing that whatever the technique, Drake read for utility, be it as a guide to personal conduct or observation of public affairs. At the heart of Drake's method was the commonplacing technique, in which snippets were organized and reorganized: whether in standard commonplace books, in compilations of adages, or even in the cross-referencing of texts. (It might be remarked that the verb legere means as much "to pick out" as "to read.") All this comports poorly with notions of authorial integrity and intent; and with Drake such readings and rereadings privileged primary authors over the secondary ones who were essentially brought in as buttresses. For example, Sharpe argues that Drake mined Aristotle as a proof-text for his Machiavelli (pp. 184-5). In a final and necessarily more impressionistic chapter, Sharpe reprises Drake's reading habits and then "contextualis[es] the case," looking at other readers, notably Milton, Clarendon, Lady Anne Clifford, and Sir Edward Dering.
Sound methodology doubtless strikes some working historians as rather like personal hygiene, a serious matter indeed, but probably better attended to by quiet practice than by loud rescript. Those who, like Sharpe in the present day and John Pocock and Quentin Skinner in 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, are bold enough to tell other historians what they ought to be doing and how they ought to be doing it, can fairly expect to have their own eggs candled. Just what has Sharpe done this way that could have been done by no other? Which of his insights is owed to method rather than "just" trained intuition, or otherwise put, which of them is portable to another's practice? I am reminded here of Kenneth Burke's phrase, "the bureaucratization of the imaginative": is the success of Sharpe's reading of Drake a function more of his theory-derived programmatic injunctions or his acuity (the pun cannot be indefinitely resisted) and his great energy, which others may not be able to match? Like Drake, Sharpe reads for use, and his sense of "theory" is so thoroughly percolated through several filters of intellectual sophistication and historical savvy that it is scarcely the same thing as it was before his own reader-response.
Theory/precept and practice are conundrums of Drake as well. A tantalizing irony of Drake's career as reader/actor is that the apostle of self-seeking and boldness in his private books seems to have been something of a mouse outside them. A wealthy, learned, and, to judge from small evidence, a respected or at least inoffensive man, Drake confided to his reading books a suspicion of human nature rivaling Diogenes and Hobbes, and a "ruthlessly utilitarian" attitude towards his fellow creatures (p. 94) that "out-machiavel[ed] even old Nick" (p. 189). So too as Machiavelli's Dame Fortuna favored the young, because they would (ab)use here with greater audacity; Drake, who admired Roman religion for its encouragement of "boldness" (232), believed that "boldness" trumped "courtesy" (p. 131). The world, he said, was ruled by "most crafty, faithless, and audacious men"; the rest were "poor dejected people that live under oppression" (p. 128), the meek who would never inherit the earth. Yet it is curious that Drake's one foray into print, a speech he claimed to have delivered in the Commons on 10 November 1641 did not make it into the parliamentary diaries, even that of his old law chambers mate, Sir Simonds D'Ewes, and that Drake's own Long Parliament diary is flush with speeches and speech fragments that Drake wrote for a delivery that probably never occurred. His engagement with the times, it seems, was confined to his books: Drake kept his private political reservations well below the radar. He seems to have known as much about himself, referring to the "audacity I want [that is, lack]" (p. 83).
Perhaps this points to a limitation of textuality: stubbornly, there remains conduct apart from words. All the world may be a text, and all the men and women its readers. But surely that is not all that the world is, nor is readership the only role for the people in it. As for boldness, that, certainly, is not a worry for Kevin Sharpe, and we are all the richer for it.
. Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker, eds., Refiguring Revolutions: Aesthetics and Politics from the English Revolution to the Romantic Revolution (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1998), p. 3.
. It is appropriate here to note that the critic Steve Zwicker's enormous reading-of-marginalia project is no less fully empirical and, in the context of the source-universe of printed books, no less archival than the work of any historian. For the present, see his "Reading the Margins: Politics and the Habits of Appropriation," in Sharpe and Zwicker, Refiguring Revolutions, pp. 101-115.
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Michael Mendle. Review of Sharpe, Kevin, Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England.
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