The Human Factor
Copied from the newspaper The Guardian
In 1995, in the early days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the literary scholar and cultural theorist, Stephen Greenblatt, had a momentary encounter with Bill Clinton at a White House reception. Clinton recalled being made to learn Macbeth at school. "Don't you think," said Greenblatt, "it's a play about someone compelled to do the morally disastrous?" "No," said Clinton, "it's a play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object." This insight, captured in such a "marvellous phrase", dazzled Greenblatt into thinking the president had missed his vocation as an English professor, especially when Clinton went on to quote reams of Macbeth by heart. Some time later, though, watching the TV news, he heard Clinton praise the late King Hussein of Jordan as a man "whose immense ambition had an ethically adequate object". Clinton's marvellous phrase, it turned out, was no more than multi-purpose rhetoric. "It suddenly occurred to me," Greenblatt recalls, "that although the phrase was marvellous, it was also somehow off. No one with immense ambition has an ethically adequate object. I realised that Clinton had chosen the right vocation after all!"
It seems natural to open a profile of Greenblatt with an anecdote. His own critical writings on the Renaissance often start this way, with a microscopic analysis of a social encounter, which can reveal much about the ideology of the period. The seminal Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), for example, begins with a fly-on-the-wall account of a dinner party at Cardinal Wolsey's. Had it occurred in the 16th century, a literary reception at the White House would be exactly the sort of event to appeal to Greenblatt, who is fascinated by fugitive but telling moments in history at which power and culture collide.
Greenblatt's latest book Will in the World , a biography of Shakespeare, makes much use of his trademark technique of juxtaposing historical events with literary texts - say, the treason trial of Elizabeth I's Jewish doctor with The Merchant of Venice - to illuminate the mindset of the age. Although written chronologically, the book is couched more as a series of essays than as an exhaustive linear narrative, covering its subject in selective, heuristic moments. It also offers some virtuoso literary analysis, showing, for example, the technical process whereby Shakespeare developed the soliloquy as a means to represent a character's inwardness. In America, where it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks, it has sold more than 150,000 copies and been nominated, alongside The 9/11 Commission Report , for the National Book Award. And it has found a keenly appreciative audience among writers such as the New Yorker's critic Adam Gopnik, who found it "startlingly good", and admired Greenblatt for "mak[ing] exquisitely sensitive and persuasive connections between what the eloquent poetry says and what the fragmentary life suggests".
Until last year, Greenblatt's fame was largely confined to academia, where he has long had star status as the progenitor of "new historicism", a phrase he first used in 1982 in The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms. According to Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, this approach has been "the most influential strand of criticism over the last 25 years, with its view that literary creations are cultural formations shaped by 'the circulation of social energy'." In the rather more world-weary caricature supplied by literary scholar John Carey, all new historicism did was to revert to "the well-tried technique of putting literature into its historical context". Yet what may now seem to Carey an obvious orthodoxy was excitingly radical in the early 1980s.
To understand the significance of the eruption of history into English studies in terms of Greenblatt's own intellectual development, one has to go back to his student days at Yale. He has described, with delicate irony, the discomfort he felt at graduate seminars there. Presided over by the authoritarian figure of William K Wimsatt, these took place in a gentleman's club. The grand old man would discourse on poetics while his acolytes nibbled on cucumber sandwiches proffered by a black servant in a starched white jacket. Central to the august professor's credo was the "intentional fallacy", the belief that the critic should have no more interest in the author of a text than the eater of a pudding in the cook. Faced with the professor's absolutist belief in his own aesthetic theory, Greenblatt could feel nothing but doubt. Two Fulbright years in Cambridge had brought him into the orbit of the Marxist critic Raymond Williams. History, which Wimsatt so stridently excluded from the study of literature, had entered Greenblatt's imagination. Having previously focused on the 20th century - his precocious undergraduate dissertation on Waugh, Orwell and Huxley had been published - Greenblatt turned to the Elizabethans for his PhD. In choosing Sir Walter Raleigh, a character whose works were so obviously embedded in their historical moment, he made a decision that would affect the rest of his career. Not only did he remain in that period, he continued, in all his subsequent work, to be motivated by the almost necromantic desire, in his now famous phrase, "to speak with the dead".
In Will in the World, Greenblatt imagines the joy the child Shakespeare must have taken in words, his "inexhaustible craving for language". His own childhood was marked by a similarly visceral love of reading. Born in 1943 in Boston, the son of a lawyer and a housewife, he escaped from his typically humdrum 1950s suburban childhood into "mind travel". It was not a bookish household. "I remember my parents saying 'Stevie, don't strain your eyes reading, come and watch TV'." But the young Greenblatt remained addicted to feeding his imagination with The Arabian Nights or popular travelogues.
Although his parents weren't great readers, at some deep, atavistic level, Greenblatt's early love of books did connect him with his family heritage, which stretches back to the Jewish communities of Lithuania, where his mother's grandfather was a scholar "who sat in a back room studying the Talmud". The two sides of Greenblatt's bookishness - the analytical interpreter of texts and the seeker after foreign adventure - have fed into the next generation. One of his two sons from his first marriage to Ellen Schmidt is now a lawyer; the other works in Mali. Greenblatt is reticent about his first marriage. But the family ties connecting past and present have been on his mind. Three-and-a-half years ago, his second wife and "soulmate", literary critic Ramie Targoff, gave birth to a son, Harry. The fact that this child was born 104 years after Greenblatt's father, his namesake, brought into focus "how breathtakingly close we are to lives that at first sight seem so far away".
In his academic writings, Greenblatt has never felt the need "to adopt the fiction of a neutral, impersonal voice". The result is that the prefaces and introductions to many of his books contain autobiographical musings. Hamlet in Purgatory (2001) brings to life the author's sense of his Jewish past, offering an eloquent, self-exposing account, half wry, half tender, of death in his own family. Greenblatt records how surprised he was to discover that his father, who died in 1983, had left money to an organisation that would say the kaddish (Jewish prayer for the dead) for him. "Evidently my father did not trust either my elder brother or me to recite [it] for him. The effect the bequest had on me, perhaps perversely, was to impel me to do so, as if in a blend of love and spite." So this secular Jew, "who scarcely knew how to pray", found himself performing, "with a lightly ironic piety", a rite historically connected to the medieval Christian theology with which his scholarly work was concerned.
If Greenblatt's interest in history was first focused during in Cambridge, it was also given a radical edge by Raymond Williams's Marxism. His move, as a young professor, to Berkeley, cemented this radicalism. He has described the campus there in the late 1960s and early 70s as a place of Vietnam protests and tear gas. All power structures, including those within the university, seemed "provisional". Boundaries, especially those between academic disciplines, were there to be broken. The image of boundary-breaking continues to be a leitmotif with Greenblatt. He looks back on that early Berkeley period like the young Wordsworth, blissful in that dawn to be alive, recalling the French revolution. "It was," he has written, "in its way sublime."
Intellectually, the arrival of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose seminars Greenblatt attended in California, gave a new edge to his critical consciousness, a more focused concern with the cultural forms of power. Foucault's prickly personality and political pessimism - power is everywhere, and resistance is only possible at the margins - were in sharp contrast to Greenblatt's generous American appetite and optimism. "I was too much a child of the 60s to want to sit at anyone's feet and be a disciple," he says. Yet Foucault was "compelling and strange" and his charisma infectious.
By now, Greenblatt was fashioning himself into (in academic Terry Eagleton's description) an "enfant terrible" with charisma of his own. His electrifying effect on the British academic imagination is implied by his immortalisation in David Lodge's classic 1975 novel, Changing Places , as the energetic young Californian professor Sy Gootblatt. Coming not from the traditional centre but from the avant garde, he had, by the time he launched "new historicism" in the early 80s, achieved guru-like status among students as an anti-establishment figure. His friend Lisa Jardine remembers his impact on Cambridge. "I was putting together some lectures in the early 80s," she recalls, "and I suggested Greenblatt to the faculty. No one had heard of him. But when he and I arrived at the lecture room we were greeted by a grumpy porter who complained that the event was a fire hazard. The audience was hanging from the rafters. That was Stephen Greenblatt. The faculty hadn't heard of him, but the students were in there."
By 1988, when Greenblatt delivered the Clarendon lectures in Oxford, the British mainstream could no longer ignore him. The historian Sir Keith Thomas remembers being unable to force his way in to the crowded hall. Subsequently published as Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (1991), the topic of the lectures was Renaissance colonialism. Those who managed to get a seat recall his glamour on the podium: his flamboyant rhetoric, his energy and focus, even his elegant suit added up to something far removed from the tweedy understatement of the average Oxford don.
Eagleton recalls how new historicism, in its early days, "seemed, from a British perspective, to be about radicals in California". Its intellectual project was pleasingly of a piece with the fact that it was perceived to have been born at the margins. Its study of the past eschewed mainstream grand narratives and instead focused on out-of-the-way anecdotes, which were regarded not as mere colourful footnotes but as epiphanic "disturbances" in the surface of things capable of inspiring unexpected insights into a culture. In keeping with this, new historicism's form was usually the essay rather than the monolithic monograph. When it approached canonical works, it did so from unexpected tangents, juxtaposing, say, Twelfth Night with a journal entry by Montaigne about cross-dressing Swiss peasant women, as Greenblatt did in Shakespearean Negotiations (1988).
Greenblatt's success came at a time when English faculties were flooded by a generalised influx of postmodern "theory", which lambasted the delusive trap of "liberal humanist" assumption and spurned the idea of subjecting literary works to aesthetic "value judgments". Its practitioners tended to talk of texts and cultural constructs rather than of books and people. But what strikes the reader today is the enormous stylistic gulf between Greenblatt's writing and that of some of his imitators. Where they employ dull, tautological abstractions - "the textuality of history and the history of textuality" for example - Greenblatt's own prose style is sinuous and lively.
Bate suggests not one of them has been able to match his talent as a writer: "The influence Greenblatt has had is in a curious way at odds with what he really is himself. He's been followed by second-rate Marxists offering a crude model of literature being in the service of ideology. Greenblatt is interested in the diversity and oddity of historical forces. He's a clever critic with enormous panache, and he writes beautifully. His imitators don't have his nimbleness."
Indeed, listening to him talk about his work now, he seems to write less in the spirit of a dry scholar or theoretician than in the fine frenzy of a Romantic poet. "If it's working for me I feel I could run up and down these shelves" - we're sitting in a book-lined room in the London Library - "and open books at random and things would jump out at me. I don't want to exaggerate it, because it almost sounds like I'm a lunatic, but I've always worked that way, feeling controlled serendipity. If something is working, almost anything I touch can swim into sharp focus and I can use it."
Eagleton describes him as a "warm-blooded scholar. He has a gargantuan investigative appetite, full of richness, dynamism and vivacity."
As far back as his undergraduate days, Greenblatt remembers the "sheer delight" he felt at "fashioning sentences". He has an odd sort of modesty about designating himself a "writer", as if it would sound pretentious. Yet despite the intellectual pyrotechnics of which he is so capable, he seems at heart to be driven by the simple need to tell stories and to give himself and others pleasure in doing so. Recently, the creative writer inside him has had a chance to emerge in a play, Cardenio (the title comes from a lost drama by Shakespeare), co-written with playwright Charles Mee, which had a reading by professional actors at the Lincoln Center in New York. It is easy to imagine him turning his hand to other genres, such as memoir or travel-writing, in future.
In the words of New York Times critic Rachel Donadio, "Done well, a new historicist analysis can illuminate dimensions of a work of literature difficult for the untrained eye to see. Done badly, it can be rather like looking at marginalia through a magnifying glass while ignoring the main text." The consensus about Greenblatt is that nobody does new historicism better than he does. Looked at from today's post-theory perspective, it looks less a dogma to which any disciple can sign up, more like a free-flowing method intimately identified with one man's idiosyncratic imagination.
He says he is surprised by his own influence, and remembers being in Lon don once when a friend rang from Berkeley telling him that he'd seen several American university jobs advertised for experts in new historicism. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding. You know it was just something we made up!' I began to see there were institutional consequences to what seemed like a not particularly deeply thought-out term."
Commentators have been noticing a divergence between what has come to be seen as the stereotype of new historicism, with its sub-Marxist ideology, and Greenblatt's more recent work. In a TLS review of Hamlet in Purgatory , Katherine Duncan-Jones suggested that "the author now appears to be moving towards the Old Historicist side ... Yet ... Greenblatt is by no means prepared as yet to confess that his former humours have been purged."
Certainly, this nuanced and scholarly book uses Greenblatt's signature tangential technique. Its core - an analysis of the ghost scenes in Shakespeare - is approached through the theology of the afterlife and the Reformation repudiation of the doctrine of purgatory. Yet in Duncan-Jones's view, the book's value system is close to liberal humanism, and she says it "will offer comfort to those old-fashioned literary aesthetes who are suspicious of new historicism; for Greenblatt pleads strongly for the reinstatement, or re-acknowledgement, of 'literary power' ... as 'the whole reason anyone bothers with the enterprise in the first place'".
Although Will in the World shares much with Greenblatt's earlier work in terms of its anecdotal technique, its author has been perceived by some as turning away from the radical margins into the innocuous mainstream, for the simple fact that he has chosen to write a popular biography of the most canonical writer ever. Since its publication in the US, there has been a critical backlash, predominantly from British academics, who have attacked it on two fronts in increasingly intemperate language. First, its status as documentary fact has been questioned. On issues such as Shakespeare's relationship with his father - was the latter a drunk? Or a Catholic? - Greenblatt is happy to speculate on the basis of very little evidence. Some have taken exception to his use of "might have been" scenarios in which he paints Shakespeare as a living, breathing human being. "This kind of biographical fiction," wrote Colin Burrows in the London Review of Books, "might seem an extraordinary thing for a critic as intelligent as Greenblatt to have attempted." In a full-frontal attack in the TLS, Alastair Fowler alleged that the book made factual errors and said it revealed "a mind quite innocent of English history", prompting a counter-attack from Greenblatt in last week's letters column.
Greenblatt counters the more general accusation that his biography is too speculative by arguing that even when comparatively rich material in the form of a subject's letters and diaries exists, there will always have to be an imaginative leap on the part of the biographer; you could never amass enough material to avoid speculation entirely. Since what remains of Shakespeare is so skeletal, it would seem self-evident that any attempt to write a humanly convincing life will require some act of the imagination.
The other angle of attack concerns Greenblatt's relationship to the culture of academic theory. It has been suggested that he has undergone a sort of apostasy, jettisoning his new historicist principles and reverting to a traditionalist agenda. John Carey, who hails Will in the World as "probably the best one-volume life of Shakespeare yet", suggests with a chuckle that it "would seem, to any self-respecting 1980s new historicist, so old-fashioned as to be feeble-minded".
"It is," wrote Colin MacCabe in the Independent, "a curiosity of intellectual history that three decades of theory in the American university could result in this." Bate sees more continuity in Greenblatt's interest in human stories: "It is as if he has always been winking at the reader with the thought: you and I really know that books aren't really written by social forces, but by human beings." Certainly, as long ago as 1990 Greenblatt was passionately asserting humane values, writing unselfconsciously and individualistically about his own "inner life", denying that he was motivated in his work by "theoretical and programmatic considerations", and arguing for the universality of human emotion in the face of fashionable relativism.
Yet the battle between the theorists, scholars and humanists isn't the only way to read the controversy over Will in the World. From one perspective, biography may look like an old-fashioned genre, but from another it seems like a rebellion against academic orthodoxy. "It's OK," Greenblatt explains, "to talk about the presence of lives in a work of anthropology, but there is still academic prejudice against literary biography. I wanted to break out of those boundaries."
Perhaps the real issue for Greenblatt is the perennial problem of what happens to young turks when they become the old guard. American universities, Eagleton points out, are happy to reward talent even when it is heterodox, and as a result Greenblatt has been propelled up the professional ladder until he now finds himself in the position of importance that Wimsatt occupied at Yale in the early 60s. The university power structures that seemed so provisional in the 60s have remained intact, and within them few have been as successful as Greenblatt.
Now John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, Greenblatt has a CV that must be the envy of many colleagues. (Indeed, academic jealousy has been cited in the press as a possible cause of the backlash against Will in the World , in light of the six-figure advance he was reputedly paid.) Greenblatt has held numerous visiting professorships worldwide. He has been president of the prestigious Modern Languages Association and has control over undergraduates' textbooks as general editor of the Norton Shakespeare and Norton Anthology of English Literature. But he is not perceived to have been motivated by careerism: "Unlike some," says Bate, "he's not interested in power and patronage or in the Machiavellian aspect of academic life." He responds with discomfort to the idea that many might now see him as an august figure. "I don't see myself like that," he says.
Greenblatt has a slightly detached relationship to the idea of ambition in his own life. He explains it sociologically, pointing to his parents' need, as second-generation immigrants, to condition their children to try to do well. "They used a Yiddish term ' yiches '. I once read an anthropological work on the east European shtetl and was flabbergasted to see that the word actually existed, as in my childhood it had seemed to me a peculiarly vulgar and embarrassing family word. It means 'honour', the honour that's acquired from achievement in the world."
This background, possibly, contributed unconsciously to Greenblatt's sympathetic understanding of Shakespeare's upward mobility, though when questioned he says he hadn't made the connection. In terms of his own life, though, worldly success always seemed to be something that belonged to his parents. "I've never felt very good at metabolising that part of things because I always felt it was for my mother and father, basically. They were the ones who ate that food; I provided it."
Perhaps it is not surprising that someone who has spent his life studying such men as Sir Thomas More and Raleigh should have an ambivalent attitude towards worldly power and ambition. This certainly comes across when Greenblatt tells his story about meeting Clinton. Perhaps part of him would still like to be an idealistic radical rather than the sort of establishment grandee who gets invited to the White House.
Stephen Jay Greenblatt
Born: Boston 1943
Education: 1961-64 BA Yale; '64-66 MA Pembroke College, Cambridge; '66-69 PhD Yale.
Marriage: 1969-96 Ellen Schmidt, two sons; 1998 Ramie Targoff, one son.
Career: 1969-97 English department University of Berkeley California; '97-2000 Harry Levin prof of literature; 2000- John Cogan prof of humanities, Harvard.
Some books: 1980 Renaissance Self-fashioning: From More to Shakespeare; '88 Shakespearean Negotiations: the Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England; '90 Learning to curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture; '91 Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World; 2001 Hamlet in Purgatory; '04 Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare.
Some awards: 2002 Mellon Distinguished Humanist Award; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
· Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt is published by Jonathan Cape price £20.