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Readings in 16th- and 17th- Century Literature: Nonfiction Prose

While the write-up of your in-class presentation should concentrate on a specific text (or cluster of interrelated texts), the first paper should explore a specific event connected to one of the books we are reading. The write-up, then, should write the history of a text (“primary,” critical, or historical), while the paper should analyze an action or event (implicitly or explicitly) in relation to a larger historical process or against a particular explanatory model (economic, political, psychological, whatever).

This might sound abstract. But I see the paper as an exercise in microanalysis, a detailed exploration of an event and some interpretations of it. What does the event mean to you and to others who have studied it? A suitable event might be a specific witch trial in the 1580s or a single anecdote in Scot; an especially striking episode in Hakluyt; a particularly luminous or telling moment in the Life of Sidney–something familiar or something obscure. Choose a relatively small segment of the historical record–an anecdote, a brief narrative, an irrefutable “fact.”

In your presentations I have discouraged you from conceptualizing history as a sequence of events, actions linked together by the structures of biography or the history of ideas. The paper should attempt to make a discrete event intelligible within an explanatory context. You might consider the way in which writing an event modifies our understanding of it–in other words, the position of the author(s) who write the history you explore. When historians write history they, too, perform an act; and you might consider the rhetorical and ideological dimensions of their performances. As literary critics AND social/intellectual historians, we’ll want to consider language–the context, after all, in which social relations are formed and in which every text is situated. final paper assignment Due: Friday of exam week LENGTH: about 15 pages

The final paper must deal with one of the books we have read this semester (however tangentially) and address the following (very general) question. The proportion of your paper devoted to exploring the question will vary, but I would like to see you engage the problem outlined below at whatever length seems most appropriate to your particular interests.

Among the many definitions of “culture” there are two that seem especially useful for our purposes–i.e. reading nonfiction prose from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The first views culture in “documentary” terms, as the cumulative record of human creativity located in a body of intellectual and imaginative productions. When literary critics explicate texts from our period, they tend to pay particular attention to convention, form, and verbal nuance. Sometimes they also attempt to relate specific works (usually canonical) to the historical moment at which they first appeared. For the literary-cultural critic, the study of writings not normally included under the rubric of “literature” (philosophy, travel narratives, political theory, etc.) assumes some importance, as does the reading of these texts against other types of aesthetic production (painting, music, architecture, etc.)

The second definition of culture emphasizes its social dimension, the various operations that constitute particular institutions and historical formations. The study of institutions and of material life–the organization of production and social relations–is not conceived as “background” or a necessary “preliminary” but as the ideal unit of analysis, the point of reference from which we can determine general “trends” or historical principles of development. Critics working with this methodology tend to locate the emergence of particular texts at the conjunction of specific socioeconomic or discursive practices.

Some working models of cultural analysis try to take both definitions into account. Each offsets the other’s limitations: the tendency of literary critics to ignore social relations in favor of close readings; the tendency of social historians to cast literature and knowledge as pale reflections of “real” social and economic relations, and to treat complex texts as more or less interchangeable pieces of evidence to support a (sometimes predictable) thesis.

In your papers I’d like to see a certain amount of self-consciousness about this issue. You could include a brief theoretical excursus that explains or justifies your particular methodology (rejection, adoption, hybrid, etc.). Or you might consider working in both modes and moving towards a synthesis.