William M. Hamlin. The Image of America in Montaigne, Spenser, and Shakespeare: Renaissance Ethnography and Literary Reflection. New York: St. Martin's P, 1995. xx + 234 pp.
Donna C. Woodford
Washington University at St Louis

Woodford, Donna C. "Review of The Image of America in Montaigne, Spenser, and Shakespeare: Renaissance Ethnography and Literary Reflection." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 11.1-5 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/02-1/rev_woo1.html>.

  1. "To speak of Renaissance ethnography," notes Hamlin at the start of his book, "is to risk the charge of anachronism" (1). Early Modern attempts to describe the customs and practices of other cultures are seldom free from personal or political motives which distort their depictions, and such works are often so riddled with ethnocentrism and xenophobia that they "confuse in the very attempt to clarify" (1). While admitting these limitations, Hamlin nevertheless manages to build a convincing case for the existence of an inchoate ethnography in the Renaissance. He examines the journals, letters, and reports of Early Modern explorers and historians such as Columbus, Las Casas, Ralegh, Sahagun, Lery, Martyr, and many others. Hamlin focuses on the descriptions of non-European peoples in these early accounts of the New World, and he then attempts to trace the influences of these ethnographic descriptions on the works of Montaigne, Spenser, and Shakespeare. In doing so, he places these writers and their works not just in a general historical context but, more specifically, within their contemporary ethnographic context.

  2. Hamlin begins his project of ethnographic contextualization by examining the state of ethnographic studies in the Renaissance. He admits that most Early Modern examinations of other cultures are marked by bias and sometimes overt inaccuracy, but he points to the abundance of literature about the New World and its inhabitants as proof of an Early Modern interest in ethnography, and he asserts that Renaissance ethnographic works are "in many instances as important for what they tell us about the cultural other as for what they tell us about their writers" (2). Hamlin goes on to discuss the contradictions inherent in Renaissance portrayals of these cultural others. New World inhabitants are alternately portrayed as ignorant, and thus inferior to Europeans, or as innocent, fully-human equals of the Europeans. According to the first view, the natives of the New World are, at best, blank pages on which Europeans can inscribe culture and religion, and at worst, completely dehumanized and suitable only for enslavement. Viewing the native Americans as innocent proto-Christians, however, is also problematic since this view encourages the projection of European values onto the natives. Hamlin builds on Todorov's schematization of these views, according to which "one can either acknowledge equality and conclude identity or acknowledge difference and conclude inferiority" (8). Hamlin expands on this binary formula, illuminating the many distinct positions contained within each of these two views, and he applies the terms of this expanded formula to the works he examines.

  3. While Hamlin's discussion of Early Modern ethnography is useful and informative, its accuracy falters when he begins to discuss Bartolome de Las Casas. Though Las Casas is renowned for his valiant defense of the rights of native Americans, his ethnographic views are not without their limitations. Nevertheless, Hamlin seems so anxious to defend the "Defender of the Indians" from any criticism that he fails to analyze the priest's ethnography in the necessary critical spirit. Hamlin excuses Las Casas's tendency to project European values onto the native Americans by suggesting that the priest, engaged as he was in a battle against "brutal exploitation, de facto enslavement, and possible genocidal annihilation," used the most persuasive argument available to him: "the assertion of the essential non-difference of native Americans on the grounds of Christian universalism" (22, 21). To ignore this context, claims Hamlin, is to "risk the myopic mistake of attacking his words while ignoring his actions" (22). Yet, by not subjecting Las Casas to the same critical examination applied to other Early Modern ethnographers, Hamlin contributes to an equally distorted view of the priest's work. This distortion is further complicated by Hamlin's use of Kantian idealism to justify both Las Casas's Christian essentialism and his own uncritical examination of Las Casas. He cites Kant's admission that he "found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith" as proof that we can never truly know either the past or the cultural other unless we participate in the "abandonment of strict reason in favor of the adoption of a view based in part on faith" (27, 30). While it is, without doubt, true that we perceive both the past and the other through the distorting lenses of our own culture and environment, this fact necessitates, rather than eliminates, the need for critical analysis. By ignoring this need, Hamlin, like the Early Modern ethnographers he discusses, falls into the trap of confusing "in the very attempt to clarify" (1).

  4. A lack of textual support and critical analysis also haunts Hamlin's discussion of Montaigne. Hamlin begins this chapter by offering a lengthy list of possible sources for Montaigne's views on the New World, but he offers us little reason to believe that Montaigne really did draw on these particular works or even that he had access to them, and his admission that it is more important to establish the conceptual environment in which Montaigne was writing than to make positive source identifications arrives too late to justify this lengthy source study. After this detour, Hamlin proceeds to argue that Montaigne, contrary to what most critics have said, was not a proponent of primitivism, but rather was an essentialist. This argument, while interesting, is never adequately supported. Hamlin's interpretation of these passages seems rather stretched as the textual evidence on which it relies could just as easily been used to argue the opposite point.

  5. Fortunately, Hamlin's book improves considerably in its later chapters. He argues convincingly that the often noted uncertainty of the latter parts of The Faerie Queene may be attributed to Spenser's increasing awareness that the New World "provided more models of human behavior and of possible relationships between human cultures and the realm of nature than were conventionally accepted in Christian Europe," and he suggests, credibly, that the increased brutality of the wild man figure in the late sixteenth century may be due to the numerous ethnographic accounts depicting the "savages" of the New World (70). Likewise, in his chapter on Shakespeare, Hamlin offers an interesting discussion of the human or monstrous status of Caliban in light of Renaissance ethnographic views of native Americans, suggesting that the ambiguity of Caliban's nature is due to the "genuine uncertainty regarding the human status of cultural aliens" revealed in Early Modern ethnographic descriptions (105). Hamlin does not, as he did with Montaigne, attempt to identify specific sources for the New World allusions of Shakespeare and Spenser. He notes, in fact, that "source study relying on parallel passages and grounded on the principle of a writer's actual familiarity with source texts quickly loses its air of objectivity and shades into varying degrees of speculativeness" (98). He does, however, assert that there was in Early Modern England "a general and provocative consciousness of the New World" stimulated by the recent voyages to the Americas and the widely available accounts of those expeditions (70). It is these accounts and the general interest in the New World and its inhabitants that, he suggests, influenced Shakespeare and Spenser. Unlike his discussion of Montaigne, Hamlin's interpretations of the works of Spenser and Shakespeare are supported with ample textual evidence, and his analysis of these works is much more thorough. Hamlin's ethnographic contextualization of Early Modern literature is intriguing, and at its best, informative and enlightening, but it is unfortunate that he does not consistently employ the sharp critical analysis which such a study requires.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 19, 1996)