Stephen B. Dobranski. Readers and Authorship in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. xiv+226 pp.. ISBN 0 521 84296 4.

Katrin Ettenhuber
Christ's College, Cambridge

Ettenhuber, Katrin. "Review of Stephen B. Dobranski. Readers and Authorship in Early Modern England" Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 10.1-5<URL:>.

  1. At the heart of Stephen Dobranski's book lie two interrelated questions: "'How much authority did authors have during the Renaissance?' and 'How much interpretive activity were readers willing or expected to undertake?'"(6) To answer these questions, Dobranski examines one particular segment of the literary marketplace: "Renaissance omissions", printed texts that look incomplete but in fact contain deliberate gaps which aim to solicit an interpretive intervention on the part of the reader. The case studies are taken from the works of Sidney, Jonson, Donne, Herrick and Milton, and in each of the five main chapters Dobranski seeks to demonstrate the interdependence of authorial and readerly forms of empowerment. Filling in a text's omissions obviously foregrounds the reader's authority, but it also enhances the author's own status in less overt ways: by "focusing readers' attention on what writers left unsaid", Dobranski argues, "these unfinished works paradoxically helped to make writers more visible"; in encountering an incomplete text, "readers seemed to witness firsthand an author's poetic development."(8)

  2. Dobranski's theory of Renaissance omissions presupposes a high level of readerly commitment: without the audience's participation, the incomplete text seems merely accidental--the result of a printer's oversight, perhaps, or the victim of natural disaster (the fire in Ben Jonson's library springs to mind). Accordingly, the opening section of the book examines how the notion of "active reading" was developed across a wide range of classical, medieval and Renaissance sources. "Briefly tracing the reader's evolution from antiquity to the early modern period" is a laudable endeavour, but in practice it causes a number of methodological problems that the subsequent chapters of the study never quite manage to resolve. Dobranski's reader is a strikingly ahistorical and monolithic entity, who remains essentially unaffected by political and socio-cultural change. One result of this assumption is that the nature and scope of "active" reading can seem rather vague and at times misleading: readers who had grown up in an atmosphere of doctrinal and exegetical controversy, for instance, would surely have struggled with the notion that correcting typographical errors and being "responsible for determining what Scripture meant"(30) occupy places on the same hermeneutic spectrum. (To take one obvious example, it is difficult to see how a Laudian sympathiser in the 1630s might be persuaded that with "the spread of the Reformation to England, the sacred text's authority was now vested in all authors and readers who accepted divine guidance."(31)) Another problem is that the two key terms of Dobranski's account, "active" and "collaborative" reading (17), contain the seeds of interpretive conflict as much as happy cooperation: a reader who feels entitled to sit in judgement over God's word, for instance, might be reluctant to put himself at the service of a secular poet, and be content merely to "think" and "infer what an author withheld."(54).

  3. The central issue at stake in Dobranski's model, then, appears to be one of readerly conditioning: the audience must first be made to recognise an omission as significant and then be encouraged to respond in ways that are at once benign and contextually appropriate. In the first of the book's case studies, a feigned omission from Sidney's Arcadia (the anonymous poem "A Remedie for Love", which was first printed at the end of the Arcadia 's tenth edition in 1655), the first of these conditions is easily fulfilled. Seventeenth-century readers were aware not only of the existence of an original text and its incomplete revision, but of a whole series of works that claimed descent from Sidney's authority. In light of these circumstances, it is plausible to assume that a new document would have fuelled readers' curiosity and provoked fruitful interpretive engagement. In some of the other chapters, however, the heuristic status of the omissions in question seems rather less certain. Dobranski's discussion of Herrick's Hesperides, for instance, is full of interesting and rewarding readings, but the bibliographical analysis does not fully succeed in establishing the text's incompletions as a deliberate authorial strategy. More importantly, perhaps, it is far from clear how the audience would have been expected to appreciate the significance of these omissions; as Dobranski himself concedes, "we cannot know how many seventeenth-century readers would have overlooked or found distinctive two fragments among the volume's more than 1,000 poems."(172) There is, in fact, no material evidence supplied of readers' responses to any of the fragments that Dobranski locates in Jonson's, Donne's, Herrick's and Milton's work.

  4. These problems of agency and intent emerge even more sharply in the chapter on Donne's 1633 Poems. In the absence of a presiding authorial figure (Donne died in 1631), it is the publishers who take on the task of soliciting the reader's collaboration. Discussing the censored passages in Satires II and IIII, Dobranski argues that "the book's creators assist readers in repairing Donne's satires": instead of removing all the poems' objectionable passages, the stationers have left behind a series of horizontal dashes "almost as a sign of respect, a textual I.O.U."(144) True understanders of Donne's work, Dobranski suggests, might have been inspired by this to search for the missing lines in one of the many manuscript copies then in circulation, thereby further augmenting the poet's presence in the volume. This section is engaging and suggestive--not least in the salutary reminder that authors, books and readers were created in the printing house as much as in studies and libraries--but like some other parts of the book it struggles under the burden of proof. Did Marriot and Fletcher adopt this kind of interventionist policy with other authors? Did they habitually draw readers' attention to textual gaps? Is there any evidence that these readers felt obliged to react to such editorial promptings? Given the absence of a holograph copy, do all manuscript versions alike bolster the writer's authority? And even if it were possible to find the manuscript reading that Donne intended, how does this hyper-intentional approach impact on the notion of an "active" reader?

  5. Dobranski's study is original in conception and ambitious in scope: it brings together textual studies, book history and literary criticism, covers five of the biggest names in the early modern literary canon, and intervenes in a number of current scholarly debates-most notably, the history of authorship and reading. There are moments when the book becomes a victim of its own ambitions, mainly because it does not devote enough attention to the local contexts and circumstances of the interpretive transactions it represents. This is not to suggest that a study of early modern reading must remain incomplete unless it engages with the material traces of interpretive engagement, but to demand a more detailed attention to the historical specificities of readerly conditioning than Dobranski's panoramic perspective at times permits.

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© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).