Response to Julie Crawford

Jill P. Ingram

 

     1. I thank Julie Crawford for her trenchant reading of my article. She is surely right to highlight the inherent problems in using the plight of the "woman writer" as the end point of analysis: hers is a point on this matter that I fully accept. At the same time, I cannot accept Crawford's contention that I contradict myself when I argue that Whitney's speaker is at once self-interested and concerned for London's poor and indebted. Economic self-interest and social concern were compatible in the early modern English marketplace, and, indeed, their compatibility explains Whitney's choice of the mock-testament to assert concurrently her speaker's own financial interest and that of London's poor.

     2. The main thrust of Crawford's argument is hobbled by the very analytical rubric she wants to reject. Crawford writes that "The fact that Ingram ends her discussion with the claim that Whitney 'asserts a normative ideal' by presenting her speaker 'as an actor in a neighborly moral community where loans and debts are necessary tools for healthy participation in the marketplace' is indebted, I would argue, as much to preconceptions about women writers as to the evidence Ingram works with." Crawford is implying, if I understand her correctly, that my notion of a "neighborly moral community" is based on assumptions about woman writers. In addressing this point, I want to consider first another critique: Crawford finds contradictory my claim that Whitney could be both self-interested and empathetic for London's impoverished-a two-fold motivation, I argue, for Whitney's use of the mock-testament genre. Crawford writes: "The 'credit lines' Ingram argues Whitney hoped to open to the city's poor at the beginning of the essay have been replaced by a speaker 'primarily concerned with her own gain.' Unlike the legacy, which was, in Wall's reading, 'a cultural script for empowerment' predicated on sacrifice for a younger generation, Whitney's mock testatory speaker is wholly concerned with 'assertive self-interest' (¶14), a claim that seems to contradict Ingram's earlier claims about the socially-critical motivations of both the genre and Whitney herself." Crawford is entirely correct in saying that I point to moments in the poem in which the speaker's self-interest emerges and is voiced forcefully. But Crawford's underlying logic relies upon a common misconception. She assumes that self-interest is incompatible with communal concerns. My larger point is that self-interest is entirely consistent with care for marketplace workings at large, including the fate of the poor. It is such self-interest that makes a market economy healthy, in fact.

     3. For explanations of the place for self-interest within the marketplace, one could anachronistically borrow Adam Smith's formulation of the relationship between self-interest and communal market workings, but we find such notions voiced at the time Whitney was writing. Sir Thomas Smith in 1581 recognized self-interest as an acceptable force in A Discourse of the Commonweal of this Realm of England. Men naturally "seek where their advantage is," and so farmers, instead of being subject to restrictions addressing the hardships caused by enclosures, should be given "liberty to sell . . . at all times and to all places as freely as men may do other things. . . ."1 The Discourse expressed a conception of society in which self-interest would contribute to national prosperity and common well-being. Edward Misselden, in The Circle of Commerce (1623), would express this relation in terms of private gain as inseparable from public gain: "Is not the publique involved in the private, and the private in the publique?" and "What else makes a Common-wealth, but the private-wealth?"2 It is in Whitney's use of the mock-testament, I argue, that we see "the publique involved in the private": concern for the city's poor is coincident with her speaker's desire that credit channels be opened to her. My claim that Whitney, at the end of the poem, asserts a normative ideal of a neighborly moral community actually owes more to assumptions about economic agents, male and female, than it does to any assumptions about female writers. I assume that the most self-interested economic actors would want a "neighborly moral community" in place, in order that they themselves flourish financially. It is an assumption that owes nothing to feminist critics, but that instead owes everything to economic historians. Most notable of such historians writing today is Craig Muldrew: based upon research on extensive credit networks in early modern England, he finds that individual profit and security were best achieved with the cooperation of one's neighbors. Muldrew concludes that early modern markets constituted a "moral economy," one that nevertheless was composed of "individualistic contractual relations."3 The market operated as an "economy of obligation," the title of Muldrew's 1998 monograph on this phenomenon. Ethical responses to market conflict, Muldrew finds, in fact intensified as a result of an explosion in credit transactions. I see Whitney's use of the mock-testament, a satiric critique of failures of the economic marketplace, as one such ethical response to market conflict. By critiquing failures in the system, Whitney is calling for a more successful marketplace that would correct such failures, that would provide for the opening of credit channels, and that would be more hospitable to struggling writers such as her speaker.

     4. Whitney's message is the message of an angry, disenfranchised economic agent who is also a woman. Obviously, it is the denial of credit rather than the absence of a penis that is the speaker's most important handicap: her sex contributes to her difficulty, but does not determine it. In light of Crawford's incisive comments, I will make that point more forcefully in Idioms of Self-Interest: Credit, Identity and Property in English Renaissance Literature (Routledge, forthcoming). That book, and my discussion of Whitney in it, will be strengthened by Julie Crawford's astute observations, for which I am indebted.

 

 

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Notes

1 Sir Thomas Smith, A Discourse of the Commonweal of this Realm of England, ed. Mary Dewar (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, for The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1969), 35.

2 Edward Misselden, The Circle of Commerce, or the balance of trade (London: John Dawson for Nicholas Bourne, 1623), 17.

3 Craig Muldrew, "Interpreting the Market," Social History 18:2 (May 1993) 163-183; 169.

 

 

Form copyright © 2006 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2006 Jill P. Ingram.