Response to Paul Yachnin

Kris McAbee

     

     1. First, I would like to thank Patricia Fumerton and Crystal Bartolovich for the pleasure of being included in this issue of Early Modern Culture, as well as for their thorough feedback on my essay. Thanks must also go to David Siar for his help in embedding the visualizations in my contribution. Finally, I am especially grateful for Paul Yachnin's thoughtful afterword to the edition and EMC's platform, which allows for the dialogue to continue in these responses.

     2. Yachnin points us to Montaigne's sly play with the public consumption of Essais, which he conflates with himself ("myself am the groundwork of my book") and which he would like to portray as having only "a familiar and private end." Such distancing gestures are commonplace, of course, in the prefatory material of sixteenth-century print. Yet, invoked by Yachnin here, and brought together with Yachnin's formulation of printed texts' "great capacity for movement out into the world, a public world that is projected from the movements of the texts themselves," I am reminded of a story obsessed with the movements of the "page": Thomas Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller. In my essay, I make only the briefest reference to this piece of prose fiction, as an emblem of the sonneteer's ability to permeate generic boundaries, since the plot concerns in large part a fictionalized account of the historical sonnet-writer, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. However, upon reading Yachnin's afterword, I am struck by how well the The Unfortunate Traveller speaks to not only the sonneteering public, but also the sort of material textuality at work in the printing publics discussed elsewhere in this issue.

     3. Throughout the work, Nashe conflates the subject of the picaresque tale, Jack Wilton, with the physical text itself, through numerous puns on the page -- both as textual object and as Jack Wilton's professional identity.1 In "The Introduction to the Dapper Monsieur Pages of the Court," which immediately follows the prefatory epistle, Nashe, like Montaigne, plays with the publicly private life of the text, but by emphasizing its materiality:

A proper fellow page of yours, called Jack Wilton, by me commends him unto you, and hath bequeathed for waste paper here amongst you certain pages of his misfortunes. In any case keep them preciously as a privy token of his good will towards you. If there be some better than other, he craves you would honour them in their death so much as to dry and kindle tobacco with them. For a need he permits you to wrap velvet pantofles in them also, so they be not woe-begone at the heels, or weather-beaten. (252-253)

He goes on to encourage the papers' use "about meat or drink, . . . for they cannot do their country better service," but warns only against using them "to wrap mace in," since it is a spice "above all things he hates" (253). Nashe's insistence on the many uses for the pages, their many public meanderings -- indeed, in the heels of shoes! -- suggests an awareness of the social agency of things, of the type to which Yachnin refers in his conclusion. The notional exclusivity in which the text ("waste paper") is commended as a private communication ("privy token") among a specific group of pages, gives way into the social world in which people need fresh food, kindling for tobacco, fashionable shoes without holes, and waste papers for their privies. Thus, the text does work in the world not merely by retelling the actions of such public figures as Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, and the Earl of Surrey, but also -- and more palpably -- by publicly circulating the misadventures of the page, Jack Wilton, while simultaneously facilitating the private re-appropriation of the material page itself. In this way, a public world is projected from the physical wanderings of the material printed text.

 

 

Note

1 For a fuller exploration of this pun, especially as it relates to the text's conflation of author and narrator, see Margaret Ferguson, "Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller: The 'Newes of the Maker' Game," English Literary Renaissance 11.2 (1981): 166-7.

 

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