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Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr., Alan Stewart, Rebecca Lemon, Nicholas McDowell and Jennifer Richards (eds.),The Encyclopedia of English Renaissance Literature (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr., Alan Stewart, Rebecca Lemon, Nicholas McDowell and Jennifer Richards (eds.), The Encyclopedia of English Renaissance Literature (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). ISBN: 9781405194495. lii + 1192 pp. 3 Vols Hbk. £350.00.

Reviewed by Paul Innes

[1]  Garrett Sullivan and Alan Stewart have undertaken a formidable task to produce the English Renaissance component of the ongoing Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature. Their three Associate Editors have overseen a massive team of 232 academics and writers, each of whom has contributed an entry of several pages, or two or three shorter ones. Some are by familiar, long-established names, while others are less well-known; the range of specialists gives the project an inclusive feel. The entries are arranged alphabetically across the three volumes, almost entirely by author’s name. Each comprises a useful initial paragraph, summarising the dates of the author’s life and their major achievements. This is then followed by a section of discursive text, which in the case of some of the longer entries, such as those on Donne, Milton, Jonson and Marlowe, is subdivided by topic headings. Each entry is rounded off with suggested further reading. The inclusion of a large number of pieces on less well known figures is especially valuable, making the set as a whole into an accessible who’s who of the English literary Renaissance.

[2]  In their introduction, the editors provide a rationale for the work, explaining the ways in which they approach what they describe as the three ‘keywords’ of English, Renaissance and literature. They are well aware of the issues surrounding the term ‘English’ in this period of change in the political composition of the British Isles. The same care is taken in conceptualising the terminology of ‘Renaissance’ as opposed to ‘early modern’. Indeed one of the work’s strengths is its relatively elastic conception of the period, which allows it to include figures from roughly late medieval to post-Restoration times, or from Caxton to Lucy Hutchinson. The editors also take great care to describe their approach to the term ‘literature’ as a way of explaining the kinds of works included.

[3]  A fourth might have been added: ‘Encyclopedia’, because this term, in particular, goes to the heart of their project. It works more as an encyclopedia of English Renaissance writers than of English Renaissance literature, as a direct consequence of the organisation by writers’ names. There are a few entries on specific elements of literature such as the sermon, but in general literary concepts and genres are subsumed into the author entries. A quick glance at other parts of the series shows that this is an overall feature, and so must be the result of an editorial publishing decision. There is an entry on tragicomedy, but none on either tragedy or comedy, and the same goes for major poetic categories such as the sonnet or romance.

[4]  Such a way of proceeding, in fact, points to a necessary limitation upon this kind of large-scale work, as well as to its utility. The various pieces are extensively cross-referenced, and a compendious index takes up significant space in Volume Three. To a great extent this makes up for the relative paucity of entries on literary concepts as opposed to writers. Even so, there are some omissions in the index such as the epic, which is mentioned in the section on Milton. The central structural importance given to the individual writer is an effective organising principle, although of course it does impose its own restrictions. The issue is addressed directly in the editorial introduction, but in any case the format is largely dictated by the shape of the overall series. This is only to be expected, because of the paradox that lies behind a major work of this kind: it is simply too big a topic to be tackled without a central modus operandi, and it is inevitable that some elements will as a consequence remain slightly out of focus. Indeed, their introduction notes that: ‘The existing author entries have highlighted other possible modes of organization that might dictate future commissions for this project’ (l), which holds out the possibility of further refinements that go beyond the scope of this particular work.

[5]  Since the main interest lies in the names of the various authors, each entry works efficiently to describe a writer’s achievements. It is at this level of detail that the Encyclopedia works most effectively, especially in the space it devotes to the less well-known writers of the period. This is where the logic of the organisation shows its true value, because those writing on the various Renaissance authors are usually specialists with publications on exactly that person, or who have written on topics that are very close. The references and suggested further reading that are located after every entry constitute an especially useful feature of this kind of multi-volume work. The entries themselves will be the main point of interest for the general reader, while the reference materials will provide a starting point for further research, and it is this combination that will make the work appeal to a wide range of potential readers. It would also be possible to follow up on the named writer of each entry for further reading. Overall, the suggested reading covers a wide variety of possible ways to proceed, with some of the material referenced being of very recent date relative to the time of this publication.

[6]  In this respect, the Encyclopedia brings together a very wide range of material that would otherwise not be so easily accessible. To some extent, it even redresses the canonical centrality of the well-known names by locating them very firmly within their own historical context and in relation to the literary culture of the time.

 Glasgow University, December 2012