In Sunday’s Boston Globe, in the Ideas section, I’ve got a profile of Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt. In his new book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Greenblatt writes about the fifteenth century’s rediscovery of Lucretius and his poem On the Nature of Things. Given Greenblatt’s subtitle, it’s no surprise that the book continues his push into the world of popular writing, a push that started with his Will in the World.
Actually, Greenblatt’s been writing reviews for The New Republic and op eds for The New York Times since the 1980s; nothing about his career is easy to summarize or diagnose. Still, writing a Shakespeare biography for Norton seems far different than writing an academic book for the University of Chicago Press. I asked Greenblatt about this (and N.B. that none of the quotations in this post made the profile — Greenblatt’s a compulsively quotable guy). “For me, there isn’t a big gap between the two,” he said about academic and popular writing. “It wasn’t like I was deciding to write detective fiction.”
After doing two interviews with Greenblatt, and reading or re-reading many of his books and essays, I’d say this is one of his defining traits: a weird inability to admit that anything he’s ever done was intentional, programmatic, or calculated. When I asked him about the genesis of New Historicism, for example, he said, “We weren’t a group of people who thought we were going to plot the transformation of the field.” Yet Greenblatt transformed his field — and not enough people point this out — through some very deliberate and unglamorous channels: he edited collections of academic essays; he co-founded a journal and book series; and he conjured up not only broad theoretical concepts, but also specific close-readings (of Marlowe, Spenser, and many, many more) that still occupy specialists in those fields.
So, Greenblatt’s The Swerve highlights his transformation from highly specialized academic to . . . literary journalist? (The Swerve doesn’t have much original scholarship, so far as I [or a scolding Michael Dirda] can tell. Unlike Dirda, though, I think it’s a good book; name me a literary journalist who could pull off as many fun and learned tangents as Greenblatt does in his book.) But The Swerve highlights another transformation for Greenblatt, and it’s the one that drives my profile: How did the scholar who argued that not even Shakespeare could escape the limits of his culture end up writing a book whose subtitle claims that, thanks to one book and one author, The World Became Modern?
It was very, very hard to get Greenblatt to address this. At one point I rather desperately read him the passage from Renaissance Self-Fashioning that comes up in my profile, then asked what his 1980 self would think of his 2011 book. “I think he’d like it,” Greenblatt replied. (He’s also compulsively sly.) Still, after some prodding, he admitted that “I was always slightly less Foucauldian than I sounded. I’m a little more optimistic now.”
Greenblatt remained uneasy about his publisher-provided subtitle. “I’m skeptical about any straight-forward teleology,” he said, like any good scholar. Still, he took literary scholars to task for their retreat from the public sphere. “Our work is important. But something about how that work is presented is self-diminishing, self-defeating.” Greenblatt added: “Why do we spend our lives on this? Why is it exciting? Why is it fun? Is it really just ideological demysticifcation? That’s fine, but there can’t be a full diet of that.”