Alongside the lively discussion that recently unfolded over periodization, a related conversation commenced in the same social media about an essay in the LA Review of Books by Jim Hinch on Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters. Hinch's piece is bracing, and important, but not for its corrective power. Detailing the factual errors and shallow history in Stephen Greenblatt's prizewinning book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is not new. Kellie Robertson did it before the book was even published (see her excellent essay "Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto" in Exemplaria 22 ). Of Greenblatt's thesis that Lucretius inaugurated modernity after a long period of medieval darkness John Monfasini, for example, observed that "the problem is that Greenblatt has virtually no evidence to justify this assumption, while a massive amount exists for constructing a different story." After pointing out its numerous methodological errors Monfasini concludes that The Swerve is "an entertaining but wrong-headed belletristic tale." Jim Hinch documents several more of these errors but prefaces them with this prescient plea:
as American book lovers gear up for another awards season — the National Book Award this month, followed by the PEN/Faulkner Award in March, then the Pulitzers in April — the acclaim showered on Greenblatt’s book about the discovery of an ancient poem raises profound questions about just what these awards really mean. Simply put, The Swerve did not deserve the awards it received because it is filled with factual inaccuracies and founded upon a view of history not shared by serious scholars of the periods Greenblatt studies. That such a book could win two of America’s highest literary honors suggests something doesn’t work in the awards system itself.And now comes the news that the MLA, the scholarly organization which represents those of us who teach language and literature at the college level, has awarded Stephen Greenblatt the James Russell Lowell Prize for excellence in literary or linguistic study. This is the third time the MLA has awarded him the same prize (he earned an honorable mention in 1973 then received the prize for Shakespearean Negotiations in 1988).
There's been much shock expressed on Facebook and Twitter about the award. It's discouraging. When Greenblatt was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the book I thought: OK, it's a general audience, and maybe any attention on the past is good attention. But now that the MLA has given a work so devoid of nuance in its account of a long span of human history -- a book that in its relentless reductiveness and lack of complexity (or even humane impulses towards those who find themselves locked in 1000 years of unremitting and untextured darkness) offers a negative example of how to form an ethical relation to history -- well, I just wonder about what the prize really means. Is it OK to compose caricatured history that reaffirms common prejudice and conveys factual errors rather than work that might make the past more unstable, variegated, intricate, alive?
Check out Elaine Treharne's smart post, Swerving from the Straight and Narrow: Greenblatt's Fictional Medieval Period
Medieval Meets World (Swerving into the Fray)
In Romaunce as We Rede (Musings of an InterSwervist)
Bookfish (Swervin': Modernity Is Not History)