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Making the modern critic: Print-capitalism and national identity in seventeenth-century England

Barclay Everett Green, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Focusing on the work of Thomas Campion, Samuel Daniel, Ben Jonson, and John Dryden, this dissertation argues that the modern critic's identity was constructed in seventeenth-century England. It supplements contemporary scholarly accounts of the origin of modern criticism by looking at the topic from a fresh perspective. Many contemporary studies assume that the modern critic's cultural identity was formed prior to or simultaneously with the concepts of literature, the author, and the canon. While the critic's identity was constructed during the same period as these concepts, why it emerged has not yet been fully explored. This dissertation treats the origin, construction, and development of this identity. Beginning at least as early as the last decade of the sixteenth century, significant debates about vernacular “criticism” took the form of battles between ancients and moderns. By tracing these battles, scholars can observe the construction of the modern critic's identity. Such an analysis amends traditional chronologies of criticism's development, for it suggests that some of the cultural forces that scholarship associates with the formation of criticism in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were already in evidence by the last decade of the sixteenth. At this time, the critic's identity was being constructed to perform a dual function: to address the effects of nascent print-capitalism and to aid in the formation of England's national literary tradition. The critic's identity was then continually reconstructed throughout the seventeenth century in response to these same cultural forces. Most notably, critics, responding to the changing conditions of textual production, dissemination, and consumption, attempted to form and regulate the tastes of readers so that the “best” texts would survive in the expanding print marketplace. Thus, modern criticism emerges earlier than has previously been argued. This dissertation concludes that John Dryden does not usher in modern criticism, but is the heir of Renaissance humanist concerns about the effects of print-capitalism, and that Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism is thoroughly anticipated by Ben Jonson's commonplace book, Discoveries.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Green, Barclay Everett, "Making the modern critic: Print-capitalism and national identity in seventeenth-century England" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9988791.