Ceri Sullivan. 2002. The Rhetoric of Credit: Merchants in Early Modern Writing. London: Associated University Presses. 216pp. ISBN 0-8386-3926-7. £38.
- The Rhetoric of Credit is a compact re-appraisal of the intersection between literary and economic culture in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Its broader theoretical concern is to recover the language and practices by which early modern merchants conducted their business and, by extension, watched (and laughed at) city comedies. As such, it largely avoids the retrospective imposition of modern (and post-modern) assumptions about economic behaviour and subjectivity that have dogged literary analysis of this kind. Instead, Ceri Sullivan draws on the precepts and advice found in early modern handbooks on how to be a successful merchant. She argues that it is within this particular context that city comedies – the most popular and profitable of Renaissance literary productions – made sense to contemporaries. In her chapter on Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, for example, she concludes that, 'In my reading, the play focuses not on customers but on merchants, who venture their credit on profitable dealing in risky fictions' (121). Her task is made easier by the fact that, as Sullivan notes, economic historians have been concerned for some time with charting what Craig Muldrew terms the 'epistemologies' of trade and exchange in what was essentially a credit – as opposed to cash – economy. As she explains in her (too) brief 'Afterword', the book is essentially 'a pugnacious reply to the gentle enquiry "Were city comedies really funny?" '. Once the appropriate setting for reading the plays is found, then the answer is a forthright yes.
- The structure of the book follows this deceptively simple premise. The introductory chapter and next three chapters provide an outline of both the recent historiography on early modern credit and some of the main themes of the handbook literature. The final three chapters then take a comedy at a time and read them within this context. Chapter five considers If You Know Not Me Part 2, chapter six The Alchemist, and chapter seven Eastward Ho! There is much to admire in each chapter. Sullivan's review of the historiography is succinct and informed. Likewise, she knows the nuts and bolts of early modern trade – the techniques and practices through which it was conducted – better than many historians, and her first three chapters form a useful repository of basic information as well as a fresh and historicized depiction of mercantile culture. Rooted in this close and extensive reading of the prescriptive literature, her readings of the plays in turn display a command of historicized detail that demands respect and makes her sometimes curt dismissal of alternative interpretations more than mere scholarly rhetoric. For all that, the first half of the book, in which Sullivan recovers the world of mercantile expectation, is (for this reader at least) ultimately more successful than the second half of the book, in which she shows how that world should inform our understanding of the plays.
- The reasons for this are threefold. First, it reflects the methodological awkwardness of dividing the book so sharply between the 'practical' literature of handbooks on the one hand and the 'literary' practice of city comedy on the other. The division does not work structurally, in that any thematic development or coherence is curtailed by the focus on genres and sub-genres. As a result, the overall argument of the book (beyond that the texts should be read in conjunction with each other) is difficult to grasp. It also reinforces the division between 'literature' and 'society' in a way that contradicts Sullivan's express aim of recovering a 'mercantile aesthetic' transcending both. This is very much related to the second problem. Although Sullivan is adept at situating her analysis within the burgeoning historiography on credit, her insistence on using that position to provide detailed readings of three plays marks a failure to reciprocate the favour. The compulsion to write a history of literature deflects, in effect, from the wider (and more exciting) possibility of a literary history that complements, and adds to, the work of social and economic historians: the creation, that is, of a genuinely cultural history. In this sense, a comparison with Craig Muldrew's The Economy of Obligation (from which Sullivan draws heavily) is salutary. Sullivan's book is better written and edited than Muldrew's. She has also read more merchant handbooks. However, whereas Muldrew uses local legal archives to construct (often conjectural) statistics in order to offer a major reinterpretation of the period's economy, Sullivan is happy to provide yet another take on The Alchemist. While such modesty and precision is to be applauded – and is, of course, fundamental to the literary critic's craft – it is difficult for a historian like myself not to think that it makes for another lost opportunity.
- Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the division of the book into two halves makes for unwarranted pressure on the readings Sullivan provides. Rather than recovering one set of contemporary discourses that informed the construction, performance, and possible reception of the plays – which the handbooks clearly are – she sets out to recreate the specific response of a particular (mercantile) section of the Jacobean audience. This framing of the question is not simply ambitious; it threatens to undermine the larger integrity of the book. Sullivan has neither the sources nor methodology to approach the subject in this way. As the work of Roger Chartier and others has shown, acts of appropriation were part of social as well as literary processes: they require the kind of extended 'cultural' analysis from which Sullivan retreats. Moreover, while the reduction of these plays' humour to their re-presentation of commercial travails, blunders, and rhetoric is a useful corrective to the largely unhistoricized economic analyses of previous literary scholars, it hardly accounts for either the discursive virtuosity displayed by a playwright like Jonson or audience diversity. Sullivan's reading of The Alchemist, the best known of the plays she considers, is a case in point. There is clearly much to be said for the 'inflationary' dynamic that drives along the farce as well as the playful deployment and subversion of traditional mercantile practices. However – and the point is as trite as it is important – there is also much else besides. More specifically, the relentlessly 'cheerful' portrayal of an acquisitive character like Mammon, whom Sullivan regards as an Aristotelian 'magnificent man' rather than a greedy imperialist who needs to be constantly reminded of his moral and social obligations, can jar (118). Satire was, after all, a form of rebuke and reform, not simply amusement.
- In this and other respects, The Rhetoric of Credit is at once rich in its polemic against literary scholars and (ultimately) restrictive in its definition of a literary field. A learned and in many ways important book, it could benefit from diluting the former and expanding the latter.
UNIVERSITY OF ABERDEEN
© Copyright Phil Withington 2004.
Renaissance Forum 2004. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 7, Winter 2004.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated
24 December 2004.