BMCR 2004.01.01

European Literary Careers: The Author from Antiquity to the Renaissance

, , European literary careers : the author from antiquity to the Renaissance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. 1 online resource (x, 366 pages). ISBN 9781442674684 $65.00.


J. Farrell, “Greek Lives and Roman Careers in the Classical Vita Tradition”; M. Vessey, “From Cursus to Ductus : Figures of Writing in Western Late Antiquity (Augustine, Jerome, Cassiodorus, Bede)”; R.R. Edwards, “Medieval Literary Careers: The Theban Track”; J. F. Burke, “Authority and Influence — Vocation and Anxiety: The Sense of a Literary Career in the Sentimental Novel and Celestina“; W.J. Kennedy, “Versions of a Career: Petrarch and His Renaissance”; K. Bollard de Broce, “Judging a Literary Career: The Case of Antonio de Guevara”; A. J. Cruz, “Arms versus Letters: The Poetics of War and the Career of the Poet in Early Modern Spain”; A. Lake Prescott, “Divine Poetry as a Career Move: The Complexities and Consolations of Following David”; P. Cheney, “‘Novells of his devise’: Chaucerian and Virgilian Career Paths in Spenser’s Februarie Eclogue”; F.A. de Armas, “Cervantes and the Virgilian Wheel: The Portrayal of a Literary Career”; A. Molina, “Epic Violence: Captives, Moriscos and Empire in Cervantes”; S. Woods and M. P. Hannay, with E. Beilin and A. Shaver, “Renaissance Englishwomen and the Literary Career.”

This collection of essays, an outgrowth of a summer institute held at Penn State in 1998, while disparate in content, is unified by the contributors’ shared interest in the application of what is known as “career criticism” to a broad range of authors who wrote in several different languages in Western Europe between, roughly, the time of Virgil and that of Cervantes. The diversity of the content of this volume is both a strength and a challenge; the cross-cultural nature of the inquiry allows the reader to explore the effectiveness of “career criticism” in a fairly wide variety of cultural contexts, but this same cross-cultural approach necessarily creates complications for the reviewer. Unable to claim equal ease with discussing Virgil and Spenser, Petrarch and Antonio de Guevara (and bearing in mind as well the likely interests of BMCR readers), my review will concentrate on those aspects of this volume most likely to be of interest to scholars in Classics.

After an Introduction by Patrick Cheney, which outlines the origins and development of the practice of career criticism, the volume proceeds chronologically, with one essay on the classical world, three on various aspects of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and eight on authors of the Renaissance. This arrangement is both logical and deliberate, as the editors feel that the conventional periodization of ancient, medieval and Renaissance is a useful tool for understanding the gradual evolution of the concept of the literary career.

As a preface to the review proper, it will be necessary to describe the concept of career criticism as it is defined and practiced in this volume. Patrick Cheney’s “Introduction” is a useful tool here, and essential for cross-disciplinary readers who may not be familiar with this theoretical approach. Such readers are likely to be numerous since, as Cheney points out, career criticism has so far largely been confined to English studies and specifically to the world of Spenser scholarship (3). The two works most influential in establishing the theory, according to Cheney, are Lawrence Lipking’s The Life of the Poet: Beginning and Ending Poetic Careers (Chicago, 1981) and Richard Helgerson’s Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton and the Literary System (Berkeley, 1983). These two works differ considerably in focus and methodology but share a concern with the concept of the “literary career” as a self-conscious project initiated by the poet himself. Both Helgerson and Lipking (and the editors and contributors to this volume) see what the Middle Ages knew as the rota Vergiliana as paradigmatic for the concept of the poetic career in the periods under study. That is to say, Virgil’s own self-conscious description of his “evolution” from a pastoral to a didactic to an epic poet is seen as the model followed, challenged, inverted, but never ignored, by writers (and especially poets) of Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The contributors to this volume share a conviction that an exploration of this model, and of reactions to it, will illuminate the work of the poets and prose writers they study.

It is interesting in this regard that, while each essay in the volume accepts in principle the premise, outlined in the introduction (15), that the rota Vergiliana was crucial to the notion of the literary career, most of the contributors acknowledge in practice the rather limited role that Virgil’s career seems actually to have played in each individual case. Thus, Mark Vessey argues that the early Christian “fiction of authorship” (48) was “at a significant distance from the visions of literary career entertained by Roman poets of the Augustan age.” Robert R. Edwards says that “the Virgilian program proves a limited model for medieval writers” (104). James F. Burke finds that, had Fernando de Rojas (the author of the late fifteenth-century romance Celestina) “openly declare[d] a personal sense of literary career” (143), “dire consequences” would have ensued. Kathleen Bolland de Broce begins her essay by announcing that “Antonio de Guevara’s literary career follows neither a Virgilian nor an Ovidian model, but does suggest an alternative paradigm for the early modern period.” (165). Anne Lake Prescott sees divine poetry as a complicating factor in the study of the career path (207). Finally, Susanne Woods et al. proclaim from the beginning of their essay that “English Renaissance women writers were not Virgilians who styled their lives from low to high.” (302). It is only those scholars who write on Petrarch, Spenser and Cervantes (William Kennedy, Patrick Cheney, and Frederick A. de Armas and Álvaro Molina, respectively), who find both the concept of the literary career as a whole and the Virgilian model in particular to be relevant.

I dwell on this point at some length, because I believe it illuminates both the strengths and the weaknesses of this volume. On the whole, the individual analyses of specific authors seem (to this classicist and Sinologist, at least) thoughtful and insightful, and this volume persuades me of the value of thinking of an author’s career as a coherent, and possibly self-conscious, whole (something of which, of course, no scholar of Virgil or of the Roman poets following him will need to be convinced). I remain less convinced, however, of the specific merits of career criticism itself, and of the Virgilian model, as hermeneutic tools. In his introduction, Patrick Cheney argues for a “general thesis” which he claims emerges from the volume: “that the idea of a literary career evolves slowly yet significantly, that Virgil is central to it, and that the principle of periodization from classical, medieval, and Renaissance cultures helps to elucidate the details of that evolution.” (15). I believe that this imposed unity mars somewhat the valuable and engaging work found in many of the individual essays gathered here.

If the later essays in the volume express reservations about the applicability of the Virgilian model to their subjects, Joseph Farrell’s essay, “Greek Lives and Roman Careers in the Classical Vita Tradition,” seeks to identify the origins of this model, and to trace its development. For Farrell, the notion of a literary career is a distinctly Roman one; Archaic and Classical Greek poets wrote principally in one genre, and were known almost exclusively for their works in that genre (27). Poets in the Hellenistic era, began to see themselves as “professional” (32), and to work in multiple genres without, however, seeing their movement from one genre to another in terms of the linear progression of a career as it might be understood in later times. Farrell argues for three factors which influenced the development of the concept of the poetic career in Rome: the unequal social relations between poets and their patrons, the system of client-patron relationships, and the model of elite (male) self-fashioning represented by the cursus honorum. The first two factors are explored principally with reference to Livius Andronicus and, particularly, Ennius, whom Farrell sees as an important precursor to the Virgilian career path. Q. Lutatius Catullus, Cicero, Lucilius are explored as examples of Roman elite men who viewed their poetry as an escape from the cursus honorum, while Catullus and Horace are used as examples of poets who characterized their poetry in opposition to a political career, and these two patterns are seen as prefiguring the appropriation of the model of the cursus in the characterization (including self-characterization) of Virgil’s career.

It is this last section of Farrell’s essay that seems most rewarding, and one wishes there had been more space at Farrell’s disposal to develop his ideas here, a wish the author himself expresses (44). Somewhat unclear throughout is the extent to which we are talking about Virgil’s self-representation of his career and the representation of his career as such by others, such as the Vita tradition and later poets. Farrell makes reference to evidence from both of these strands, but tends in his analysis to elide the two. The distinction is particularly important in that Farrell uses the contrast between the Vitae traditions of Greek poets and that of Virgil as a key element in his argument. Making use of Mary Lefkowitz’s well-known work on the lives of the Greek poets,1 he argues that the Greek Vitae saw their subjects as emblematic of one genre in particular, subordinating everything else in their characterization of their subject to the expectations of that genre. Farrell’s argument here clearly works better for some Archaic and Classical poets than for others. He uses Pindar as an example of a poet represented as writing principally in one genre, the epinician, though acknowledging his role in the composition of epigram as well. As it happens, the Vita Pindari as it has come down to us lists the works of Pindar in no fewer than nine genres. It provides anecdotes relating to the composition or performance of three: the hymn, the paean and the daphnephorikos but, significantly, says nothing of epinician other than to note that his works in that genre were collected in four books. Pindar would seem, in fact, to represent an interesting case for Farrell’s hypothesis, as perhaps the earliest example of a poet widely known and represented as writing in a multiplicity of genres. It is certainly true that our sources do not represent Pindar’s oeuvre in terms of a literary career, but the diverse nature of Pindar’s output makes problematic Farrell’s claim that pre-Hellenistic poets were understood as representative of one genre in particular. The Vitae traditions are a valuable and understudied source of insights into the way the lives and works of ancient poets were understood and theorized; I hope to have the chance to see a fuller version of Farrell’s ideas, both in this regard and with respect to the appropriation of the idea of the cursus honorum by Roman poets.

The other essay likely to be of interest to readers of the BMCR is the second essay, Mark Vessey’s “From Cursus to Ductus : Figures of Writing in Western Late Antiquity (Augustine, Jerome, Cassiodorus, Bede),” a substantial and complex piece whose argument cannot be done justice here. In the briefest of terms, Vessey claims that, rather than follow a Virgilian pattern, self-fashioning an idea of the literary career from the movement up an ascending scale of literary genres, Christian writers of late antiquity understood their role as that of the scribe, replacing the image of the cursus with that of the ductus, “the pen’s obedience to a line already traced in the mind, if not on the page” (48). While drawing inspiration from Leo Braudy’s argument that Augustine represented a new, Christian, concept of the cursus as a spiritual (and potentially writerly or readerly) journey of the discovery of the soul, Vessey argues that Augustine was in this respect an aberration in his time. For Vessey, the controlling image of the late antique Christian writer is that of the evangelist as scribe, of an author whose work is the transcription of divine inspiration, contrasted with earlier representations of the author dictating his own works to others (66).

It will come as no surprise that I find the greatest strength of Vessey’s essay to be its lack of reliance on the Virgilian model. Indeed, a variety of other theorists of the late antique world, from Braudy to Peter Brown to Michel Foucault, are invoked with greater frequency than are the ideas of career criticism. Vessey’s use of these theorists and scholars is careful and critically engaged, and the ideas he develops seem to be derived from his close readings of the authors about whom he writes. Others will be in a better position to judge the validity of his conclusions, but methodologically Vessey’s essay seems to represent a particularly effective and thoughtful approach to understanding the concept of the literary career, an approach which grows out of the texts and the cultural context of the period about which Vessey is writing rather than seeking to impose a uniform model from outside. If the essays in this volume are any guide, career criticism is a methodology with considerable promise, but a model which offers the most rewarding conclusions when deployed with the greatest flexibility.


1. Mary R. Lefkowitz, The lives of the Greek poets. London: Duckworth, 1981.