BMCR 2020.09.56

Reading old books: writing with traditions

, Reading old books: writing with traditions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019. 256 p. ISBN 9780691194004 $35.00.


Peter Mack “seeks to understand the ways in which literary tradition has been and can be useful” (ix). Mack explores how “writers make use of earlier texts to make meanings and to create new works.” To that end, his survey of works extends from Petrarch to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Mack intends his book, among other purposes, to be a guide for the teaching of literature (1). As a classroom text, the book is the right length for a semester, five chapters, each devoted to an author or group of writers.

Mack’s project presents a series of admirable intentions, such as an increased level of inclusivity in the teaching of literature. However, my own view is critical of Mack’s proposals, particularly of his reading of Hans-Georg Gadamer, a philosopher Mack leans on heavily when discussing tradition. Those criticisms will be reserved mostly for the latter portion of this review, since the initial task is to give an account of Mack’s project, using frequently his own words and examples.

The introduction clarifies Mack’s subtitle, what he means by tradition. His tradition is not one of critique (à la Adorno) or nostalgia (the early music movement)—the examples are Mack’s—, but a consideration of the “ways in which writers and readers can and perhaps must use tradition” (2). While Mack points to several influences for his take on tradition, the key authority for his case is Gadamer (16). Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1960)[1] gives tradition a central place in “the phenomenon of understanding” (17). As Mack puts it, “The encounter with tradition makes possible the experience of something as true.”

Choosing Gadamer as a guide to tradition opens an enormous door where literary history had closed a window. Mack notes that “people have spoken about literary traditions only in the last 160 years” (1), but Gadamer’s account of tradition is timeless. Thus, Mack does not feel obliged to limit his literary examples to the past 160 years. Gadamer’s hermeneutic universe encompasses understanding as an event that is historically situated but the features of which are chronologically unbound.

In general, Mack wants Reading Old Books to inspire students to read more carefully, to appreciate the impact traditions have on authors, including characteristics of those traditions that might seem questionable to a contemporary audience. Mack prefers students to be less critical and more sympathetic to the differences they encounter among traditions (206). While downplaying prescriptiveness about students’ choices—“the degree of compulsion should be relatively small” (204)—, Mack doesn’t abandon completely a “great books” approach. He wants students to engage with texts and traditions that do not simply mirror the students’ experience prior to reading. To expand interest in traditions, students should learn at least one other language, “ideally one belonging to a rather different culture” (205).

Mack’s exploration of traditions (chapter one) begins with Petrarch and the legacy of love poetry. We learn that Petrarch read Virgil, Horace, Boethius, and Cicero to such an extent that “[Petrarch] no longer knows that a particular phrase is theirs rather than part of his own thinking” (30-31). Contemporary critics call this intertextuality, a notion inexplicably underused in Mack’s book,[2] though Mack indicates that “imitation” counts adequately as a synonym—imitation is an “earlier word” for tradition (23). However, imitation usually involves the element of agency, someone choosing a model, whereas intertextuality is not necessarily connected to an author’s or actor’s intentions or creativity.[3]

Chapter one includes several examples of explication de texte of Petrarch’s sonnets, with Mack trying to come to terms with poems’ meanings, e.g. “the main meaning here seems to be …” (49). For his readers, Mack wants them to see Petrarch “as historically perhaps the most important contributor to the European tradition of love poetry” (55).

Chapter two emphasizes Chaucer as an ideal pupil: “Chaucer became a great writer because of what he learned from Boccaccio” (96). Mack wants his readers to appreciate whose shoulders Chaucer stood on to produce The Canterbury Tales. Although “many of Chaucer’s most distinctive and successful literary strategies were copied from or prompted by his reading of Boccaccio” (58), Chaucer also manipulated the material in surprising ways (86).[4]

Chapter three discusses Renaissance epic poetry by Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser. Mack reminds readers that Spenser “mentions Ariosto and Tasso alongside Homer and Virgil as the four historical poets who had created exemplary figures and whose approach he was going to follow” (124). Mack is able to point to yet another writer building on the past, though this chapter involves a touch more speculation than some others: “Tasso is probably drawing here on both Dante’s Paradiso and Cicero’s Dream of Scipio” (129-30, my emphasis). Similarly: “Tasso’s delightful episodes and questioning characterizations seem to find a place in a weighty, clear, and unified central narrative in which readers are always sure of their bearings” (123, my emphasis).

Chapter four’s “aim . . . is to illustrate Elizabeth Gaskell’s originality and success and show how she used her understanding of literary tradition to articulate and develop her new female point of view on the new urban poverty caused by industrialization” (137). Given evidence elsewhere,[5] Mack could refine his claim that Gaskell’s Mary Barton“had a huge impact on her readers” (136), a claim based apparently on 19th-century readership alone.  More effective is Mack’s assertion that Gaskell bolstered “the sisterhood of women writers,” if only by the success of The Life of Charlotte Brontë, a biography that presents a heroic Charlotte. Gaskell portrays Charlotte not only as a great writer, but also as an inspirational human being (166).

Chapter five points out that Ngũgĩ “gives importance to folktales which he heard at home and to Bible stories” (170). According to Mack, Ngũgĩ praiseworthiness emanates, in part, from “combining African and Western traditions to make something new.” To appreciate Mack’s taste for Ngũgĩ’s Afro-occidentalicious fusion of traditions, a reader might want to note that this too looks to be influenced by Gadamer’s theory of tradition, which includes a “fusion of horizons” [Horizontverschmelzung], a phrase that allows one to say that incompatibilities and tensions between traditions can be incomprehensibly melded. Gadamer’s “fusion” is a semi-mysterious process: “understanding is always the fusion of these horizons supposedly existing by themselves” (Truth and Method, 306). Note that “supposedly” [vermeintlich]. Non-existent horizons would be troubling, so Gadamer acknowledges the tendency of imagining two fixed sets of traditions being melded, an acknowledgment elided in Mack’s book.

Tradition does not manifest itself transparently but requires learning the characteristics, canonical texts, and boundaries of a tradition, as Mack writes, and perhaps later in directives warning students about the alleged fixity of those traditions. For those within a tradition, the characteristics are usually invisible. It’s the stuff of ideology. Tradition is simply what is, what seems “natural,” what has come down from the past and functions as norms, conventions, rules. Something outside the norm, apart from the customary, can open one’s eyes to one’s own cultural boundaries and traditions. No process guarantees those eyes opening.

Mack seems willing to entertain the possibility of encountering a work that disrupts comfortably sailing in one’s own world and traditions. “It is not unthinkable that there could be a new work which relies not at all on literary tradition” (197), Mack writes. Unfortunately, Mack abandons this opportunity, giving not a single example of such “a new work,” born apart from literary tradition, the textual equivalent of Kaspar Hauser. It would have been enlightening for Mack to have grappled with something like Declan Burke’s The Lammisters,[6] which critics describe as sui generis.

My sense is that Mack sidestepped what he suggested was thinkable, in part because he was not prepared to follow Gadamer’s unhappy view of tradition. Mack adopts the usual view of hermeneutical experience, latching on to “conversation” as the model for tradition. This isn’t wrong. It just dodges what would make Mack’s invocation of Gadamer uncomfortable and complicated. Mack neglects the section of Truth and Method dealing with eleos and phobos from Aristotle’s perspective (Truth and Method, 130). Gerald Bruns’s essay “What Is Tradition?” delivers the goods: “[T]he hermeneutical experience of what comes down to us from the past is structurally tragic rather than comic. It is an event that exposes us to our own blindness or the limits of our historicality and extracts from us an acknowledgment of our belongingness to something different, reversing what we had thought. It’s just the sort of event that might drive us to put out our eyes.”[7] Mack’s take on tradition leaves out the “cold shudder” Gadamer describes in Truth and Method when Oedipus has the spotlight.

For Aristotle, the spectator of Oedipus’s tale experiences something shattering—not an exercise in self-identification. Mack promotes tradition as a way of deepening identity politics to allow students of literature more choices: “Hearing the words of others and looking through their eyes brings out our own identity and makes it possible for our identity to develop . . . shows us where we are and gives us an example of what we could choose to do and to be” (206). The “looking through their eyes” line shows Mack did not benefit from Gadamer’s invocation of Oedipus Rex. Instead of students suffering through an experience, Mack presents students the gift of Gadamer’s relativism on this point[8] – the students are offered the enabling fiction that they have options, as if they are like Robert Frost’s narrator standing where most readers believe two possibilities lie before them.[9]

If it is to achieve its aim of giving meaning to what it claims is the chief danger of tradition, Reading Old Books needs a non-relativistic philosophical grounding:  that tradition “may blind us to our choices of behavior which we should condemn” (207).


[1] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall, New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1989.

[2] Marion Turner uses the term “recontextualization.” See her “’Certaynly His Noble Sayenges Can I Not Amende’: Thomas Usk and Troilus and Criseyde,” The Chaucer Review 37, no. 1 (2002): 25-39. Unfortunately, Turner’s Chaucer: A European Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2019, was not available for Mack’s book. Turner has Petrarch, along with Boccaccio, serving as a guiding light for Chaucer. Mack does mention “the intertextual reader’s head” (127).

[3] See Thomas Greene, The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982: 47-48. It does not help Mack that, as Paul Woodruff says, “Mimēsis and its Greek cognates defy translation.” See Woodruff’s “Aristotle on Mimēsis” in Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 73.

[4] One wonders how Mack overlooked the famous 40-year-old essay, “The Originality of Texts in a Manuscript Culture,” which covers much the same ground Mack claims as his own. See Gerald Bruns, “The Originality of Texts in a Manuscript Culture,” Comparative Literature 32, no. 2 (1980): 113-129.

[5] See Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, p. 245. One source for the “huge impact” claim, W.A. Craick, offers no empirical evidence about the audience for Mary Barton in the pages Mack cites.

[6] Declan Burke, The Lammisters. Belfast: No Alibi Press, 2019. See Laura Wilson’s review in The Guardian, December 20, 2019. (Accessed September 30, 2020): “The best recent crime novels – review roundup”.

[7] Gerald Bruns, “What Is Tradition?” in Hermeneutics: Ancient and Modern. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, pp. 195-212; this quotation is p. 204.

[8] For a thorough exploration of this issue, see Geoff Waite, “Salutations: A Response to Zuckert,” in Gadamer’s Repercussions: Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. Bruce Krajewski, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, pp. 263-268. Waite demonstrates that politically Gadamer is willing to be, and have others be, now this way now that. For example, Waite cites a piece of advice uttered by Gadamer himself: “Can one create a solidarity which rests solely upon communal interests? In light of what humanity is and has become, it seems to me more sensible for us to take the advice that Aristotle is said to have given Alexander the Great: ‘To be a Greek to the Greeks, a Persian to the Persians’” (268).

[9] Mack alludes to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” on p. 200. See Richard Strier’s 1991 commentary on Frost’s poem: (Accessed September 30, 2020): The College/University of Chicago. Strier’s reading predates David Orr’s The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, New York: Penguin Books, 2015.