One of C.S. Lewis’ funniest and punchiest books is also his longest. And, arguably, it is his most important work of literary criticism and his greatest academic achievement. The snazzily titled English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding Drama was commissioned for the Oxford History of English Literature series in 1935–just as his groundbreaking The Allegory of Love (1936) was moving toward publication. The 16th-century volume was not published until Sept 16th, 1954–a two-decade-long research and writing process that earned the book its humorous sobriquet, “OHEL” (an acronym of the series title). While I get the sense that Lewis was proud of this literary history published in the middle of the Narnian series, he was certainly glad to be rid of it in the end.
I really think that English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is Lewis’ magnum opus. It intensified Lewis’ value as a literary historian by providing a unique look at the cultural spirit of the 16th century through hundreds of its poets and authors. Lewis is thinking about the ways that technological innovations, intellectual discoveries, economic shifts, religious changes, and community developments were connected with literature in shaping and being shaped by the “imagination” of the sixteenth century–what we might call the “worldview” or “social imaginary.”
He is also quite obviously trying to challenge commonly held assumptions about the 16th-century “Renaissance” (rebirth) that is presumed to have awakened the world from Medieval slumber. Written with ever-present wit and remarkable brevity, OHEL is a literary history so lively and provocative that I enjoy reading it even when I haven’t read all (or even most) of the original sources.
With the recent release of an Audible audiobook edition, what was my beside-the-couch-little-bit-at-a-time reading experience has been transformed. At 25 hours long with a supplemental 80-page PDF chronology and bibliography, OHEL is still a significant commitment. However, hearing the text provides a new dimension for me. With Lewis’ words in my ear, certain quotations strike me with surprise and then lead me back to marginal notations I have made in the past. One of these snappy refound lines concerns Lewis’ observations about European colonization of the Americas.
Admittedly, in a chapter I am editing, I have been trying to capture in just a few words the refreshing view Lewis has in his so-called “native encounter” science fiction of the ’30s and ’40s. On the one hand, Lewis is an embedded personality, someone who has clearly benefited from the global project of European colonization in his at-home experience as an Anglo-Irish intellectual. On the other hand, I am often amazed at the way Lewis keeps turning perspectives upside down in discoveries of the indigenous peoples of Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet (1938). While Lewis lacks anything like a “postcolonial vocabulary,” his instincts for seeing things in new ways are clearly there.
As Lewis is trying to capture the cultural and literary imagination of the period in his 16th-century literary history, it is no surprise that he turns to epoch-defining discoveries in astronomy and geography. However, Lewis concludes that the poets were seldom invested in the new astronomy, and the great age of discovery–including the European encounter with the Americas–had surprisingly little effect on the literary imagination of the period. As Lewis is being something of an intellectual iconoclast in his introduction–cheekily titled “New Learning and New Ignorance”–we should not be surprised by the surprise. However, there are some ideas that might give us pause within his very brief comments on the colonial project that defined the modern era for much of the world.
In particular, Lewis wants to remind the reader that the so-called “discovery of America” that has been lauded for its political and religious conquest, was in fact defined by its economic and technological failure. Columbus and the others weren’t looking for America as the fulfillment of some great superstitious dream; America was in the way. Like, literally–a geographical obstacle to navigational goals.
Depending on when and where you are born–and perhaps depending on what ideological movement is trying to limit your understanding of history by carving out the bits that make them uncomfortable–you might think of the American colonial project as that half-millennium of discovery and adventure, environmental transformation, meeting of cultures, ill-made and ill-kept treaties of friendship and conquest, blood-baths and intermarriage, linguistic deaths and births, philosophical challenge and diversification, innovations in approaches to medicine and genocide, centuries of slavery and revolution, and the vibrant and diverse nations born on that long north-south barrier to circumglobal navigation to the west–what we now call the continents of North and South America.
Some readers may have heard of some of these nations–like the United States, a global superpower in pop culture and innovation and education, that remarkable social and political experiment of such historical heartbreak and possibility, a place of such dynamically rooted forward-moving energy that (like Canada) is flirting with a temptation to lump its entire being into simple buckets of demonization or valourization, or Twitter-era preaching or four-digit symbologies.
Where he had space for a little perspective, Lewis had no such temptations. He did, though, enjoy the adventure of reading literature to discover the past.
Of the American conquest, it is not only a markedly European failure, but one that left its mark on the people that were there. In OHEL, Lewis speaks of the European exploitation of the land. And when the easiest mineral wealth had been depleted, late-comers like the English “had to content themselves with colonization.” This colonization was not, in Lewis’ view, a grand design of societal extension and transformation, but was
“conceived chiefly as a social sewerage system, a vent for ‘needy people who now trouble the commonwealth’ and are ‘daily consumed with the gallows’” (15).
English colonization of America as, initially, social engineering for the effective disposal of human waste?
Lewis argues that those of us who know the massive religious, political, educational, environmental, cultural, and philosophical development of America are apt to misread the cultural moment that birthed those changes. Missionary zeal and political creativity and cultural genocide were not the aim, but the effect. European consciences would need time, Lewis argued, before
“the untroubled nineteenth-century acquiescence in imperialism” (16).
Has your conscience acquiesced to (yielded to, tacitly agreed with) the doctrine of European (and later, American or ideological) imperialism?
Rather than a project of global good, the goal was the development of European wealth. Lewis reminds the reader that, allegorically speaking,
“the great explorer, the true discoverer of all these new lands, was Avarice” (De Sphaera, I. 182 et seq.).
Greed was the energy behind navigational innovation and colonial development. Rather than revel in imperialist identities, Lewis argued that
“The best European minds were ashamed of Europe’s exploits in America. Montaigne passionately asks why so noble a discovery could not have fallen to the Ancients who might have spread civility where we have spread only corruption” (Essais, III. vi). (16)
Lewis described this corruption as
“a period during which we became to America what the Huns had been to us” (15).
While the 16th-century poets did not commonly use the global conquest as part of their diction of description, there is one area of the European literary imagination that was touched by the age of discovery. While Europeans had long-held philosophical, biological, literary, and religious models of “Wild Men,” “Natural Man,” and “the Savage,” the colonial project enhanced poetic imaginations of indigenous peoples. Characteristically, Lewis was able to see in these European caricatures two clear and opposing camps: the aboriginal person as “as ideally innocent” or as “brutal” and “subhuman.” Lewis calls these the two “great myths” of the popular modern imagination that continued into his own age.
Lewis will move on fairly quickly to tear down his generation’s mental icons of “Puritans” and “Humanists”–and, indeed, wants to deny that there is really such thing as “the Renaissance,” even as he takes up his chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature in the months after OHEL is released. You can see my evolving discussion on that topic here, but this line captures Lewis’ attitude toward “Renaissance” studies:
“Before they had ceased talking of a rebirth it became evident that they had really built a tomb” (21)
Because I think Lewis provides a fresh view of our shared colonial history, I have included the entire section on Lewis and the Americas (the full text from pp. 14-21, which some changes in paragraphing). Lewis can’t see everything from his Oxbridge chair in the ’30s to ’50s. We will see things differently, for here we live, or most of us do, within these latter days of Europe’s Hun-like conquest. I am writing this post within a short canoe ride of ancient Mi’kmaq summer camps–a place of stunning beauty that was developed into a Canadian national park once the indigenous people had been successfully removed. Here we are. Here I am.
Limited as he was, though, Lewis’ iconoclastic subtlety can be a resource for those of us who are open to the conversation. A nation’s identity, past or present, cannot be reduced to paint-by-number histories and live-action tweets. As Lewis says in “On the Reading of Old Books” (and books like The Discarded Image) by reading authors from other times and places (like Lewis is to us), we are able “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.” This clarification of our mental map may expose some of the cultural errors of our social moment that might otherwise be obscure.
At the very least, Lewis can help us see how our poetic and political imaginations weave themselves together into society-shaping myths. We all have “New Learning” as well as “New Ignorance” in our paths to understanding who we are.
The new geography excited much more interest than the new astronomy, especially, as was natural, among merchants and politicians: but the literary texts suggest that it did not stimulate the imagination so much as we might have expected. The aim of the explorers was mercantile: to cut out the Turk and the Venetian by finding a direct route to the east. In this the Portuguese had succeeded by circumnavigating Africa and crossing the Indian Ocean; Vasco da Gama reached Malabar in 1498. Columbus, a man of lofty mind, with missionary and scientific interests, had the original idea of acting on the age-old doctrine of the earth’s rotundity and sailing west to find the east. Lands which no one had dreamed of barred his way.
Though we all know, we often forget, that the existence of America was one of the greatest disappointments in the history of Europe. Plans laid and hardships borne in the hope of reaching Cathay, merely ushered in a period during which we became to America what the Huns had been to us. Foiled of Cathay, the Spaniards fell back on exploiting the mineral wealth of the new continent. The English, coming later and denied even this, had to content themselves with colonization, which they conceived chiefly as a social sewerage system, a vent for ‘needy people who now trouble the commonwealth’ and are ‘daily consumed with the gallows’ (Humphrey Gilbert’s Discourse, cap. 10).
Of course the dream of Cathay died hard. We hoped that each new stretch of the American coast was the shore of one more island and that each new bay was the mouth of the channel that led through into the Pacific or South Sea’. In comparison with that perpetually disappointed hope the delectable things we really found seemed unimportant. In Virginia there was
‘shole water wher we smelt so sweet and so strong a smell as if we had beene in the midst of some delicate garden’; a land ‘so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea ouerflowed them’; a king ‘very iust of his promise’; a people ‘as manerly and ciuill as any of Europe’, most ‘gentle, louing and faithfull, voide of all guile and treason’, living ‘after the maner of the golden age’.
But that was all rather beside the point; nothing but ‘a good Mine or a passage to the South Sea’ could ever ‘bring this Countrey in request to be inhabited by our nation’ (Hakluyt, vii, 298-331).
Hence the desperate attempts of Pert (1517), Hore (1536), Willoughby (1553), and Frobisher (1576-8) to find either a North-West or a North-East passage. Judged in the light of later events the history of English exploration in the sixteenth century may appear to modern Americans and modern Englishmen a very Aeneid: but judged by the aims and wishes of its own time it was on the whole a record of failures and second bests. Nor was the failure relieved by any high ideal motives. Missionary designs are sometimes paraded in the prospectus of a new venture: but the actual record of early Protestantism in this field seems to be ‘blank as death’ [Tennyson?].
The poetic charm with which these voyages appear in the pages of Charles Kingsley or Professor Raleigh is partly conditioned by later romanticism and later imperialism. Wild Nature – plains without palaces and rivers without nymphs – made little appeal to men who valued travel almost wholly as a means of coming, like Ulysses, to know the cities and manners of men.
And the best European consciences had still to undergo a long training before they reached the untroubled nineteenth-century acquiescence in imperialism. Go back even as far as Burke or Johnson and you will find a very different view: ‘in the same year, in a year hitherto disastrous to mankind’, America and the sea-passage to India were discovered (Taxation No Tyranny). Go back farther, to Buchanan (1506-82), and you read that the great explorer, the true discoverer of all these new lands, was Avarice (De Sphaera, I. 182 et seq.). The best European minds were ashamed of Europe’s exploits in America. Montaigne passionately asks why so noble a discovery could not have fallen to the Ancients who might have spread civility where we have spread only corruption (Essais, III. vi). Even on the utilitarian level the benefits of the whole thing were not always obvious to home-dwellers. Our merchants, observes William Harrison in 1577, now go to Cathay, Muscovy, and Tartary,
‘whence, as they saie, they bring home great commodities. But alas I see not by all their trauell that the prices are anie whit abated … in time past when the strange bottoms were suffered to come in we had sugar for fourpence the pound that now is worth half a crowne’ (Description of England, ii. v).
We must not therefore be surprised if the wonder and glory of exploration, though sometimes expressed by Hakluyt and the voyagers themselves, was seldom the theme of imaginative writers. Something of it is felt in the Utopia [by Thomas More], and there are casual references in Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and others. As the great age of the voyages receded it was perhaps more valued. I think Drayton cared more about it than Shakespeare, and Milton more than Drayton. In the sixteenth century imagination still turns more readily to ancient Greece and Rome, to Italy, Arcadia, to English history or legend. Lodge writing a romance about Arden while he sails to the Azores is typical.
There is, however, one respect in which America may have affected not only imaginative but even philosophical thought. If it did not create, it impressed on our minds more strongly, the image of the Savage, or Natural Man. A place had, of course, been prepared for him. Christians had depicted the naked Adam, Stoics, the state of Nature, poets, the reign of Saturn. But in America it might seem that you could catch glimpses of some such thing actually going on.
The ‘Natural Man’ is, of course, an ambivalent image. He may be conceived as ideally innocent. From that conception descend Montaigne’s essay on cannibals, Gonzalo’s commonwealth in the Tempest, the good ‘Salvage’ in the Faerie Queene (vi. iv, v, vi), Pope’s ‘reign of God’, and the primeval classless society of the Marxists. It is one of the great myths. On the other hand, he might be conceived as brutal, sub-human: thence Caliban, the bad ‘Salvages’ of the Faerie Queene (vi. viii), the state of nature as pictured by Hobbes, and the Cave Man’ of popular modern imagination. That is another great myth. The very overtones which the word ‘primitive’ now has for most speakers (it had quite different ones in the sixteenth century) are evidence of its potency; though other causes, such as evolutionary biology, have here contributed.
If the new astronomy and the new geography did not seem at the time quite so important as we should have expected, the same cannot be said of either humanism or puritanism, and to these I now turn. But I must immediately guard against a possible misunderstanding. Both words have so changed their sense that puritan now means little more than ‘rigorist’ or ‘ascetic’ and humanist little more than ‘the opposite of puritan’. The more completely we can banish these modern senses from our minds while studying the sixteenth century the better we shall understand it….