Joseph Loewenstein, Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship

Joseph Loewenstein, Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), xii + 221pp, ISBN
Frank Kermode’s gloomy account of an earlier emanation of the series
Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture, of which Joseph
Loewenstein’s Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship is the forty-third and most
recent volume to appear, spoke exasperatedly of tendencies he saw
operating at large across the published contributions: ‘underneath all the
linguistic posturing and solemn silliness there is occasionally to be found a
deposit of plain, old-fashioned, useful research that could have been written
up in a plain, old-fashioned, useful way; but its modish presentation is
characteristic of a peculiarly American, and not easily exportable, mode of
scholarship’ (London Review of Books, 22 January 1998). Kermode’s strictures
(he was reviewing volume twenty-two only five years ago) appear not to
have impaired the series’ vitality; but there are moments in Loewenstein’s
dense, difficult and demanding book – with its talk of ‘human artifaction’,
‘secondarity’, ‘equilibriation’ and ‘a cultural grammar of the genitive’ – when
its writing prompts reservations in a manner akin to its predecessor’s in
That Loewenstein’s work, which offers a powerful new account of
Jonson’s relations to the book, the theatre and his contemporaries, lies open
to this geographical and stylistic objection will not detract from its
importance. Towards its close, Loewenstein reflects back on the book’s
concern with what he calls ‘the place of authors in that historical aggregate
of private fantasies and trade practices which was the precondition of
modern intellectual property’. In this phrase, ‘authors’, rather than the
singular Jonson of its title, is truer to the volume’s scope; for though the
fourth and fifth chapters, and short Afterword, maintain a stricter Jonsonian
focus – discussing the place of plagiarism in shaping his authorial mode, and
reflecting on his desire editorially to repossess his scripts in the earlymodern marketplace – the first three chapters provide a much wider context
within which to locate Jonson and his practices. The book’s first chapter, as
footnotes frequently remind the reader, runs close to the matter and
arguments explored in greater depth in Loewenstein’s The Author’s Due:
Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright, published recently by Chicago. If this
coincidence might seem cursory, the second and third chapters, which
explore respectively the relations of the playing companies and the
playwrights to the scripts they performed and wrote, offer a breadth of
historical example and stimulating thought that will repay much further
Though Loewenstein’s focus is primarily with print, his few ventures
into Jonson’s presence as a manuscript poet make one wish that he had
been less wedded to his larger argument and more able to mingle with
Jonson’s circulating texts. Partly this is a matter of his (few) factual slips
congregating most readily around manuscripts – Hilton Kelliher in English
Manuscript Studies has (for example) cleared the murky identification in BL
Harley MS 4955 of the putative poet ‘Francis Andrewes’ discussed on p.117
– but partly also a larger sense that Jonson’s authorial manoeuvrings cannot
so easily be confined to print, his inscriptional practice, little discussed by
Loewenstein, perhaps a case in point where print and manuscript come
together. The book stands convicted of only a scatter of errors, mostly
minor, and mostly a matter of niggling (in)consistency: translations from the
Latin are sometimes printed within square brackets, sometimes not;
Loewenstein’s quasi-facsimile transcriptions of Jonson’s title-pages, four of
which figure as figures, appear uncertain whether to retain or discard i/j and
u/v, and how typographically to represent their originals (the photographic
‘OVT’ from the title-page of Jonson, Holmes and Bradock’s quarto Every
Man Out, pp.142-42, is rendered by Loewenstein confusingly as ‘Out’ on the
facing page). In a book that argues for the minuteness (if not the regularity)
of Jonson’s interest in typography, these moments aren’t without
Late in the book, one sentence of Loewenstein’s ends, pauses,
reflects; and then its successor turns immediately back on it: ‘To put this less
gnomically’, he then continues. Though Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship is
a rich and thought-provoking book, it might have been more ready of
access, and more powerful of impression, had it put things, if only on a few
more occasions, a little less gnomically.
Tom Lockwood
University of Leeds