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Response to Review of Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London

I’m very grateful to Dr Rolfe for her generous review, in which she manages to convey the principal arguments of my book on Dekker and pamphleteering rather more efficiently and deftly than I could myself. She also makes a number of astute points to which I’ve responded briefly below.

I think it’s absolutely right that drawing the context for Dekker’s writing on war in the early 1620s more explicitly would give us a greater sense of where his work is divergent from the bellicose norm, as well as showing us that he wasn’t entirely alone in this. The period of enthusiasm for continental war has been fairly well served (notably by Thomas Cogswell’s excellent monograph) but more could yet be written – perhaps, taking a cue from Dekker, with a greater sensitivity to voices raised against the war. It would also be well worth expanding one’s generic and geographic boundaries to look at how the full range of media in early modern London, and beyond in the provinces, addressed the issues raised. My sense is that we could apply a similar logic to the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, too, and that again we’d find that Dekker’s reluctance to embrace the kind of wholesale anti-popery / anti-Catholicism which dominates certain kinds of literary output in those years (most obviously, sermons) was far from unique.

On readers, there’s a particularly acute difficulty with pamphlets, since (ephemeral as they were) they were even more rarely annotated or otherwise explicitly commented upon than other works. Our best source for explicit responses is the work of other writers, which is often good fun, but doesn’t necessarily show us much beyond a rather cliquey world of in-jokes and (usually good-natured) rivalries. Given this, in addition to the frankly questionable literary merits of many of these works, it is particularly easy to imagine that, as Kirsty says, there were surely readers who were ‘dismissive, or hostile, or uncomprehending, or simply uninterested’. That must be right. But I don’t think Dekker’s readers need to have agreed with him to make them essential constituents in the increasingly popularized, increasingly critically – and politically-literate culture which was fed by pamphlets such as Dekker’s, and which ultimately became the opinion- and information-hungry public of the Civil War period. Dekker himself professed to care little for his readers’ reactions: we might surmise that for him, the main thing was that his pamphlets sold, and sold again. For the historian, it’s not sufficient to know simply that people bought the works, and again I think Kirsty has pointed to an area where we could very well do with more work. For the kinds of readers in which I’m most interested – who left us far less evidence of any of their activities than, say, William Drake did – I suspect that the best we’ll ever be able to do is to continue to build up a picture of their cultural consumption, speculating as we go that if they bought it and continued to buy it then they were probably interested in it, and that if an idea or opinion holds true throughout most of the material they consumed then there’s a very good chance that most of them would likewise have held it. But here we come back to Dekker, and his emphasis on diversity, and the warnings buried in his works about assuming that any ideas held universal dominance. ‘Uninterested’ would probably have concerned Dekker far more than ‘hostile’, since at least hostility indicates engagement, and lack of interest is likewise more problematic for the model I’ve suggested – but perhaps we can then accept more circumstantial evidence (sales, reprints, the production of other works on similar topics, etc) as indicative of interest, if not agreement. Rather than building up a picture of cultural or political homogeneity, reconstructing popular early modern cultural consumption seems to me to point to a world in which people were encouraged to hold diverse opinions and to exercise their critical faculties lavishly. The political significance of this probably wasn’t of much concern for the large part of James’s reign (although Francis Bacon and the Harveys had had plenty to say about it in the 1590s), but it surely came into focus in the period of war reporting, and then … well, from the point of view of the history of pamphleteering, Dekker – who may well, had he been given the option, not have minded – managed to die just as things got really interesting.