Claire Preston. Thomas Browne and the Writing of Early Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. xiv+250pp. ISBN: 0 521 83794 4.

Adam H. Kitzes
University of North Dakota

Adam H. Kitzes. "Review of Claire Preston, Thomas Browne and the Writing of Early Modern Science."Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 16.1-9 <URL:>.

  1. As a recognizable historical figure from the seventeenth century, as an early modern scientific investigator, and above all as a writer, Sir Thomas Browne faces the risk of being forgotten. His neglect takes many forms. It may include collective indifference to his legacy, represented by the image of his commemorative statue in the town square of Norwich - decorated with a bright orange traffic cone atop its head, and otherwise ignored by the rush-hour travelers. Or it may take the more sinister form of misguided tributes, among subsequent generations of readers, who distort his publications and personality almost beyond recognition, or who dote on his more seemingly quaint attributes, and even develop night-time fantasies involving Browne (and Fulke Greville) in his bedclothes. Ironically, it is among contemporary universities where his legacy may suffer the most. His experiments and recorded observations prove too slight for scientists, or historians of science, who have such towering figures as Bacon, Harvey, or Newton to attend to. Meanwhile, his more ostensibly literary writings, once the subject of the now out of favour stylistic criticism, suffer comparative neglect; and it is of little help that comprehensive editions of his major works prove either out of print or difficult to obtain. Perceived as idiosyncratic, if not anomalous, he is neither fish nor foul - and thus never a clear fit for academic departments, according to their customary divisions. Under these unfavourable conditions, it is only the occasional scholar, perhaps inspired by Browne's own fascination for fragments, curiosities, unclassified objects, and the occasional surprise artefactual discovery, who appreciates his importance, both for his own age and for the present.

  2. Claire Preston recognizes these conditions as well as any scholar, and she addresses them in her study, Thomas Browne and the Writing of Early Modern Science. In undertaking a comprehensive analysis of Browne's writings, Preston aims not only to make a case for Browne's importance as an early modern scientific writer, but to reassess just what his importance consisted of. Paradoxically, it may well have been due to his relatively minor importance, as a scientist, and perhaps even as a writer, that his texts warrant further consideration. As she characterizes him in her concluding remarks, Browne and many similar figures amounted to "crucial members of a sometimes undifferentiated society of sincere and ingenious enquirers whose fame, like the civil bee celebrated in Religio Medici, survives in communal rather than individual accomplishment" (221). The remark captures what it most original about Preston's approach, namely to establish Browne's humble participation within a more collective enterprise of early modern scientific writing. Yet it also betrays an underlying tension that runs throughout the study, which seems scarcely imaginable had not Browne already exerted a certain fascination as an individual, unique, perhaps a bit enigmatic to modern observers, but above all important for his own intellectual endeavors.
  3. Preston's most original arguments touch on Browne's professional activities. As she points out in her introduction, "Browne's writings and themes must primarily be understood in terms of civil behavior" (2); in fact, Browne was active in various networks of intellectual exchange at every point of his professional career, and a proper understanding of his writing suffers without due consideration of how such exchanges took place. More emphatically, Browne represents a figure who spent his career coming to grips with his professional anonymity. He rejects unwarranted publicity - his embarrassment over the unauthorized publications of Religio Medici was genuine, she contends - and if he lived according to any of his known aphorisms, it is the following, taken from the Urne Buriall: "Happy are they whom privacy makes innocent."

  4. The claim is persuasive in its own right - perhaps even more so had the description of Browne's intellectual civility proved less difficult to establish. In fact, much of her argument depends on a general awareness of civility, which consisted of "several related but distinct categories" (27), and which themselves underwent ongoing scrutiny even as they were put into practice. Preston supplies a range of definitions for civility, supplied from Browne's contemporaries, but with respect to Browne, none proves an especially clear fit. Thus, she describes Browne's own version of civility as a "combination" (28) and finally suggests that Browne "participates in both the Cartesian and the Boylean models of intellectual behaviour" (31). Nor does this uncertainty disappear when she considers the official scientific networks that Browne either belonged to or avoided. To the contrary, "These facts indicate how very much outside certain norms of scientific and social gentility Browne was in some respects, while being in others very much within them" (33). By no means do these problems obviate Preston's basic claim, though they do raise interesting questions about it; in some respects, they may confirm it, since for all the sense of a personality that his writings tend to convey, the actual person they purportedly represent remains safely hidden from view.

  5. Notwithstanding the difficulties she encounters in describing Browne's attitudes about social behaviour, her approach has many favourable, and occasionally surprising consequences. In fact, concerning the status of Browne's writings, Preston offers nothing short of a seismic shift. His Religio Medici, often taken for the pinnacle of his prose style, and well regarded among scholars interested in the production of "life-writing," instead becomes the product of a young and immature idealist. After all, Browne was a (mere!) twenty-eight years old when he wrote it, and more of the aphoristic remarks, which tend to give the impression of wisdom, had yet to be tested by experience. Meanwhile, her high regard for Pseudodoxia Epidemica is indicated by the blunt assertion that "There is nothing quaint" about it; if not that, then her extensive observations about its composition, its ongoing emendations, its methodology, its relation to other scientific productions of the age - including curiosity cabinets, which arguably share more organizing characteristics than had been recognized. Its importance as a text is surpassed, if anywhere, by his extensive correspondences and notebooks, which Browne continued well after his publishing career came to an end. In addressing them, Preston points to a longstanding misrepresentation of Browne's professional career, which has overvalued his work as an essayist at the expense of his more day-to-day activities. In its place she discovers a scientist who actively engaged in dialogue - even when he embarks on a non-Baconian curiosity in objects for their own sake, without concern for their utility, it is never without cognizance of his immediate audience.

  6. As a participant in various intellectual exchanges, Browne appears only slightly easier to document than to pin down - he is both consistent with and uncharacteristic of the norms of scientific interchange. As a literary figure, he does not fare much better. Throughout her study, Preston describes both his patterns of composition and his habits of thought. These sections are more intriguing for what they leave unexplained than for what they reveal. With respect to his writing style, Preston repeatedly argues against consistent patterns; and while she makes reference to Morris Croll, at no point do her own observations about Browne's sentence structures suggest tremendous enthusiasm for his stylistic approach. This is most noticeable in her analysis of Religio Medici, where she argues for its overall lack of form, suggesting how that becomes a condition for its production, if not its very readability - which, she contends, requires a "special kind" of approach (50). And despite his proclivity to paratactic syntax and his heavy use of aphorism, which gives many of his statements the appearance of intelligibility, local coherence does not give way to an overall intellectual system. In related fashion, Preston points out the more spontaneous, even whimsical, aspects of his research - as a scientist, Browne was anything but deliberate - and at other places she is unafraid to characterize a statement of his as incoherent, even by design. It is small wonder if Browne seems not only out of step with a Baconian concern for utility, but even out of line with the very notion of civility that his professional career was supposed to embody.

  7. If Browne's writing style tends to defy systematic comprehension, his intellectual habits prove especially difficult to characterize. In fact, Preston's argument seems most questionable in the sections where she attempts to explain the kind of thinker that Browne was. She does identify certain recurring characteristics. As a researcher, he is governed by a natural theology, based on the conviction that careful observation and experiment will reveal signatures of a heavenly purpose, and perhaps restore a divine order to the world, which has disappeared since the Fall. But she also acknowledges the near impossibility of reaching that objective through his writing, which she characterizes as "endless"; hence, his natural theology is tempered by a Pyrrhonistic suspicion about intellectual certainty, while his Stoic social attitude is corrected by Christian humility. (As Preston points out, Browne regards Job as the ideal Stoic). None of this seems very unique to Browne. More problematic, Preston's argument seems at its most tentative in explaining how - or even when - Browne came to settle on his most characteristic beliefs. Thus, early sections of her book suggest that Browne's career follows a 'discernible developmental path" (43). This statement allows her to characterize the Religio Medici as an immature text. But it leads to a clear impasse when she turns to some of his later texts, including the Garden of Cyrus and Urne-Buriall, whose relation to one another remains uncertain. By the final chapters, she appears to abandon the developmental model for a more generalized, but also more indefinite profile. The passage deserves to be quoted at length:
    His works, like the papers, function as the earth itself functions, as a seminarium, a place of intellectual germination and fruition. Beyond the pattern of this intellectual verdancy, it is dangerous to insist on a deliberative and clear shape for the progression of Browne's works: Religio Medici was probably only partially 'wrought', its author surprised by publicity; Pseudodoxia evolved over many editions and was a work-in-progress for two decades; Urne-Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus may or may not have been designed in tandem, and even the order of their composition is in doubt; the tracts, notebooks, commonplace books, and other assorted compendia of observations, experiments, and theories observe no rule of organisation, and function instead like elements to be inserted in the completed compositions. (219-20)
    This is unexpected, and all the more so in light of several very illuminating explications of local passages, including selections from the notebooks themselves. In the end, one may be left acknowledging that Browne did in fact develop as a thinker, yet still wondering exactly what that development consisted of. For her part, Preston is successful in catching Browne "think aloud," as it were; but in the end there are lingering doubts as to what his thinking ultimately leads to.

  8. To the extent this is a fault - and it may well not be - it lies with Browne rather than Preston. Although Browne shows an interest in the process of generation and degeneration, and although he writes so exuberantly about seeds, the gestation process, growth, and even the production of gardens, in the end his writing bears a strong resemblance to the funerary artefacts and "lost objects" that become such frequent topics of investigation. As Preston notes, they are fascinating to Browne precisely because, as objects, they convey a sense of illegibility, and no less so for all their dazzling qualities. Consequently, they disrupt a notion of intelligibility without altogether destroying it:
    Thus there are, in studies of monuments, apparently two discrete teleologies: one type expects the monumental to preserve evidence, and seeks to assist that preservation; the other exercises reconstitutive speculation on the incomplete or illegible, and meditates on the obliterative properties of time itself. The first yields chronologies and surveys; the second does not. (143)
    It may well be that for all the traces of what Browne has passed on - his essays, his correspondences, his monuments, even his physical remains, at least part of their fascination consists of their apparent resistance to legibility.

  9. To that end, despite her claims about his professional humility, or even her observations about his stylistic obscurity - indeed, perhaps because of them - for Preston, Browne never ceases to dazzle. Perhaps the most telling passage of the book occurs during the early pages where, in a rare confessional moment, Preston discloses her own introduction to his writings. While sitting for an SAT exam - and evidently bored by the stultifying reading passages that make up the bulk of one of its sections - she came across one of the more rhapsodic passages from Urne-Buriall, from which the phrase "and Methusaleh's long life his only chronicle" found its way into her memory. It was some several years later when the original author of that statement was discovered to her, after a professor recognized it in one of her own essays and identified the source - a source that she had been plagiarizing with delight for some time, she notes. It is an enjoyable anecdote about the way fragments of Browne's writings communicate, but just what has taken place here? Is it an anonymous contribution to a more collective body of knowledge? Or is it instead an instance of sudden intellectual intimacy between two curious individuals, each fascinated with what fragments both reveal and hide? It is an extraordinary episode either way. It offers a clue for understanding how Preston came to recognize Browne's social humility for what it was, and it certainly reveals as much as any just how, despite his apparently fundamental concealment in mystery, Browne continues to communicate.

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