Margaret J. M. Ezell. Social Authorship and the Advent of Print. x + 182pp. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. ISBN 0 8018 6139 x Cloth.
Scott Nixon
The Queen's College, Oxford

Nixon, Scott. "Review of Margaret J. M. Ezell, Social Authorship and the Advent of Print." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 18.1-7 <URL:

  1. Primarily as a result of Peter Beal's Index of English Literary Manuscripts, there has been a growing appreciation of the importance of manuscript evidence for textual and literary criticism of early modern literature. This has resulted in impressive individual studies of Wyatt, Sidney, Donne, Ralegh and Rochester, as well more general surveys of manuscript verse by Arthur Marotti and Mary Hobbs. Margaret Ezell's monograph on the phenomenon of 'social authorship' seeks to build upon this work, and to go beyond it in two significant respects: first, she considers how a knowledge of the social circumstances of composing and circulating literary works in manuscript challenges critical notions of 'authorship' that have been developed in the context of print publication; and, second, she explores the extent to which manuscript circulation of literature continued into the eighteenth century, and the reasons for and implications of this phenomenon.

  2. As regards attitudes to authorship, Ezell seeks to challenge the perception that manuscript circulation was only chosen when print publication was impossible or undesirable. The usual working presumption is that it is desirable to have one's works printed, and hence there must be a reason for literary works remaining unpublished. So, the ranks of manuscript writers are generally seen as composed of aristocrats who looked down on the press, women who were unwilling or unable to appear in print, and amateur writers whose work fell below the literary standards set by the printing houses. The antithesis of these figures is the skilled professional male writer. As Ezell shows, there simply has not been enough research into the surviving manuscripts to justify this view. Moreover, it is possible to adduce examples of authors normally associated with print publication who may have desired first and foremost to circulate their works in manuscript to a small audience with whom they were personally acquainted. Ezell demonstrates this point in a chapter-length study of Pope, drawing on a wide range of manuscript material and challenging many of the usual critical assumptions about his attitudes to authorship and publication.

  3. Ezell suggests that the social circumstances in which verse was composed, distributed and read could underpin what Earl Miner describes as the 'social mode' of cavalier poetry. Fortunately, she herself eschews terms such as 'metaphysical' and 'cavalier,' which are anachronistically applied to categorise seventeenth-century canonical poets, and instead explores the literary groupings that are evidenced by surviving manuscripts. Unlike the 'cavalier poets,' these groups cut across lines of gender, class, religion and politics.

  4. I am less convinced by Ezell's decision to avoid using Harold Love's terminology of 'scribal publication'. This is based on a perception that Love essentially uses the term to refer to the 'phenomenon ... whereby professional scribes reproduced the appearance of print texts' (22). However, Love makes it quite clear that the professional publication of manuscripts for commercial gain, or 'entrepreneurial publication,' is only one aspect of 'scribal publication.' The other two aspects are 'author publication,' whereby the distribution of copies takes place under the author's personal supervision, and 'user publication,' the copy made by an individual reader, most commonly on loose leaves for circulation to other readers or in a personal commonplace book (Hobbs, ch. 2). In these terms, much of Ezell's monograph concerns aspects of 'scribal publication,' since it focuses on the phenomenon of social authorship that relied upon 'author' and 'user' publication.

  5. Ezell's study is especially impressive when she sets out the evidence for the continuation of social authorship into the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, showing the vitality of manuscript culture long after print is presumed to have become the normal mode of publication for literary works. Reasons include the advantages presented by scribal publication, including some control over the audience for and appearance of the text, and the lack of incentives for print publication, especially prior to the Statute of Queen Anne. In fact, printing houses, especially those outside London, were hostile or indifferent to literary works. The majority of their output tended to be polemical or theological works, and financial rewards for those literary works which were published tended to be meagre. Ezell convincingly demonstrates that an author living outside London in the late seventeenth century would have had very little chance of print publication, whatever his or her desire for an audience or sense of professionalism.

  6. It seemed to me that the final section, which had already appeared in the South Central Review, was not clearly integrated into Ezell's study. It is primarily concerned with the print publication of series of literary works in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and has no immediate relevance to the idea of social authorship. The linking theme appeared to be that an author who was available in print was more likely to be chosen for inclusion in these literary series, which themselves played a key role in canon formation. If this chapter had been omitted, the analysis of social authorship may have been tighter, but the book would have been much shorter, a mere 120 pages (plus notes). Of course, length is no guide to quality, and Ezell's pages are much more rewarding than many other (physically heavier) studies of Restoration literature. Nonetheless, I feel as though the impact of Ezell's study might have been more powerful if several of the fascinating circles of literary exchange that she explores had been expanded into more substantial individual studies, in the manner of Mary Hobbs's Early Seventeenth-Century Verse Miscellany Manuscripts. Indeed, an excellent example of such an expanded study is provided by Ezell's examination of the manuscripts of Ann Halkett, in a recently published collection of essays edited by Arthur Marotti and Michael Bristol, Print, Manuscript, & Performance: The Changing Relations of the Media in Early Modern England.

  7. In any case, Ezell does not claim to be comprehensively surveying the field. Instead, she seeks to outline the rich reserves of archival material that are yet to be explored, and the ways in which such material might question traditional literary histories. In these respects, Ezell's beautifully written and cogently argued study is an unqualified success.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)