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«Oral Tradition, 24/2 (2009): 373-392 On Speech, Print, and New Media: Thomas Nashe and Marshall McLuhan Neil Rhodes 2006 was a good year for Marshall ...»

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Oral Tradition, 24/2 (2009): 373-392

On Speech, Print, and New Media:

Thomas Nashe and Marshall McLuhan

Neil Rhodes

2006 was a good year for Marshall McLuhan. He finally got his Ph.D. dissertation

published, 63 years after completion, and the Times Literary Supplement ran a lead review article

by Paul Barker on a new collection of his work with a cover illustration featuring Chantelle, a

manufactured celebrity from the Big Brother TV program (Barker 2006:2-3). The full page close-up of Chantelle’s bleached blond hair and crimson pout was not what TLS readers might have expected from this highbrow publication, but the image (and its context) were undoubtedly, as the caption stated, “Pure McLuhan.” McLuhan himself, of course, was not around to enjoy this triumphant moment, having died in 1980, but it was an eloquent sign of his continuing modernity. Since other intellectuals who made their reputations in the 1960s have not worn very well in recent years, that is a remarkable achievement, and anyone reading McLuhan today will be struck by the extraordinary prescience of his observations on the media and the way they shape our cultural environment. It is difficult to believe that the statement “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village” could have been made in 1962, long before the advent of the personal computer and the Internet. This is among his most famous pronouncements, but it is also entirely typical. Typical, too, is its formulation as a soundbite, a term that he did not invent but that nonetheless captures a wide range of McLuhanite themes: oral and aural media, the TV interview, acoustic space, and knowledge as aphorism.

What I want to focus on here, however, is not the subject of the TLS article, which was a boxed set of twenty pamphlets from various points in McLuhan’s career, but the subject of his Cambridge Ph.D. thesis, the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe. Since Cambridge University Library will not lend out the thesis in any form, and also imposes a strict embargo on quotation from it, this work has understandably not featured much in discussions of McLuhan and his subsequent intellectual development,1 but it does raise some very interesting questions both for early modernists and historians of the media. Why Nashe? What continuity is there between Nashe and the themes of McLuhan’s later work? How might this early investigation of late sixteenth-century cultural conditions point us towards McLuhan’s future role as the founding father of media studies?

1 McLuhan’s biographers (Marchand 1989; Gordon 1997) do, of course, discuss his Ph.D., and it is referred to in Renaissance literary scholarship by Kinney (1986:315-19) and Norbrook (2

–  –  –

McLuhan went to Cambridge to study English in 1934 and was able to experience the development of “Cambridge English” in its dynamic early phase. The most important influence on him there while he was doing his Tripos (the undergraduate degree course) work was I. A.

Richards, and he was to acknowledge his intellectual debt to Richards in correspondence with him later in life (Gordon 1997:332). At the time of his arrival in Cambridge, Richards had recently published Practical Criticism (1929), one of the seminal texts of modern English Studies. This book set out the techniques of literary close reading, focusing on the words on the page, but Richards also stressed the performative aspects of language, something that is evident from records of his teaching. In January 1935 McLuhan enrolled in Richards’ “Philosophy of Rhetoric” class, which had been conceived as a sequel to the “Practical Criticism” class, but with prose passages rather than poems set for close analysis. It was probably this coursework that provided the immediate stimulus for his Ph.D. topic. What he originally proposed to write was a thesis called “The Arrest of Tudor Prose,” consciously reworking R. W. Chambers’ The Continuity of English Prose, which had appeared in 1932, but like many embryonic Ph.D.

proposals he found that it was going off in different directions: “Abandoning, therefore, my original thesis, I turned to consider Nashe the journalist” (McLuhan 2006:3). 2 McLuhan’s consideration of Nashe, however, only occupies the last quarter of the thesis.

The rest of it is devoted to a history of the trivium—the arts curriculum covering grammar, logic, and rhetoric—from antiquity through to the early seventeenth century. Nashe is taken as a representative of a cultural moment at the end of this period. McLuhan explains: “if Nashe appears to be a kind of appendix to a chapter in the history of education, he is really intended to be a focal point. Bacon or Donne would have served this function better in some ways than Nashe” (ibid.:6). This is certainly an odd kind of admission to make. If Nashe is unsuitable to act as a representative figure, and most readers of him would agree that he is a rather strange choice for this purpose, then why choose him? Again, McLuhan explains: “Nashe’s sophisticated awareness of the precise nature of his activity and function as a writer gradually impressed itself upon me. His pretence of drawing only on his ‘extemporal vein,’ his appearance of unstudied coruscation is not only a pose, but a conventional pose” (4). He illustrates the conventionality by pointing out Nashe’s debt to the highly mannered rhetoric of Lyly’s Euphues. This is true, but only just. Nashe imitated Lyly in his first work, The Anatomie of Absurditie (1589), and thereafter struck out on his own highly experimental course. What I want to argue is that while McLuhan presented Nashe in his Ph.D. thesis as the conservative defender of the traditional arts curriculum, he was also deeply impressed by the extraordinary vitality of Nashe’s style and realized that some of its features could be updated for a modern, freewheeling approach to popular culture and the media. From The Mechanical Bride (1951) onwards, McLuhan cultivated his own “extemporal vein,” emulating Nashe’s showmanship, his preference for oral forms of expression, and his appearance of improvisation. What Nashe called “gallimaufry” (motley, medley), McLuhan called “mosaic”: “The Gutenberg Galaxy develops a mosaic or field approach to its problems,” runs the opening sentence of that book (McLuhan 1962). Nashe, I would argue, is the model for the paradox of McLuhan’s ultra-conservatism and ultra-modernity.

2 I cite the published text of the thesis. Its title, “The Classical Trivium,” is an addition to the original thesis title, “The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time.”


The experimental quality of Nashe’s style, with its mixture of neologism, acoustic effect, and a sliding between high and low elements, has prompted comparisons with much later writers, notably Joyce. These comparisons may be specious or misleading, but the point here is that they show that Nashe may give the appearance of modernity to the modern reader. As far as education was concerned, however, Nashe himself was eager to assert his conservatism, praising the traditionalist values of his alma mater, St. John’s College, Cambridge, and its luminaries such as the Greek scholar and ardent Ciceronian, Roger Ascham. So when McLuhan uses the terms “pretence” and “pose,” and refers to Nashe’s “sophisticated awareness” of what he was doing, he points to a fundamental contradiction in the literary persona that Nashe adopted for himself. Here is somebody who took pride in his elite academic and social status (he advertised himself as “Thomas Nashe, Gent” on the title-page of Pierce Penilesse), but also wanted to create the impression of being sharp, street-wise, and avant-garde—the cutting edge of the London literary world in the 1590s.

He did this by simulating oral techniques drawn from contemporary culture. It is true that Euphuism was one early influence on Nashe, but his involvement in the Marprelate controversy was another (Summersgill 1951). “Martin Marprelate” was the name adopted by the Puritan author(s) of a series of satirical pamphlets attacking the bishops, printed at secret locations between September 1588 and October 1589. The effectiveness of these satires was largely due to their aggressive use of low speech idiom, designed to ridicule inflated episcopal style. The pamphlets are a cornucopia of oral forms and other elements of popular culture: jokes, insults, ballads, maygames, parodies of formal rhetoric, and clever impersonations. Martin tells his readers that the Bishop of Winchester has a face “made of seasoned wainscot, and will lie as fast as a dog can trot” and threatens to “bumfeg the Cooper,” while his “father,” in the persona of “Martin Senior,” relates how the parson of Stepney “played the potter’s part in the Morrice Dance” (“Marprelate” 1911:72, 230, 369). The arena of religious debate becomes a fairground where we are treated to the verbal equivalent of fire-eaters and dancing bears, and what is on show is a performance of the arts of the trivium, dumbed down, as it were, for popular entertainment. Martin Senior acts as showman for his son, promising the audience that they will “see such grammar, such art, such wit, and conveyance of matter, as for the variety of learning, and the pleasantness of the style, the like is not elsewhere to be found” (ibid.:363). The Marprelate pamphlets are a series of oral performances that reconstruct the formal arts in terms of popular culture.

Clearly alarmed by the success of Martin’s ridicule, the authorities decided to employ some young professional writers to a respond in a similar manner, among them Lyly and Nashe.

Exactly who wrote what has not been firmly established, but it seems likely that Nashe was responsible for An Almond for a Parrat (1589), which is dedicated to the clown, Will Kemp, and alludes to “that merry man Rablays” (Nashe 1958:III, 341). Although he is suitably indignant about Martin’s “intemperate style,” Nashe shows that he can master the idiom at least as effectively as his opponent, complaining about “his auncient burlibond adiunctes that so pester his former edition with their unweldie phrase, as no true syllogisme can haue elbowe roome where they are” (ibid.:347). At the same time as he attacks Martin for his abuse of rhetoric and logic, Nashe’s own demotic style tips the language of the classroom out on to the street. Lyly’s likely contribution to the battle, Pap with a Hatchet (1589), does something very similar, though 376 NEIL RHODES in a more sinister way, vowing that he and the other Martinist writers won’t stop until “we have brought Martin to the ablative case, that is, to bee taken away with Bull’s voider … O here were a notable full point, to leave Martin in the hangman’s apron” (Lyly 1902:III, 404). (Bull was the Tyburn executioner, and the man identified as Martin, John Penry, did indeed meet that fate.) Lyly adds grammar to Nashe’s rhetoric and logic, and together they translate the three parts of the trivium into the kind of concrete, physical expressions that characterize the language of popular culture. Many people at the time found this contamination of high with low extremely offensive, though on account of the debasement of religion, of course, not the dumbing down of the trivium. Francis Bacon, for example, thought that it was dangerous “to intermix Scripture and scurrility” and observed (in Latin, appropriately enough, though with a following translation) that “there is no greater confusion than the confounding of jest and earnest” (Bacon 1857-74:VIII, 77). But for Nashe the controversy provided an ideal brief. It enabled him to practice new writing strategies—invective toughened by the idioms of popular culture—while maintaining a conservative political position, working for the establishment. He was also able to see how his earlier model, John Lyly (Oxon), inventor of Euphuism, could slum it in style.

Nashe’s negotiations between elite and popular cultures are reflected in his agile interweaving of features from oral and print media. Again, this is a tactic that he may well have picked up from Martin, who used the print convention of the marginal insertion not for academic glossing, but as a vocal intervention, where the author becomes the shouting bystander: “Ha, priests, I’ll bang you, or else never trust me”; and he produced absurd colophons such as “Given at my Castle, between two whales; neither four days from Penniless Beach, nor yet at the West End of Shrovetide” (“Marprelate” 1911:44, 101). Commenting on the relationship between theatrical performance and printed text, D. F. McKenzie observes that “we have to think of other essentially theatrical places—the fairground and the market—for example—to recall that some oral modes are even less compatible with print” (McKenzie 2002:240). Yet translating the language of fairground and market into print is exactly what Nashe, and Martin before him, do.

Street cries, for example, become book titles, such as Martin’s Hay Any Work for Cooper, and Nashe grumbles about the book market’s constant demands for novelty in similar terms: “Newe Herrings, new, wee must crye, every time wee make our selves publique, or else we shall bee christened with a hundred newe tytles of Idiotisme” (Nashe 1958:I, 192). McKenzie (2002:240) rightly points out that in these popular arenas speech is accompanied by physical action, props, and other rhetorical supports that cannot be reproduced in print, but Martin and Nashe do nonetheless try to recreate a vigorously physical environment in print form where adjuncts (that is, epithets) are burliboned and syllogisms have elbow room.

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