ONE of my favorite books of the year is the effort by Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt to make sense of several thousand years of Adam and Eve. Where did the original myth and its imagery come from, how did it resonate down the centuries for Christian, Jewish. and Muslim believers, for philosophers and theologians, and for poets like John Milton and artists like Durer?
Greenblatt tells the tale in a way that’s both lively and smart, and my interview with him for The Los Angeles Review of Books is here. For most of the conversation, we talk about these two and the infamous serpent, but near the end we get into New Historicism — the discipline he helped found — and his habit of writing books that mass audiences actually want to read. Here’s a taste:
You’ve obviously had some success writing for a general audience, atypical for an academic. I wonder where you think you learned to write — or to write like this, setting scenes, using metaphors, establishing characters, and so on … I was wondering where that comes from, because that’s not built into the training of a literary or historical scholar.
They try to beat it out of you! It’s probably that I wasn’t willing, somehow … I wasn’t trained adequately — they didn’t beat it out of me. They tried, but they didn’t. And I remember writing the first sentence of my dissertation a thousand years ago, and going out in the hallway and saying to a friend of mine who was there, “I’ve written the first sentence of my dissertation,” and he looked not particularly thrilled. Then I said, “I’m going to read it to you!” I can even remember it: “Sir Henry Yelverton, the king’s attorney, was no friend to Sir Walter Raleigh,” and my friend looked a little quizzical. I said, “The thing is, you don’t know whether you’re reading a dissertation, or a novel, or…”