"Plain Broad Narratives of Substantial Facts": Credibility, Narrative, and Hakluyt's Principall Navigations

By Schleck, Julia | Renaissance Quarterly, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

"Plain Broad Narratives of Substantial Facts": Credibility, Narrative, and Hakluyt's Principall Navigations


Schleck, Julia, Renaissance Quarterly


1. INTRODUCTION

When J. A. Froude attacked the narrative style of Richard Hakluyt's Principall Navigations of the English Nation (1589) in his 1852 review of the Hakluyt Society's first three publications, Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh (1861-1922) leapt to Hakluyt's defense, insisting that "[There is something important] to be found in these long and dull lists of unknown names, of merchant promoters, gentlemen adventurers, intending colonists, and ship's companies, which give so business-like an air to Hakluyt's pages. It may be true ... that these detailed summaries 'leave as little impression of excitement ... upon our minds as so many almanacks.' But they held in them the promise of Empire." (1) Few critics now concern themselves with the almanac-like style of many of Hakluyt's tales; the promise of empire has attracted far more attention. Hakluyt's sprawling collection of travel narratives now occupies a central place in the growing literature treating crosscultural exchange in the early modern period. Featured heavily in the field of early transatlantic studies for many years, the popularity of the Navigations has only increased with the recent expansion of the critical lens to encompass the "Old Worlds" of the Near East, Africa, and the Mediterranean. (2) Yet for all the visibility this collection of travel tales has achieved in modern scholarship, the Principall Navigations has retained one thing in common with the almanac: both are consulted far more often than they are considered as a whole.

The Principall Navigations has suffered more than most from the fate of many prose works in modern criticism: to be mined for short quotations which serve as textual sound-bites for generalized discussions of English attitudes towards the foreign in all its guises. This return to the archive, which characterizes the most recent direction of historicist studies, is generally laudable; however, the return to the practice of illustrative quoting associated with the inclusion of more archival material raises several methodological issues that should be kept in view as we attempt to broaden our historical knowledge and description of the period. (3) Foremost among these is the historical nature of reading practices, and the necessity of being conscious of the anachronisms that can result when reading a text filtered through the lens of modern generic expectations. This article will address this issue by reading Hakluyt's Principall Navigations against a set of contemporaneous travel narratives, and by placing early modern generic expectations against modern ones. It argues that the frequent use of Hakluyt's text for the purpose of illustrative quoting is based in modern generic assumptions that allow for the dissecting of a tale in a way that would puzzle early modern readers.

Critical literature on Hakluyt can easily be divided into two camps, the vast body of criticism which quotes from a few of Hakluyt's voyages, using them as historical source material, and a considerably smaller group of pieces which either focus on a particular tale within the Navigations or treat the publications of Richard Hakluyt (1552?-1616) and his editorial practices as a whole. These latter studies tend to focus on Hakluyt's complicity in promoting early colonial endeavors and the significant role his publications played in achieving that goal. As Emily Bartels succinctly summarizes, "Hakluyt's mission was to push the English court towards an imperialist future by crafting England's spotty record overseas into an extensive history of continued progress." (4) However, this work is never acknowledged or taken into account when short quotations are snipped from a longer tale within the Navigations, largely because Hakluyt's compilation is implicitly regarded as one of the least problematic of early modern source materials. As an editor, Hakluyt has long been touted as "conscientious ... an historian's dream"; as a set of voyage narratives, the stories in the Navigations are "grave, sensible, restrained. …

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