Reading Old Books – Writing with Traditions by Peter Mack

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Peter Mack can usually be relied on to present new ideas in an easily comprehensible style. They are usually big ideas. This book is no exception. Mack is a veteran, a scholar who, according to the dust jacket, was Professor of English at the University of Warwick. His books reveal a deep and long-lasting interest in rhetoric, a background that makes him well qualified to write about the current topic. He (with Rita Copeland) is general editor of the forthcoming five-volume Cambridge History of Rhetoric.

Mack seems to be basing his study on what earlier texts later scholars choose and how they extract the materials they consider relevant to whatever their purposes might be. He is interested also in evaluating the ways that later readers (or writers) use the older text. Finally, a big one for Mack, is what scholars consider is meant by tradition. Professor Mack has chosen the texts that make up the bulk of this work on the grounds that they open for discussion the question, “What tradition opens up for a new text and what does that new text close down” (x)?

Mack quotes Elena Ferrante’s argument that “the writer must know literary traditions and be able to alter and add to them” (2). He does not probe this idea for implications but simply carries out a detailed assessment of the views or impact of other sources such as Francis Bacon, the Gospels, St Augustine, Luther, Enlightenment thinkers, Karl Marx, and the O.E.D. as directed at an understanding, or an articulation of what is meant by literary tradition. More esoteric meanings as in the sense of secret wisdom or in folk tales are mentioned in passing. Mack writes about tradition’s coercive power – to justify conservatism, to give reasons for change and so on. Many of these ideas are not new but, having them assembled in the one place is a major move that I applaud. Mack’s plea for the careful use of the word ‘tradition’ (9) is not misplaced.

Writers such as T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis are referred to for their ideas. Briefly, Eliot seems to want to rescue literary tradition from meaning no more than the continuation of the old while asserting its value in encouraging new writing (12). I love Mack’s description of Leavis [who] “sees Jane Austen as in some sense creating the traditions from which she learns” (12). He goes on to quote Leavis to the effect that Austen makes a tradition in her present out of writers who happen to be useful to her (13). This is confronting thinking until it is realised that Mack is reinforcing his view on Eliot, that is writers to be creative have to be creative readers and read beyond the usual earlier books.  This is what Leavis says about Austen – that she draws on earlier material which – when she applies it in her work – takes on a greater importance and becomes part of the tradition, whereas if she had not drawn upon it, it would not be known. Her using a piece of information gives it a greater importance than it would otherwise had.  It then becomes part of the tradition.

And I’m interpreting Mack when it is not a reviewer’s job to do so. Apologies, Professor!

Mack’s Introduction is so packed with stimulating ideas it seems a shame to have to leave it. The application of much of his theory (or at least his reflections) is to be worked out in a study of a known writer. Petrarch (1301 – 1374) took ideas and phrase/sentence constructions from the troubadours, often in a language not his own. He has the reputation as being the ‘founder of traditions’ but, in Italian at least, his name is associated closely with that of his followers and he has “also become a victim of the tradition his followers established” (27). A host of material about Petrarch awaits the scholar. To me one of the ‘new bits’ of information is the snippet that “the texts, the selection, and the ordering were subject to Petrarch’s editorial intervention” (29).

Mack presents much original information about his exemplars (Boccaccio embellishing his writings with phrases from other authors, for example (31)) However, there are many other case studies examined, in which the writings, not the individuals, are given close scrutiny.

This book is one for the community of scholars that holds a viewpoint about tradition. It is concisely written but, at the same time, comprehensive and fulfilling. It lays down a challenge to us all to re-assess our views of tradition and match them to the erudite view Mack presents. I found it a wonderful challenge.

Reading Old Books – Writing with Traditions


By Peter Mack

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-19400-4

$US35.00; 256pp

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