Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thomas Nashe, see what thy bounty erst planted

When I was young rocker in the old Cicero's scene in St. Louis, the guy who booked the basement bar started a little 'zine, The Subterranean (nice pun on the basement space and a Jack Kerouac novella title!). Smart, quirky people ran the club, and they put together a decent 'zine for a minute.

It had a regular column called Babette & Lulu, a spoof on tean beat columns idolizing pop stars. It was a Q&A with a local rocker, redolent with over-the-top words like "dreamy," and the first interview subject was me. Among much more sexy fare, Babette and Lulu asked me what was my favorite book, and I gave then the same answer I might give now: The Unfortunate Traveler by Thomas Nashe.

When I ran away from graduate school to play in a traveling band, I was writing my dissertation on Nashe and the other British prose pamphleteers of the 1590s - Shakespeare's rough-and-tumble contemporaries; the lewd, dangerous fathers of the bastard that is journalism.

I still read Nashe. There is a crazy online compendium of his work that I discovered after I had one of my less productive high school interns type in an entire pamphlet of his (The Terrors of the Night) for possible copublication with The Firecracker Press. (Long-dead men have no copyrights.)

I emulate Nashe. I want for my fiction to have his antic humor, his intense point of view, his runaway metaphorics, his historical sweep, his lyrical departures, his bite. For as long as I have been writing fiction I have been working on a novel that has changed names many times before arriving back home at Thomas Nashe, "The Painful Travels of Larry Lane."

I want for my journalism to have his capacity to unsettle the pompous and embarass the corrupt. One of my staff responsibilities at The St. Louis American is to edit an unbylined political column, The Political EYE, which some professional journalists dismiss as an aberration of the black press, when in fact it keeps alive the very roots of the form, the anonymous pamphlets put out for sale in St. Paul's Churchyard or nailed up as broadsides in the byways of the first English city, designed to cry out publicly some disguised evil.

These days, the Nashe I am toting around and reading in snatches at bartops is Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Devil (1592), in the Bodley Head Quarto series that exactly reproduces Renaissance pamphlets. Pierce Penniless begins (unforgettably, to me), "Having spent many years in studying how to live, and lived a long time without money," which is how I preface in my mind everything I write.

Two nights ago, I pulled a fast one on my little bitty skinny kid. Instead of reading her Dr. Seuss or a Bearanstein Bear title, I curled up with her and starting reading her Pierce Penniless. She didn't object, which amazed me. When I started getting drowsy and drifting off, she exhorted me, "Read!" just as she does when I am reading her Winnie the Pooh.

She even found herself so caught up in his 516-year-old phrases that she repeated one back to me.

Nashe's Pierce was hymning Sir Philip Sydney. He was saying, "But thou art dead in thy grave, and has left too few successors of thy glory, too few to cherish the Sons of the Muses, or water those budding hopes of their plenty, why thy bounty erst planted."

Leyla said, "Thy bounty erst planted," sort of, and asked what it meant.

Since she was asking me about something Thomas Nashe wrote about Philip Sydney, and my traveler novel is about a son who grew up on the road reading Sydney's Arcadia aloud to his dad, who was a traveling salesmean, I was very happy about this.

"'Thy bounty erst planted'," I explained, after breaking down the unfamiliar terms, "means all of the good things you did made all of these other things possible."

I'll give that love back to Thomas Nashe, this morning: thanks for all that thy bounty erst planted.


The image is a notorious woodcut of Nashe in chains one of the times he fell afoul of the law.

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