Authorship and Reading in Seventeenth Century Prophets

This is my first “real” post, I guess.  I though I’d share a little bit about what I’m currently working on. (Please keep in mind: most of this is for my own benefit, as I’m still thinking through some issues.) I am in the process of revising Chapter 4 of my dissertation which is, loosely speaking, on seventeenth-century prophets.  The overarching arc of my dissertation is about how Protestant writers often constructed authorship as a way of collaborating with God. This type of authorship often appears in the form of claims of divine inspiration, a sense of God as patron, or, as Abiezer Coppe described it, just a command to “write, write, write.”

The problem so far has been that describing the different ways specific seventeenth-century prophets talked about their prophetic authorship as collaboration with the divine didn’t end up advancing my argument nearly as much as I had hoped it would. I made no new discoveries about this divine collaboration that I hadn’t already seen in previous writers. But, after talking through this particular frustration with both my advisors, a few colleagues, and even my father (who is surprisingly willing to let me go on and on about books he’s never read and isn’t interested in reading), I realized that while these prophets weren’t doing anything particularly new in terms of divine collaboration, they could allow me to explore another facet of it that I had previously pushed to the background: the audience, the readers who were reacting to this construction of authorship.

Two books have shaped how I’m thinking about the issues of readers.  First, Kevin Sharpe’s Reading Revolutions and Sharon Achinstein’s Milton and the Revolutionary Reader.  What both scholars propose is that how people read changed during the English Civil Wars/Revolutionary period (whether you use “Civil Wars” or “Revolution” seems to have connotations about historical perspectives, and I haven’t quite figured out which side I’m on yet). Perhaps more important, how they read shifted as authorship started losing its authority and readers started gaining it. The representative texts in this debate about where authority lies–the author or the reader–might be Charles I’s Eikon Basilike and Milton’s Eikonoklastes, which were both published immediately following Charles I’s beheading in 1649. Eikon Basilike connects authorship and authority with the divine right of kings as it appeared as a spiritual autobiography; Eikonoklastes, on the other hand, argued for the right of the people to behead a tyrant, and therefore, implicitly, to challenge the authority of the author.  (Of course, there is no small irony in telling readers that they can challenge the authority of the author if one is an author, but Milton’s confidence knew very few boundaries; he would claim divine inspiration himself when he wrote his epic poems.) Eikonoklastes in this sense was a continuation of Milton’s thought from Areopagitica.

Some of the seventeenth-century prophets that I deal with in my chapter handle the issue well; Gerrard Winstanley seems to embrace the sense that he has no authority on his own (or even as a divinely inspired author) if readers do not find confirmation of what he says in their own personal experience of God. Anna Trapnel walks a fine line as she address an audience that ranges from those who are predisposed to accept that God speaks to her to those who think that she is demon possessed instead of divinely inspired. But whether they handle it easily or carefully, the prophets’ sense of authorship is constructed at least in part as a response to an audience that they expect to be skeptical and make their own decisions about the author’s authority.

So what I think I’m beginning to see here is that while the authors themselves seem to still have a sense of divine collaboration, what has changed is the way other parts of the text undercut the idea that this grants a clear authority over the reader. Instead, authors must find a way to invite readers to participate in their texts through interpretation, and thus to participate in divine collaboration themselves. 

Ha! That last paragraph, especially that last line, is not something I had really thought of until I wrote this blog post, but I think I might be on to something.  Blogging seems to be working for *me* even if no one else ends up reading this stuff.


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