Literary and Scientific Cultures in Early Modernity Anniversary Interview

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the series, Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity, we conducted an interview with editors Mary Crane and Henry Turner.

To view the books in this series, please click here.


What was it that first drew you to the subject of the series?

Mary Crane: I’ve always been interested in early modern intellectual history.  My second book used 20th Century cognitive science as a way to approach Shakespeare’s complex play with socially significant words, and from there I became interested in thinking about how early modern writers conceptualized their knowledge of the world.  The intersection of literary and scientific writing seemed like the best place to investigate their changing ideas about how to understand the natural world. 

Henry Turner: I was first drawn to the subject area in graduate school, unexpectedly, since I didn’t have any prior background in the sciences.  But I had a strong interest in intellectual history – the history of ideas, especially in a sociological / institutional context – and found that the history of science was (and still is, in my view) the most innovative area of intellectual history in terms of its methodology and the fundamental, even philosophical questions that are at stake.  So the history of science as a field appealed strongly to my particular mix of interests: in philosophical problems, sociological detail, physical artifacts, and methodological self-consciousness.  And it was very exciting to see what happened when I tried to refine my interests in these areas, which had developed in a literary context, by trying to join literary and scientific questions within the framework of historical inquiry. 


When the series first began, did you have an idea of the direction that you wanted to take? Has it taken a different direction to what you initially intended?

Mary Crane: When the series started, Henry and I both agreed that we wanted to define “literary,” “scientific,” and “early modern”  as broadly as possible.  We hoped that casting a wide net would bring in works that juxtaposed the literary and the scientific in unexpected ways.  And that broadening our conceptions of these key terms would allow us to publish books that went off the beaten path, that examined border cases or phenomena that had previously been neglected or marginal.  Along the way we have often had to think hard about whether proposed projects are a “fit” for the series or not.  In the process, my own preconceptions about what counts as “literary” or “scientific” have sometimes been expanded. 

Henry Turner: I didn’t have a clear idea for a direction, no, other than wanting to have the series become a forum and a stimulus for scholarly thinking that had a certain kind of adventurousness—and scrupulousness, whether that took the form of detailed historical research or intricate argument.  Since the series focuses on a particular historical period (even if we have come to interpret that period fairly broadly), the work is inevitably historicist.  But the blend of archival research, theoretical argument, literary reading has changed depending on the author.  And I’ve been very happy with the books that have appeared, since they’ve filled in the outline of what I imagined better than I could imagine it!


Are there any titles in the series that you have been involved with, that stand out as particularly memorable?

Mary Crane: I’m very proud of the two books that have won important prizes: Leah Knight’s Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England and Kevin Killeen’s Biblical Scholarship, Science and Politics in Early Modern England. In my own work, I’ve found the three scholarly editions that we have published to be very useful: Elaine Hobby’s edition of The Birth of Mankind, Nandini Das’s edition of Robert Greene’s Planetomachia, and Mark Netzloff’s edition of John Norden’s The Surveyor’s Dialogue.

Henry Turner: I encouraged us to publish annotated editions of primary texts in the field, and these are the books that I am the most proud of – Mark Netzloff’s edition of John Norden’s The Surveyor’s Dialogue; Nandini Das’s edition of Robert Greene’s Planetomachia, and Elaine Hobby’s edition of  The Birth of Mankind—because I think they end up being the most useful and because they have all been done to a very high level.  My ideal would be to continue to publish these editions and to couple them with a monograph or collection of original essays on the same material.  Unfortunately, however, editions of primary texts are the least profitable books we publish, and this reflects a wider problem in academic publishing today.  New scholarship – new ideas, new methods, new material – depends on new editions of important primary texts in emerging fields (which are liable to seem like “minor” fields to those who are unacquainted with them).  These needn’t be printed, bound books, although I still prefer that format.  But they are the hardest to justify from an economic standpoint. 

As for the monographs, I’m especially happy with Arielle Saiber’s book on Bruno, which is exemplary in terms of its intelligence, expertise and adventurousness.  I’m happy that we’ve been able to publish very good books in emerging fields, like ecological criticism.  And I’m delighted that several books have won prizes, since I feel like this validates the overall conception of the series but especially the process of the series, especially in getting good readers for books.

The most interesting thing as a series editor is being involved in the substantive development of a book, from topic and conception to argument to structure and organization.  Mary and I aren’t always involved in every detail, of course, but along with Erika we do watch the books carefully and we make special efforts in the selection of readers – matching readers to books is critical and an art, and I have to say that I think we’ve all done it very well.  The readers have been superb: people working at the very top of their field, taking the time to write very detailed, substantive reports on the books.  It’s fascinating to see, and very gratifying; it shows you both a broad view of a field (when you’re thinking about readers) and a focused, singular view from the perspective of one or two particular scholars, as they write their reports.  I’ve learned a lot for my own work from reading them.  More than anything, these readers have ensured that the quality of the books in the series has remained very high.  Mary, Erika and I have all care about, and work hard at, striking the right tone for the editorial process: we try to balance rigorous (and sometimes uncomfortable) readings and responses with generous, substantive advice on how to improve a book.  And authors and editors of collections have, to their credit, been willing to take this advice to heart.


Is there any other area that you would like the series to explore in coming years?

Mary Crane: I enjoy the exchanges with Henry and Erika as we try to figure out the best ways to work with authors to help them improve their proposals and manuscripts.  We see a lot of dissertation projects in various stages of being turned into first books.  We work together to come up with the best possible readers who can provide sound and detailed advice for revision.  Sometimes we try to give advice to authors ourselves, working together to strategize about how to convey what we think needs to be changed in a way that will be genuinely helpful.  When we have been able to find the perfect reader for a project, and when an author is able to take the reader’s suggestions and significantly improve the book, I think we all feel a lot of satisfaction. 

Henry Turner: As always, I’d like us to keep a balance between breaking open new areas of work while also generating high quality and very specialized scholarship.  I think there has to be a place in academic discourse for the specialized study, as opposed to the study that is trying to cross over and appeal to many people.  Of course we’d love to publish a book that break out and does very well across many fields.  We’re always looking for that ambitious, big-question kind of book that can have a strong interdisciplinary appeal.  So I suppose I’m about to contradict myself, but I’d also like to encourage critics to think bigger – to aim for bigger questions and more ambitious, more fundamental arguments. 


Do you have any advice for someone who is interested in publishing in the series?

Mary Crane: I don’t have a particular direction in mind.  I hope we can continue to receive proposals on a range of relevant topics and that we can continue to publish groundbreaking, interesting, and well-written books.

Henry Turner: Don’t take it out of the oven before it’s cooked.  Take the time that you need to ensure that it is as “motivated” as possible: that there’s a clear principle of selection for every choice you’ve made, careful thought behind every sentence, a clear view of the structure and how the parts fit into the whole.  We can often help provide this advice, so authors shouldn’t be afraid to make contact while they’re still developing the book, so long as they understand that it may take some time for the book to assume its best form.  


Finally, is there anything else you would like to comment on, in respect to your experience with the series?

Mary Crane: If someone has a project that might be a fit for the series but is unsure about the topic, he or she should not hesitate to contact one of us with a query about it. 

Henry Turner: Mary and I, Erika—all publishers, really— are always looking for interesting books.  If someone has an idea, they should write an email or introduce themselves to us and talk it through.  The collaborative aspect of the process is satisfying and it will always produce a better book.