In Recursive Origins: Writing at the Transition to Modernity, William Kuskin asks us to reconsider the relationship between literary form and historical period. As Kuskin observes, most current literary histories of medieval and early modern English literature hew to period, presenting the Middle Ages and modernity as discrete, separated by a heterodox and unstable fifteenth century. In contrast, the major writers of the sixteenth century—Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, the Holinshed Syndicate, and their editors—were intense readers of the fifteenth century and consciously looked back to its history and poetry as they shaped their own. Kuskin examines their work in light of the writings they knew—that of Thomas Hoccleve, John Lydgate, William Caxton, and the anonymous London Chronicles—to demonstrate that fifteenth-century textual forms exist within the most significant statements of literary modernity. In short, by reconsidering the relationship between literary form and temporality, we can reach across the firewall of 1500 to write a more complex literary history of reading and writing than has previously been told.
Moving beyond his central critique—that notions of period and progress are poor measures of literary history—Kuskin develops and demonstrates the hermeneutic power of recursivity as a powerful challenge to a linear view of literary historical periods. Kuskin appropriates the term “recursion” from computer science, where it describes a computer program’s return to a subprogram within itself to perform a more complex procedure. Books, for Kuskin, are recursive: they imagine within themselves a return to an earlier moment of writing, which, when read, they enact in the present. His is a profound claim for the grip of the past on the present and, more locally, a reclamation of the importance of the fifteenth century for any discussion of sixteenth-century literature and of the relationship between the medieval and the early modern.
“Brilliant and provocative, William Kuskin’s Recursive Origins: Writing at the Transition to Modernity is original in its combination of literary and book history, compelling in its vision of a model of recursion, and inspiring in its ambitiousness. It is the kind of book that literary studies needs right now.” — Kent Cartwright, University of Maryland
“In this pioneering work, William Kuskin turns a keen eye on the literary production of early modernity and discovers there the traces of recursivity: instances in which ostensible breaks with the past turn out always to embed the past. As a mode of composition, recursivity challenges the very tenets of literary history and thus requires its own method of literary criticism. Instead of reading works through the lens of periodization, Kuskin argues, we would do better to read them with their own pasts in view: that is, as they appear in the physical books in which they first appeared, whose codicological semiotics often recur to an earlier period—in the case of the works Kuskin considers, to the Middle Ages.” — Martha Rust, New York University
“Kuskin has written a timely, important book. . . . As one of the leading authorities on the English printer, editor, and translator William Caxton, Kuskin clearly establishes the need for those in English studies to look at the texts of the fifteeenth century. There one will find the origins of the so-called early modern period and the canonical authors who wrote them.” — Choice
“Recursive Origins is exceptionally strong in its detail, and will be of value to anybody interested in the reception of late medieval culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or in the relationship between manuscript and print technologies.” — SHARP News
“This study thus importantly contributes to current conversations that seek to emphasize literary history’s formal properties. Although Kuskin does not press the point, he also usefully spells out how familiar versions of medieval and early modern periodization take their cue from sixteenth-century writers themselves, who repeatedly claim to depart from the past even as their works recur upon its material texts and tropes.” — Renaissance Quarterly
“Overall, Recursive Origins makes a brilliant argument, all the more so for its seeming simplicity. Kuskin’s theory of textual formalism already underlies some of the best scholarly work being done in the field and it promises fruitful re-contextualizations of canonical works for years to come. Indeed, like the best academic studies, Recursive Origins presents an overwhelmingly elegant solution to a pervasive and hotly debated problem.” — The Sixteenth Century Journal
“Recursive Origins tells a compelling story with a clear antagonist: the literary period. William Kuskin’s mighty ambition in this book is to ‘provide an alternative model for conceiving of literary history,’ resisting the totalizing temporal categories of modernity and the logic of revolution or rupture . . . that defines and legitimizes them.” — Modern Language Quarterly
“Kuskin is an attentive reader of literary texts, a sharp critic of contacts and overlaps between texts from different centuries, and an effective synthesizer of a complex and vast body of evidence and arguments about print, bibliography, and textual history of literary texts which he analyzes with great skill in this timely book.” — Renaissance and Reformation