'Social Things': The Production of Popular Culture in the Reception of Robert Greene's Pandosto

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In the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean years, increasing literacy and a growing publishing industry stimulated expansion of the popular literary audience; that is, of the diverse group of nonelite men and women who read print for pleasure. 1 The period’s unprecedented output of new prose fiction titles offers critical access to that growing audience, but most twentieth-century criticism of early modern prose fiction has considered the popular audience only in order to cordon it off from an elite literary audience. 2 According to the dominant binary model of the genre, the elite Sidney circle inspired a few artful masterpieces (The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, and now The Countess of Montgomeries Urania), while the burgeoning popular audience triggered a new business of hack writing. 3 When we follow Roger Chartier’s example in discarding that “simple opposition of populaire versus savant,” we can recognize instead that the early modern effort to marginalize popular print culture responded to this rapid diversification in the reading audience. 4 The category we now recognize as ‘popular culture’ was constituted socially, as a reclassification of early print forms that had originated within a “collective culture... from which the dominant classes or the various elites only slowly distanced themselves.” 5 Early modern print fiction, in particular, had circulated among other socially diverse cultural practices; like other such practices, fiction consumption was increasingly linked to social differentiation. As early modern England became a print-reading culture in which readers, authors, and texts proliferated, the socially and culturally elite found the need for a boundary between elite and popular cultures more acute than ever before. The growing collection of cultural commodities that we now call early modern print fiction was repositioned by a discourse that sought to distinguish elite from popular culture, and that discourse has delimited our understanding of early fiction ever since.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)753-781
JournalELH - English Literary History
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1994


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