Following the example of Robert Greene, one of his predecessors at St. John’s College, Cambridge, Thomas Nashe overcame whatever religious scruples might have been bred into him as a preacher’s son and set out with profane determination to become one of the first professional writers in England and one of the most controversial. As a member of the University Wits, he distinguished himself with the diversity of his authorial talents, unashamedly plying the writer’s trade as polemical pamphleteer, poet, dramatist, and reporter. He said of himself, “I have written in all sorts of humours more than any young man of my age in England.”
When he died, still a young man in his thirties, Nashe left behind a veritable grab bag of miscellaneous literary pieces. Later critics have often concluded that Nashe’s explosive productivity was more comparable with the effect of a scattergun than with that of the big cannons wielded by such contemporaries as William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Philip Marlowe. Nashe has been accused of superficiality, of both thought and style, and he richly merits the accusation. Nevertheless, all would agree that at least two of his works deserve the continued attention of all those interested in the development of English literary style: The Unfortunate Traveller: Or, The Life of Jack Wilton and Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Divell (1592), which received three editions in the first year of publication alone.
Pierce Penilesse, Nashe’s most popular and wide-ranging satirical pamphlet, is a harsh, graphic indictment of the follies and vices of contemporary England, seen from the perspective of one of the first indisputable forerunners of yellow journalism. Nashe’s ready talent for immediately distilling the fruits of his observation and experience into gripping firsthand reports served him well in the complicated narrative of Jack Wilton.
The Unfortunate Traveller was written almost one hundred and fifty years too early to be classified as a novel. It is, however, an important forerunner of the English novel as it was to develop in the eighteenth century. The Unfortunate Traveller, along with Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590), was one of the high points of the literature of the last years of the sixteenth century. The level of realism is high in this work, yet Nashe also catered to the Elizabethan taste for the romantic and farfetched, especially in dealing with Italy and the Italians. Seldom has a work, even in later centuries, described in such detail the horrors of public torture and execution and incidents of rape and looting.
Rambling narrative, travelogue, earthy memoir, diary, tavern yarn, picaresque adventure, and political, nationalistic, and religious diatribe, The Unfortunate Traveller, although impossible to classify generically, is nevertheless clearly one of the seminal starting points in the development of the English novel. The critics are in general agreement...
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