The Unfortunate Traveller

by Thomas Nashe

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Critical Evaluation

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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 with H. G. Wells, who declared that the work “has no organic principle; it is not a unified work of art,” yet it definitely has an organic wholeness. That wholeness is as much external as internal, provided more by the author’s pen than by the ephemeral events in the life of the main character.

The lack of unity in the work accurately reflects the mind of its author, who had a mind as chaotically diverse as the narrative it produced. The structure of the book, a recounting of Jack’s travels through Great Britain, the Low Countries, Germany, France, and Italy, seems entirely arbitrary. It is a structure ideally suited to Nashe’s always changeable purpose and varying interests. The reader will look in vain for a balance between one part of Jack’s travels and another;...

(This entire section contains 1238 words.)

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there is none, since Nashe sees contemporary life as completely unbalanced. Like Jack, the author stays where he likes as long as he likes and especially as long as he senses the reader can still be interested. Nashe’s sense of his audience is one of his most charming assets, and it is highly appropriate that this tale is set up in the guise of a barroom brag on the part of Jack, lately returned from Bologna. Nashe’s structural nonchalance almost certainly influenced Laurence Sterne’sTristram Shandy (1759-1767).

Sterne also must have been intrigued by the ambiguity of viewpoint found in The Unfortunate Traveller. At times in the book it appears almost certain that the author has forgotten about Jack entirely, setting off on his own to denounce, castigate, ridicule, or expound on one thing or another. At other times, Nashe can be most subtle in his handling of the complicated relationship between narrator and fictive reader, as when Jack quotes a Latin phrase to justify his actions, mistranslating it for his ignorant victims and leading readers to wonder whether the mistranslation is also intended to poke fun at them (“Tendit ad sydera virtus,” for example, which Jack renders as “There’s great virtue belongs, I can tell you, to a cup of cider”). If Sterne in Tristram Shandy overlooked the neat narrative distinctions that Dante and Geoffrey Chaucer had drawn between the naïve pilgrim and the narrator-pilgrim, he was able to do so with the comfortable knowledge that Nashe had done it first and had succeeded brilliantly.

Nashe’s style reaches its finest and most characteristic expression in this book: with the vivacity of an undiminishing sprezzatura, brilliantly uneven, uncontrolled, and disorganized. The Unfortunate Traveller walks a precarious line between the realistic and romantic perspectives and frequently, as Nashe did in his own mind and life, gains its appeal from its inability to prevent one aspect from overflowing into the other. The journalistic nature of Nashe’s prose is marked both positively and negatively: positively for its unprecedented precision of detail, proving the author’s considerable powers of observation (equaled only by his lack of discipline), and negatively for his inability to separate objective narration from personal viewpoint—indeed, his unwillingness to see the value of such a separation. The result is a work as prodigious for its literary faults as it is for its virtues.

The reason this work continues to be read lies to some extent in the character of Jack Wilton himself, the semifictional counterpart of Nashe’s own personality. Jack is an earthy Everyman with whom every new reader can identify—in his ambivalence between ambition and cowardice, between the desire for adventure and the need for security, between aggressiveness and passivity; in his switch from awestruck observer to cantankerous prankster, from innocent victim to devious culprit; in his love of acting and enjoyment of performance; in his passionate enthusiasms and vicious hatreds. He is as typical of the Renaissance English spirit as he is universal. In him, Nashe depicts brilliantly what is so rarely successful, a mixture of opposites. The Unfortunate Traveller is a mixture of the devout and the debauched, the sacred and the profane, the scholarly and the vulgar, the delicate and the brutal, the aristocratic and the common, the explorer and the patriot that made Elizabethan and Tudor England quite different from any other English era before or since. The singularity of an age, after all, can be found only in its tensions, in the peculiar coupling of opposing forces. The Unfortunate Traveller, in the unforgettable crudity and refinement of its humor, and in its instantaneous leaps from highly serious didacticism to profoundly trivial farce, is a kind of template both shaped by and reproducing the shape of its times.