Heavyweights square up in bout of literary 'butt kicking'

March 4, 2005

A furious row has erupted between the "Godzilla" and "King Kong" of Renaissance literature.

Stephen Greenblatt, professor of humanities at Harvard University, has hit out at a devastating review of his latest bestselling book by Alastair Fowler, regius professor of rhetoric and English literature at Edinburgh University.

In a jaw-dropping review for The Times Literary Supplement , Professor Fowler accused Professor Greenblatt of creating a "world of stereotypes and flabby shibboleths... like history on amphetamines" in his celebrated life of Shakespeare, Will in the World .

Professor Greenblatt hit back, pointing out that Professor Fowler also tried to "eviscerate" him 25 years ago over an earlier work, and accusing him of treating readers to "a barrage of irrelevancies, distortions and harrumphing refutations of what I never claimed".

Professor Fowler counterclaimed: "I'm sorry to have given Stephen Greenblatt another bad notice. But he could have avoided that by learning, in the course of 30 years, at least a little British history."

The exchange, in the TLS 's letters' columns, has set the literary world alight.

John Sutherland, professor of literature at University College London, commented in a recent newspaper column that Professor Fowler went at the biography "like a wrecking ball". "It's Godzilla versus King Kong: two very big beasts of the academic jungle," he says.

Professor Greenblatt is best known as the founding father of the "new historicism" - a phrase he coined in 1982 - school of literary criticism, which in essence puts literature firmly in its historical context.

His latest book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare , was rumoured to be the highest-paid work of scholarship of all time, attracting a $1 million (£500,000) payout. It was shortlisted for the National Book Award and made The New York Times bestseller list.

Alastair Fowler, now retired, devised "numerology" in the 1970s, a revolutionary way of making sense of Renaissance poetry by examining intricate numerological patterns.

As one internet commentator noted: "For a Renaissance scholar, getting your butt kicked by Alastair Fowler is kinda like being an electrician and being told by Thomas Edison that you have your wires crossed."

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