Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Francois Rabelais, Man Of The Renaissance: A Spiritual Biography by Samuel Putnam.
Putnam’s 1929 biography of Francois Rabelais is very substantial, although it lacks a scholarly apparatus. It begins–delightfully–with an autobiographical essay. That a writer should explore his own motives in studying another writer is a very responsible, and in this case, enjoyable thing. After the autobiography comes a prefatory “cosmology”: really a sort of historical anthropology, to provide the reader with a mise en scene for a period–the Renaissance–that has often been distorted through polemic.
The professed goal is a volume which, “while making use of all the aids and props of scholarship, should yet transcend erudition and attain a creative view” of the life of Rabelais (15). Putnam’s prose is assertive and sometimes droll. He was writing at the same time as Mencken and Cabell, and he chides the latter for misreading eroticism into the Theleme of Rabelais, when Cabell was actually addressing the Thelema of Crowley (390-1).
While he declines the “freethinker” Rabelais of Professor Lefranc, Putnam is hardly aligned with conventional religion. He (all too correctly) calls the Reformation “that revolt which was to produce the ugliest form of civilization that the world has known” (60). His discussion of the tensions between Humanism and Protestantism is threaded through the book, and really helps to clarify Rabelais’ situation.
The book doesn’t describe the writing life of Rabelais until its final third, and at that point the chapters become progressively shorter, and the pace quickens. The Fifth Book is barely mentioned; his later legacy is a matter of two closing pages. Man of the Renaissance is trained on Rabelais’ “first life” as a writer, not the “second life” that he has been given posthumously by readers. Putnam’s treatment is the fullest and best biographical approach to Rabelais I have read so far. [via]