In Search of Sir Thomas Browne

Jim Holt in The New York Times:

TomThis 17th-century English physician and philosopher, living in provincial isolation from literary London, managed to cultivate the most sonorous organ-voice in the history of English prose. At a time when the prevailing plain style was growing dull and insipid (John Locke is an example), it was Browne who showed the way to new possibilities of Ciceronian splendor. In doing so, he became a prolific contributor of novel words to the English language. Among his 784 credited neologisms are “electricity,”  “hallucination,”  “medical,”  “ferocious,”  “deductive” and “swaggy.” (Other coinages failed to take: like “retromingent,” for urinating backward.) Browne’s influence led to a revival of the mandarin tendency in 18th-­century prose, culminating in the (sometimes turgid) pomposities of Johnson and Gibbon. Among Browne’s subsequent admirers can be numbered Thoreau, Melville, ­Emily Dickinson, Borges, Sebald and Virginia Woolf, who saluted his “sublime genius” and called him “the first of the ­autobiographers.”

Are you feeling guilty yet for not having heard of Sir Thomas Browne? Or, if you have heard of him, for not spending more time savoring his greatest work, an essay on funerary rites alluringly titled “Urne-Buriall” — where, amid much verbiage that is (to my plain taste) cloyingly grandiloquent, lurk gorgeous phrases like “man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave”? You shouldn’t, really. You are hardly alone. Browne is a “forgotten” man — so concedes what must be his most obsessive contemporary champion, the English science writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams. “In Search of Sir Thomas Browne” is Aldersey-Williams’s attempt to do something about this sad state of affairs. The book does not merely seek to revive Browne as a pivotal figure in the history of English prose: a minor writer with a major style. Its author also wants to convince us that Browne, with his intellectual curiosity, his good-humored skepticism, his civility and spirit of tolerance, stands as a model for us today. From Browne’s example we can learn “how to achieve a reconciliation between science and religion” and “how to disabuse the credulous of their foolish beliefs.”

More here.