It is generally agreed that today's standard literary prose style evolved during the Restoration in the seventeenth century. “From the Restoration on, normal literary prose is, to use McLuhan's terms, a 'linear' product of the 'print culture.' The Chief aim of such prose is useful public communication.” In The Rise of Modern Prose Style Robert Adolph tackles a central and provocative question: Why did prose generally shift from the Elizabethan's expressive artifice to the objective plain style of Restoration? Why did prose become prosaic, the useful vehicle of public communication?
Robert Adolph's book is not a history of style in the seventeenth century but a study of certain aspects of it crucial for the development of modern prose style. The author concentrates on selected figures like Bacon, Browne, Glanvill, Sprat, and Wilkins. These authors have a different meaning for the two principal school of twentieth-century criticism of the period, originating with Morris Croll and R. F. Jones. Croll held that the shift to a “modern” prose style was an imitation of the Anti-Ciceronian plain style of antiquity, particularly the styles of Seneca and Tacitus; whereas Jones maintained that science, the “New Philosophy,” was the influence chiefly responsible. Neither a Jonesian nor a Crollian, Adolph proposes a new theory as to why and how English prose adopted the “close, naked, natural” style advocated by the Royal Society. He maintains that the great stylistic shift was a product of a utilitarian ethic around which many of the values of the age were integrated. The author does not dismiss the theses of Croll and Jones but weaves them into a complex analysis including such possible influences on style as the English civil wars and aspects of the Protestant Ethic.
Adolph is also concerned with describing the style shift itself as well as its causes in contemporary culture. For this purpose he compares successive seventeenth-century translations of identical passages from selected authors, such as Plutarch, Cervantes, and Montaigne, to isolate variations and to draw generalizations about historical changes. Applying relevant aspects of linguistics as well as literary criticism, the author is able by this method to generalize about changes in prose style. He checks these generalizations against the many discussions of style which the age produced.
The author concludes that, although utilitarian prose is written in all ages, the Restoration was the first time in history when utilitarian criteria became official doctrine for literary prose in general.
The Rise of Modern Prose Style brings to bear on style several critical methods. It is an inquiry based on the author's thorough knowledge of both primary sources and the modern debate. A fully explorative and well-annotated text, Robert Adolph's book will appeal not only to seventeenth-century specialists but to historians of both language and literature as a whole.