Stephen Greenblatt’s conversation is as nimble and graceful as the prose in which he roams through Shakespeare’s life in Will in the World (2004) or charts the odyssey of an ancient Roman poem in his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Swerve (2011). Discussing The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, coming from Norton in September, Greenblatt speaks in elegant sentences, swooping in and out of clauses without ever losing his train of thought, mirroring a wide-ranging, lifelong intellectual curiosity. “I used to go into the stacks of the Yale library and feel almost giddy with excitement at how many things there were that one might find and get interested in,” he remembers.
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve gives Greenblatt the opportunity to delve into biblical scholarship, early Christian church history, Renaissance painting, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Darwin’s theory of evolution, among other subjects, as he considers the impact over millennia of what he calls “this fiendish, Kafka-like little tale.”
Kafka-like? “The brilliance of the story is that it’s almost completely incoherent and mad,” he explains. “To prohibit people from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil denies them access to the one thing that would enable them to understand why they shouldn’t do something. That’s mad, and it’s not our discovery; two thousand years ago they saw that was a problem. At least since the time of Homer, we have on the one hand a society that depends on holding people accountable for their choices, and at the same time in a variety of ways—in the case of Homer, it was whatever Zeus and Hera were doing—we understand that people aren’t moved only by completely free choice.”
Adam and Eve, Greenblatt writes, “remain a powerful, even indispensable way to think about innocence, temptation, and moral choice.” Early Christian thinkers found this Old Testament tale of a naked couple and a talking snake embarrassingly reminiscent of pagan myths and suggested treating it as an allegory. The view that prevailed in church dogma, however, was St. Augustine’s insistence that Adam and Eve’s story was literally true. “I hesitate to propose this as a principle,” Greenblatt says, “but it’s generally true that when a reasonable position comes up against a crazy position, the crazy one almost always wins.”
Augustinian literalism posed theological difficulties over the centuries, but the belief that Adam and Eve had actually lived dovetailed with the artistic quest of the Renaissance, Greenblatt’s academic specialty. Artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Greenblatt says, “figured out a way to confer a kind of reality on representations of humans that had never been done before. They gave these figures life, bodies.” In Paradise Lost, he continues, “Milton excavates from this archaic story the truth about what it means to be human, to have a relationship, to have a sex life. One thing that’s absolutely remarkable about this poem is that it in effect creates the idea of the novel; you wouldn’t have Middlemarch if you didn’t have Paradise Lost. From Milton’s insane engagement comes the 19th-century novels that depict the complicated, messy creatures you and I are.”
Greenblatt’s scholarly commitment to exploring the messiness of human experience has made him one of the leading figures of new historicism, a method of literary criticism that rejected the then-fashionable just-the-text approach in favor of engaging with an artist’s life and times. Ironically, Greenblatt’s B.A. and Ph.D. are from Yale, a bastion of new criticism. When he proposed his thesis topic, he laughingly recalls, his English department interlocutors reacted to the idea of exploring how Walter Raleigh’s experiences as a courtier and adventurer shaped his poetry “as if I had passed wind in their office!”
“I was already interested in the relationship between the way people lived and what they produced as writers,” Greenblatt says. “I also felt that the historical past was present; Raleigh’s poetry sounded incredibly modern, like The Waste Land. All my life I’ve tried to get the wires of something very far in the past and something absolutely immediate and explain how they touch—or at least they touch for me, and I try to make them touch for my readers. Something from a different world, seemingly dead and gone, can be a letter sent with your name on it that you can open.”
Greenblatt produced many influential scholarly books, including Shakespearean Negotiations while he was a professor at UC Berkeley and Hamlet in Purgatory during his early years at Harvard, where he has taught since 1997. But it seems in retrospect inevitable that his passion for bringing the past alive would lead him to a general readership with Will in the World in 2004.
“I was long puzzled by the fact that we [academics] were writing about things that should in principle interest more than a few thousand people, and yet we were drawing boundaries that made this impossible to convey,” Greenblatt says. “One of the forms of literary criticism that the general public is interested in is biography—which literary critics despise. I thought, I’ve always been interested in how people’s lives are lived; why am I participating in the sense that it’s vulgar to do this? For me, writing for the general public has had not one moment of holding my nose and doing something I would not otherwise have done. Everything in Will in the World comes out of my most arcane academic work. The principal difference was putting it in the genre of biography and taking the time to explain who these people were.”
Greenblatt’s says that his agent, Jill Kneerim, “completely got” the idea of a book about how Elizabethan historical realities shaped Shakespeare’s art. “She’s a very subtle and sophisticated person,” he says appreciatively. Elaine Mason bought the book for Norton and has edited Greenblatt ever since. “She’s been so incredibly smart and helpful to me at every level,” he notes. “It’s never about dumbing down, it’s about clarifying and making coherent whatever I’m doing.”
A Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award later, Greenblatt is nonetheless slightly apprehensive about the reception of his latest foray into uncharted territory—particularly Adam and Eve’s epilogue, which describes a trip he took to Uganda to observe chimpanzees in the wild. “I wanted to see for myself what our origins are supposed to look like,” he says. “The center of that experience was the realization that this is what it looks like to be without shame, without a sense of death, without the knowledge of good and evil. In some sense that’s still us: one can look around at our political life, the xenophobia and screaming, and think, unbelievable chimpanzee behavior! But it’s the us we have been negotiating with for thousands of years; we have actually figured out ways to modify that side of ourselves. I’m afraid I’m going to get a certain amount of ‘Say what?’ with the epilogue, but I’m also hoping people will think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’”