The Life and Death of Sir Wal­ter Ralegh

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight | History -

Anna Beer, Oneworld Pub­li­ca­tions (NOVEM­BER) Hard­cover $27.99 (416pp), 978-1-78607-434-8

Pa­triot or Traitor re­veals fas­ci­nat­ing El­iz­a­bethan Wal­ter Ralegh’s ac­com­plish­ments as a teen sol­dier, in­ner-cir­cle courtier, ethno­g­ra­pher/col­o­nizer/pi­rate, and au­thor. Anna Beer ex­plains why Ralegh’s in­flu­ence and for­tune arced and waned over his tu­mul­tuous life, ul­ti­mately leav­ing him a long­time, legally dead pris­oner of the Tower of Lon­don.

Beer’s as­sured tone and nu­anced knowl­edge of her sub­ject make for a lively his­tory. She lauds Ralegh for his in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism in an age of “ab­so­lutism and fun­da­men­tal­ism” and as “one of the great prose stylists of his era” but is also keenly aware of his nu­mer­ous faults. She tartly notes that he could be “eco­nom­i­cal with the truth” and was “al­ways good at com­plain­ing,” and she seems out­right ex­as­per­ated at his lack of tact in dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. The book is fur­ther en­livened by ex­ten­sive quotes from Ralegh’s and his con­tem­po­raries’ let­ters, po­ems, and other writ­ings.

Beer’s evoca­tive his­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis ef­fec­tively trans­lates the so­cial life of a dis­tant era for mod­ern read­ers. She de­scribes how dif­fer­ently El­iz­a­bethans viewed things, in­clud­ing their highly strat­i­fied class sys­tem that called for grue­some hang­ing, draw­ing, and quar­ter­ing of lower-class po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, while “gen­tle­men” earned a less tor­tu­ous be­head­ing. Par­al­lels to con­tem­po­rary af­fairs, like the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of An­glo-saxon cul­ture cham­pi­oned then and now by the far right, un­der­score Beer’s con­tention that his­tory should not be sim­ply a “re­view of the past, but a source of cor­rect ac­tion and hu­man wis­dom, here and now.”

Ralegh’s richly re­counted life story evokes the tur­bu­lence of the El­iz­a­bethan and Stu­art eras. It’s a bal­anced bi­og­ra­phy of an English Re­nais­sance man, de­con­struct­ing the myths sur­round­ing his apoth­e­o­sis by nine­teenth- and twen­ti­eth-cen­tury his­to­ri­ans and politi­cians as the poster boy for “a more de­cent form of im­pe­ri­al­ism”—a re­fresh­ing blend of com­mand­ing schol­ar­ship and opin­ion­ated re­flec­tions that is a de­light to read.

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