Reviving Thomas Browne, an Expert on Oblivion
Back when the English language was still young and impressionable, a London-born physician who took up the pen as a gentleman’s hobby made quite a dent, fathering a dictionary page’s worth of words we still use and tend to think of as ageless — “medical,” “suicide,” “exhaustion,” “hallucination” and “coma” among them.
The handful of books and tracts in which these words first appeared was even more remarkable than the coinages, a body of work as strange and unclassifiable as any in English literature.
That this doctor’s name — Thomas Browne — no longer keeps company, at least in America, with those of Shakespeare, Chaucer and other architects of the language would have come as a great disappointment to a multitude of other authors who revered Browne and passed his writings along, generation to generation, like a kind of formula for the philosopher’s stone.
Coleridge numbered him among his “first favourites.” Emily Dickinson kept an edition of Browne at her bedside. Melville, whose style was deeply indebted to him, called him a “crack’d Archangel.” Virginia Woolf said he paved the way for all psychological novelists, and Borges, who translated him, once described himself as just another word for Browne (and for Kafka and Chesterton).
Browne was a reverent Christian who professed to care more about his place in the next life than his reputation in this one. “Urne-Buriall,” his most memorable work, is a field guide to earthly oblivion, a poetic compendium of his obsessively collected knowledge about death, decay, burial, burning and the cruel brevity of human memory. Even “grave-stones,” he wrote, “tell truth scarce fourty years.”
But the soaring ambition and style of Browne’s writing have always belied its pious humility, and it seems that he is now once again in the process of being exhumed and immortalized, as he almost certainly expected he would be. This week New York Review Books Classics is issuing a new edition of “Urne-Buriall,” paired with Browne’s other landmark, “Religio Medici,” both works edited and annotated by Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard and Ramie Targoff of Brandeis, husband-and-wife Renaissance scholars.