Loyola University Chicago

College of Arts & Sciences

Spotlight On: James Knapp

James Knapp, PhD, Professor and Graduate Program Director of English at Loyola University Chicago, is the author of Immateriality and Early Modern English Literature: Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert (Edinburgh University Press, 2020).

We focus our Faculty Spotlight this week on James Knapp, Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Chicago, who published Immateriality and Early Modern English Literature: Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert (2020).

Knapp’s monograph was inspired by the idea of immateriality in his field of early modern studies, which roughly spans the years 1550-1750. In the early modern time period, the distinct disciplines of theology, philosophy, and science were not yet established as they are today. The natural world was filled with spirits and immaterial forces. Those interested in what we would now call plant science, for example, were equally interested in the nature of the soul, and they wrote about both, often in the same texts. This coexistence of seemingly contradictory accounts of the nature of the world fascinated Knapp, and would become his motivation to write his book.
Knapp’s monograph demonstrates that in order to really understand the poetry and drama of the early modern time period, we must take seriously a belief in immaterial things that may appear unreasonable or superstitious today. References to the soul, to spirits, to divine visions, and so on are literal rather than metaphorical in many of these works, and Knapp looks to poets John Donne and George Herbert, as well as William Shakespeare, to demonstrate this.
In writing the book, Knapp studied the way early modern English writers thought about the interaction between the material world around them and the immaterial forces and entities that defined their culture. Knapp’s work has taken him to the archives at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Newberry Library, and the British Library to examine manuscripts and early printed books ranging from medical encyclopedias to theological treatises. These sources helped make sense of how the poets and dramatists Knapp studied experienced their world and translated it into art.
“James Knapp’s work goes to the very heart of historically and context-grounded literary scholarship,” says Peter J. Schraeder, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “His work and teaching help scholars and students to understand early modern texts more deeply in the context of the belief systems from which they were composed. This ‘context of the context’ is a key element in Ignatian pedagogy and inquiry.”
Knapp came to Loyola as professor in 2010, and his research and teaching are deeply intertwined. He has written several books and numerous scholarly articles on the early modern period, phenomenonology, ethics, imagery, and other topics in the work of Shakespeare and writers in the early modern period.
He is in the early stages of a new project on the topic of scale. The rise of social media and the proliferation of information in the digital age have prompted Knapp to think about the challenge that scale poses in the dissemination of information and the establishment of facts. The early modern period witnessed a similar explosion of information after the introduction of the printing press into Europe, and Knapp believes that history has something to say about our own information age.