An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


What is the relationship between a literary text and history? Broadly speaking, critics have produced four answers to this question:

· 1. Literary texts belong to no particular time, they are universal and transcend history: the historical context of their production and reception has no bearing on the literary work which is aesthetically autonomous, having its own laws, being a world unto itself.

· 2. Understanding the historical context of a literary work — the circumstances surrounding its production — can and should guide us in reading it: but while the text is produced within a specific historical context, as a literary artefact it is separate from that context.

· 3. Literary works can help us to understand the times in which they are set: realist texts in particular provide imaginative representations of specific historical moments, events or periods.

· 4. Literary texts are bound up with other discourses and rhetorical structures: as such, they are part of a history that is still in the process of being written.

These four models of literature and history characterize various schools of criticism. The first model is often associated with new criticism or more generally with formalism, which was especially influential in literary studies in the middle decades of the twentieth century. New critics are concerned with literary texts as artifacts which transcend the contingencies of any particular time or place and which resist what they see as a reduction of the aesthetic whole to a specific historical context. Thus, for example, R.S. Crane argues in an essay first published in 1935 that literary history is essentially part of ’the general history of culture’ (Crane 1967, 20), while a ’program of literary studies based on criticism’ would focus on ’imaginative works considered with respect to those qualities which can truly be said to be timeless … in the sense that they can be adequately discerned and evaluated in the light of general principles quite apart from any knowledge of their origin or historical filiation’ (18). The second model is the kind of approach favoured by philological or what we might call ’background’ critics. Such critics are concerned to describe and analyse literary texts through a consideration of their historical ’background’, whether biographical, linguistic, cultural or political. The titles of Basil Willey’s two classic studies from 1934 and 1940 respectively indicate this approach: The Seventeenth Century Background: Studies in the Thought of the Age in Relation to Poetry and Religion and The Eighteenth Century Background: Studies on the Idea of Nature in the Thought of the Period. For such critics, knowledge of a literary text’s historical circumstances forms the basis for an understanding of that text. The third model tends to be associated more with traditional historical scholarship than with literary criticism, as it assumes that literary texts are in some respect subordinate to their historical context. It also tends to assume that literary texts provide undistorted ’reflections’ of their time. Thus, for example, in his book Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), Keith Thomas appeals to Shakespeare’s works on a number of occasions to justify his arguments. Discussing the practice of cursing, Thomas points out, ’In Shakespeare’s plays, the curses pronounced by the characters invariably work’, and argues that this is ’not just for dramatic effect’ but that ’it was a moral necessity that the poor and the injured should be believed to have this power of retaliation when all else failed’ (Thomas 1971, 507). We might call this model the ’reflective’ approach. The last model is associated with a new kind of concern with the historical dimensions of literary studies particularly since the early 1980s. This model is specifically associated with new historicist critics in the United States and with cultural materialist critics in Britain (for convenience, we shall use the term ’new historicist’ in this chapter to cover both varieties). In both cases, this new interest in history has been refracted through the concerns of both Marxism and poststructuralism to produce a complex model of the literary. In this chapter we shall focus on strategies of reading developed by new historicism in order to consider ways in which literary texts may be thought about in historical terms.

New historicists argue that to ask about the relationship between literature and history is the wrong question. The form of the question presupposes that there is literature on the one side and history on the other. Despite their differences, ’new critics’, ’background critics’ and ’reflectionists’ tend to rely on precisely such a polarity: they assume that the categories of ’literature’ and ’history’ are intrinsically separate. They distinguish, more or less explicitly, between the need for the interpretation of literary texts on the one hand, and the transparency of history on the other. In an essay entitled ’Literary Theory, Criticism, and History’ (1961), for example, René Wellek argues that ’Literary study differs from historical study in having to deal not with documents but with monuments’ and that the literary critic ’has direct access to his [sic] object’, while the historian ’has to reconstruct a long-past event on the basis of eye-witness accounts’ (Wellek 1963, 14—15). For old-historicist critics, history is not so much textual as more simply a series of empirically verifiable events. And they also assume that it is possible for our knowledge of both historical events and literary texts to be detached and objective, outside the forces of history.

New historicism may be understood as a reaction against such presuppositions: put briefly, it may be defined as a recognition of the extent to which history is textual, as a rejection of the autonomy of the literary text and as an attempted displacement of the objectivity of interpretation in general. Stephen Greenblatt, the critic who is often seen as the instigator of new historicism, remarks in an essay entitled ’Toward a Poetics of Culture’ that ’methodological self-consciousness is one of the distinguishing marks of the new historicism in cultural studies as opposed to a historicism based upon faith in the transparency of signs and interpretive procedures’ (Greenblatt 1990a, 158). In the first place, then, new historicism involves a questioning of the critics’ own position and interpretative procedures. New historicists argue that the production of literary texts is a cultural practice different only in its specific mode or formulation from other practices — from furniture-making to teaching to warfare to printing. According to this reasoning, no absolute distinction can be made between literary and other cultural practices. As Stephen Greenblatt puts it, art is ’made up along with other products, practices, discourses of a given culture’ (Greenblatt 1988, 13). Literary texts are embedded within the social and economic circumstances in which they are produced and consumed. But what is important for new historicists is that these circumstances are not stable in themselves and are susceptible to being rewritten and transformed. From this perspective, literary texts are part of a larger circulation of social energies, both products of and influences on a particular culture or ideology. What is new about new historicism in particular is its recognition that history is the ’history of the present’ (to borrow a phrase from the godfather of new historicism, Michel Foucault (see Foucault 1995, 29)), history is in the making rather than being monumental and closed, history is radically open to transformation and rewriting. Such work is motivated, as one commentator puts it, ’not by a historical concern to understand the past’ so much as by ’a critical concern to understand the present’ (Garland 2014, 373) and with how the present came to be as it is.

New historicists argue that any ’knowledge’ of the past is necessarily mediated by texts or, to put it differently, that history is in many respects textual. In this, at least, they are in agreement with Jacques Derrida, who declared in Of Grammatology in 1967: ’The age already in the past is in fact constituted in every respect as a text’ (Derrida 1976, lxxxix). A number of major consequences follow from such an assertion. In the first place, there can be no knowledge of the past without interpretation. (This is also one of the ways in which new historicism is specifically Nietzschean: as Nietzsche declared in The Will to Power (1901), ’facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations’ (Nietzsche 1968, section 481).) Just as literary texts need to be read, so do the ’facts’ of history. Thus, theorists such as Hayden White suggest that our knowledge of the past is determined by particular narrative configurations — that in talking about the past we tell stories. ’Properly understood’, White remarks,

histories ought never to be read as unambiguous signs of the events they report, but rather as symbolic structures, extended metaphors, that ’liken’ the events reported in them to some form with which we have already become familiar in our literary culture … By the very constitution of a set of events in such a way as to make a comprehensible story out of them, the historian charges those events with the symbolic significance of a comprehensible plot structure. (White 1978, 91—2)

In this respect, the strategies and tools of critical analysis — the consideration of figures and tropes, a critical awareness of the rhetorical elements of language and so on — are as appropriate to a critical study of history as they are to literary studies.

From a new historicist perspective, any reading of a literary text is a question of negotiation, a negotiation between text and reader within the context of a history or histories that cannot be closed or finalized. Indeed, Stephen Greenblatt argues that literary works themselves should be understood in terms of negotiation, rather than in the conventional (Romantic) sense of a ’pure act of untrammeled creation’ — negotiations which are ’a subtle, elusive set of exchanges, a network of trades and trade-offs, a jostling of competing representations’ (Greenblatt 1988, 7). ’The work of art’, declares Greenblatt, ’is the product of a negotiation between a creator or class of creators, equipped with a complex, communally shared repertoire of conventions, and the institutions and practices of society’ (Greenblatt 1990a, 158). Greenblatt and other new historicist critics reject any attempt to produce a complete or final reading and argue for readings which are apparently disjunctive or fragmented. Similarly, questioning the boundaries of text and world, of art and society, such critics work ’at the margins of the text’ in order to gain ’insight into the half-hidden cultural transactions through which great works of art are empowered’ (Greenblatt 1988, 4). A critic might study legal documents, for example, or arguments concerning the politics of kingship, or handbooks on the education of children, or accounts of exotic travels and exploration and so on, in order to get a purchase on a particular work of literature. But such texts are not to be construed as either the background or the essential key to understanding the literary text. Rather, like plays, poems and novels, they are to be understood as texts through which questions of politics and power can be negotiated.

Such negotiation concerns, not least, the question of reading. If ’history’ necessarily entails interpretation, then such acts of reading will themselves be embedded within a particular social and cultural situation. There is no escape from history even if this history is regarded as multiple and in a process of unceasing transformation. New historicism argues that we are inescapably implicated — even in the fantasy of academic objectivity and detachment — in structures and strategies of power. Power is produced and reproduced in research, teaching and learning as it is in any other practice or discourse. As Michel Foucault remarked in his 1976 Introduction to The History of Sexuality, power is ’omnipresent’. It is as ’the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power’, states of power which are, however, ’always local and unstable’. ’Power’, Foucault goes on, ’is everywhere’ (Foucault 1981, 93).

In order to consider how such an approach might work in practice, we propose to discuss a poem by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth entitled ’Alice Fell, or Poverty’. The poem was written on the 12th and 13th March 1802, and first published in 1807. It is a seemingly uncomplicated account of an incident that was recounted to Wordsworth by an acquaintance, Robert Grahame. As the subtitle indicates, the poem presents itself as an allegory concerning poverty:

The Post-boy drove with fierce career,

For threat’ning clouds the moon had drowned;

When suddenly I seemed to hear

A moan, a lamentable sound.

5 As if the wind blew many ways

I heard the sound, and more and more:

It seemed to follow with the Chaise,

And still I heard it as before.

At length I to the Boy called out,

10 He stopped his horses at the word;

But neither cry, nor voice, nor shout,

Nor aught else like it could be heard.

The Boy then smacked his whip, and fast

The horses scampered through the rain;

15 And soon I heard upon the blast

The voice, and bade him halt again.

Said I, alighting on the ground,

’What can it be, this piteous moan?’

And there a little Girl I found,

20 Sitting behind the Chaise, alone.

’My Cloak!’ the word was last and first,

And loud and bitterly she wept,

As if her very heart would burst;

And down from off the Chaise she leapt.

25 ’What ails you, Child?’ She sobbed, ’Look here!’

I saw it in the wheel entangled,

A weather beaten Rag as e’er

From any garden scare-crow dangled.

’Twas twisted betwixt nave and spoke;

30 Her help she lent, and with good heed

Together we released the Cloak;

A wretched, wretched rag indeed!

’And wither are you going, Child,

Tonight along these lonesome ways?’

35 ’To Durham’ answered she half wild —

’Then come with me into the chaise.’

She sate like one past all relief;

Sob after sob she forth did send

In wretchedness, as if her grief

40 Could never, never, have an end.

’My child, in Durham do you dwell?’

She checked herself in her distress,

And said, ’My name is Alice Fell;

I’m fatherless and motherless.

45 And I to Durham, Sir, belong.’

And then, as if the thought would choke

Her very heart, her grief grew strong;

And all was for her tattered Cloak.

The chaise drove on; our journey’s end

50 Was nigh; and, sitting by my side,

As if she’d lost her only friend

She wept, nor would be pacified.

Up to the Tavern-door we post;

Of Alice and her grief I told;

55 And I gave money to the Host,

To buy a new Cloak for the old.

’And let it be a duffil grey,

As warm a cloak as man can sell!’

Proud Creature was she the next day,

60 The little Orphan, Alice Fell!

From a new historicist perspective we might try to situate this poem in relation to other contemporary discourses which deal with poverty, charity and property. We could, for example, investigate the rhetorical strategies and discursive conventions of debates surrounding the Poor Law, economics, poverty and charity at the turn of the nineteenth century. One such text is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776 and perhaps the most influential work of political economy of the time. In this book, Smith twice refers to beggars, once when he argues, ’Before the invention of the art of printing, a scholar and a beggar seem to have been terms very nearly synonymous’ (Smith 1986, 237), and once when he considers beggars as the only people who do not take part in the circulation of exchange and barter. In this latter passage, from the second chapter of his multi-volume work, Smith argues that there is ’a certain propensity in human nature’ which is ’to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another’ (117). It is this ’propensity’ which distinguishes humans from animals: ’When an animal wants to obtain something either of a man or of another animal, it has no other means of persuasion but to gain the favour of those whose service it requires’ (118). But humans — unlike animals, consistently dependent on others — cannot constantly expect others’ benevolence. Instead, a man must ’interest [another person’s] self-love in his favour’: ’Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens’ (118—19). Although Smith goes on to say that even beggars take part in the circulation of monetary exchange by buying goods with the money that they are given, in this extraordinary passage he has managed to dehumanize beggars, to put them outside of humanity, on the level of the animal. By arguing that human relations are relations of exchange, based on the principle of ’self-love’, however, Smith suggests an apparent paradox in the discourse of charity: he claims that ’the charity of well-disposed people’ supplies the beggar with ’the whole fund of his subsistence’ (119), but does not explain why such people should give to beggars. According to his own arguments, people would only give to beggars if they were to gain something in return. There is, in this sense, no pure gift, no possibility of a gift. A number of significant rhetorical manoeuvres, then, may be seen to be at work in Smith’s discourse of charity and begging. In the first place, beggars are dehumanized. Second, charity becomes a paradoxical or perverse, even an impossible act. Third, by saying ’a beggar chooses to depend’, Smith implies freedom of choice where economic necessity may be at stake. Finally, and most generally, Smith makes it clear that questions of charity and begging are part of a larger discourse of property and the exchange of property, indeed, part of a specific ideology of free-market liberalism.

We might think about these points in relation to Wordsworth’s poem for, although Alice Fell does not actually beg and is not referred to as a beggar, the poem puts her in the position of a beggar and is specifically concerned with that particular kind of exchange of property named ’charity’. What we might then seek to do is not to produce a thematic reading of the poem: rather, we might consider how the rhetorical strategies at work in Smith’s account of beggars, property and charity are reproduced and transformed in those of the poem.

We might start by thinking about ways in which the poem articulates questions of property. Property in ’Alice Fell’ is not simply a question of the cloak, but of poetry itself as property. The very origins of the narrative are bound up with questions of ownership in that the story originated with Wordsworth’s friend Robert Grahame. Moreover, Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet’s sister, wrote an account of the same incident in her journal before Wordsworth wrote his poem. Dorothy’s account goes as follows:

Mr. Graham (sic) said he wished Wm had been with him the other day — he was riding in a post chaise and he heard a strange cry that he could not understand, the sound continued and he called to the chaise driver to stop. It was a little girl that was crying as if her heart would burst. She had got up behind the chaise and her cloak had been caught by the wheel and was jammed in and it hung there. She was crying after it. Poor thing. Mr. Graham took her into the chaise and the cloak was released from the wheel but the child’s misery did not cease for her cloak was torn to rags; it had been a miserable cloak before, but she had no other and it was the greatest sorrow that could befal her. Her name was Alice Fell. She had no parents, and belonged to the next Town. At the next Town Mr. G. left money with some respectable people in the town to buy her a new cloak. (Wordsworth 1984, 702)

As with a number of William’s most famous lyrics, ’Alice Fell’ resembles Dorothy’s journalistic account in many ways: both poem and journal entry are concerned with the strangeness of the girl’s cry, with the girl’s continuing misery, with the ragged state of her cloak. More specifically, there are numerous verbal echoes of the journal entry in William’s poem, most strikingly, the poem’s ’she wept, / As if her heart would burst’ and the journal’s ’crying as if her heart would burst’. In this respect, William may be said to have appropriated the story from his friend and from his sister. This leads us to the question of what property it is that constitutes this text as a poem. Is it properly a poem? How is it different from Grahame’s oral account or from Dorothy’s journal entry? And where does the poem originate, who owns it and authorizes it? We might want to follow these questions through to an investigation of the institution of literature itself. How is the canon produced, for example, what factors are at work in canon-formation in England such that women’s diaries have tended to be excluded, canonically marginalized? Can it be said that in choosing the form of the journal-entry to record the story Dorothy is excluding herself from the public discourse of literature? How is Dorothy’s account both reproduced and effaced in William’s poem and in the critical tradition, and why? Rather differently, we could argue that Dorothy’s diary entry is not simply supplementary to the poem but is an essential part of it. Indeed, it becomes difficult to distinguish property as regards the cloak and property as regards the Wordsworths. In these respects, questions of property cannot be considered to be simply the context or the thematic focus of the poem: the poem originates in certain problematic exchanges, transfers or gifts of narrative property.

The poem is also ’about’ an exchange of property. The girl loses her cloak in the wheel of the carriage, and the speaker gives her enough money to buy a new one. But along with this exchange go a series of property disturbances. The girl’s proper name, Alice Fell, for example, is curious. It is not a name Wordsworth invented, it seems. But is it ’historical’ or ’literary’? The poem, indeed, exacerbates the sense of uncertainty regarding the strange properties of this proper name. Not only is it transferred from the title to the main body of the poem, or from the girl to the poem, but it also has a curious grammatical status in itself: it is suspended between a name and a minimal sentence, a kind of mini-narrative in itself — Alice fell. The poem is not only called ’Alice Fell’, but is also about the fall of Alice. And once we recognize that there is something strange about the girl’s name, we might also notice that ’Alice Fell’ is haunted by the figure of a ’fallen woman’, a woman outside ’respectable’ society. Dorothy’s text seems to pick up on this in its use of the verb ’befal’, just prior to naming the girl herself. Conversely, we may recall that ’fell’ also means the skin or hide of an animal, so that Alice might be like her cloak, a kind of rag, caught up and torn apart by the moving carriage. Finally, ’fell’ as ’wild’, as ’fierce, savage, cruel, ruthless, dreadful, terrible’ or ’intensely painful’ and even (of poison) ’deadly’, or ’shrewd, clever, cunning’ (OED) gives us a sense of the outcast, inhuman, dangerous, improper nature of this figure, and perhaps partly explains her — and the poem’s — haunting power: she is, as the narrator himself declares, ’half wild’ (l.35). The dehumanization at work in Adam Smith’s account of beggars is also wildly at work in Wordsworth’s poem.

If the poem is about the exchange of property, it is also about the question of charity. Every act of charity may be understood as an implicit assertion that the end of suffering is possible. Dorothy’s account of the incident recognizes that, after the girl’s cloak was released, her ’misery did not cease’. One of the key stanzas of Wordsworth’s poem in this respect is stanza 10:

She sate like one past all relief;

Sob after sob she forth did send

In wretchedness, as if her grief

Could never, never, have an end.

The phrases ’like’ and ’as if’ seem to deny the unspeakable possibility that the girl really is ’past all relief’, and that her ’grief / Could never, never, have an end’. But much of the force of the poem may be said to reside precisely in this terrifying possibility — that nothing can be done, that charity cannot finally help. In this respect, it is significant that unlike Dorothy’s account, the poem ends in a blustering statement of self-satisfaction: in the final stanza, the girl is said to be ’proud’ on account of her new cloak. But the girl’s poverty and orphanhood remain and the pride appears to be as much a projection of the speaker’s emotions as the girl’s. The speaker apparently does have reason to be proud — he can feel proud of his charitable action. Attributing pride to the girl simply increases the speaker’s own reasons to be proud. It might be argued that the poem works against itself, implicitly exposing the self-deceptive nature of the charitable act. Given this logic of projection, the poem clearly suggests that self-deception is necessary to charity or that, in Adam Smith’s terms, there is no pure gift, that in giving the cloak, the speaker receives the satisfaction of pride. Moreover, the poem’s triumphant ending implies that charity can end suffering. But this sense of triumph and of an ending are simultaneously undone: we must give and to do so we must believe that our gift will help to end suffering, but suffering is never-ending. The hardly audible, ghostly historical counter-voice of the poem cries that, as an orphan, Alice Fell cannot but suffer (etymologically, ’orphan’ means ’one who has lost’). Her suffering is never-ending because it cannot be ended. Unlike the speaker, who is on a journey that will end (see line 49, ’our journey’s end’), the suffering of Alice Fell has no end. Just as the speaker is haunted by a strange voice at the beginning of the poem, so he is haunted by the uncanny disembodied voice of suffering, haunted by what he knows but cannot know — that suffering and the improper or ’fell’ (wild, inhuman, fallen) disturbances of property are never-ending.

Stephen Greenblatt argues that culture ’is a particular network of negotiations for the exchange of material goods, ideas, and — through institutions like enslavement, adoption, or marriage — people’. Greenblatt also contends that ’Great writers are precisely masters of these codes, specialists in cultural exchange’ (Greenblatt 1990b, 229—30). Our account has sought to locate Wordsworth’s poem in relation to the discourses of property and charity as articulated in one particular text. Wordsworth, we might say, is a master of — and is mastered by — the codes of property and charity. New historicism seeks to explore such mastery, while remaining alert to ways in which such codes continue to play themselves out in the discourses of the present — including not only the discourses of history and criticism but also the discourses of charity, poverty, and beggary, of social welfare, immigration, and asylum that still to this day so trouble and disturb even, or especially, the relatively affluent Western democracies that emerged out of the kinds of debates that are at work in Wordsworth’s poem.

Further reading

For eloquent and readable accounts of a historicized theory of culture, see Stephen Greenblatt’s essays ’Towards a Poetics of Culture’ (1990a) and ’Culture’ (1990b). See his Shakespearean Negotiations (1988) and Marvelous Possessions (1991) for witty and penetrating readings of various Renaissance texts, and for overviews of his work, see Mark Robson, Stephen Greenblatt (2008), and Michael Payne, ed., The Greenblatt Reader (2005). Useful collections of new historicist and cultural materialist essays include Catherine Gallagher and Greenblatt’s Practising New Historicism (2000), Dollimore and Sinfield, eds, Political Shakespeare (1994), Wilson and Dutton, eds, New Historicism and Renaissance Drama (1992), Veeser, ed., The New Historicism (1989) and The New Historicism Reader (1994), Ryan, ed., New Historicism and Culture Materialism (1996), and Tamsin Spargo, ed., Reading the Past (2000). For a good but demanding overview of historicisms old and new, see Paul Hamilton’s Historicism (2003). For a sharp and engaging account of new historicism and cultural materialism, see Brannigan, New Historicism and Cultural Materialism (1998); and see Scott Wilson, Cultural Materialism (1995). Todd, Feminist Literary History (1988) provides a valuable feminist account of literary history. On Foucault, see Sara Mills, Michel Foucault (2003) and Gary Gutting, Foucault (2005). There are many excellent readings of Wordsworth from historical, political and economic perspectives: of particular interest is David Simpson’s Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern (2009).