Historicism: Forms of literary criticism that examine the relationship between a literary work and its historical milieu. Historicist analyses consider the cultural and social factors that influenced and are revealed through the text. They may also assess the impact of a literary work on readers in subsequent eras in order to understand how the perceived meaning, reception, and significance of a work evolve over time.
Historicism, which is rooted in aesthetics and romanticism, initially developed in the nineteenth century as a reaction to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment emphasis on reason. Conflicting tendencies toward historical relativism and subjectivism soon emerged, however, and application of the term has varied greatly over time in history, philosophy, and literary criticism. Broadly speaking, however, historicists have privileged history as the basis for understanding and evaluation and have sought to identify meaningful historical continuity, a unifying principle that links the present and the past. Philosopher Morris R. Cohen, for instance, described historicism in The Meaning of Human History (1947) as “a faith that history is the main road to wisdom in human affairs.” Notably, as Dwight E. Lee and Robert N. Beck pointed out in “The Meaning of ’Historicism’” (1954), the concepts associated with historicism “have mainly been concerned with epistemology, with the meaning of history, and the meaningfulness of historiography” and are unrelated to “the basic historical methodology of the search for documents and their critical examination in order to determine such facts as the author, date, and provenance.”
In Toward a New Historicism (1972), Wesley Morris advocated a historicist aesthetics for “explaining the aesthetic relationship between the work and its cultural-historical environment.” Challenging historicists to make the paradoxical argument “that the individual work stands free of its historical context while it simultaneously draws its audience toward that context,” Morris outlined four forms of traditional historicism: the aesthetic, metaphysical, nationalistic, and naturalistic. The aesthetic approach, taken by historian and philosopher R. G. Collingwood, emphasizes the creative act of author and critic alike, treating the work as “a key to that imaginative vision which restructures our conception of reality.” The metaphysical approach, espoused by German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel and American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, treats the work as part of a transcendent historical continuum; “the aim is to arrive at an understanding of the final fulfillment of historical progress and thereby to have available the criterion of meaning for every individual moment in history.” The nationalistic approach, exemplified by American historian Frederick Jackson Turner and Danish critic Georg Brandes, “locates the meaning of historical expressions within the confines of national interests,” taking “the political or racial unit as the key to all larger evolutions.” Finally, the naturalistic (or positivistic or scientific) approach, exemplified by French critic Hippolyte Taine, focuses on observable facts, treating “all human expressions as mere documents, keys to sociological understanding” and viewing the literary work as “wholly transparent; having no substance of its own, it merely reveals the conditions which produced it.” Other influential historicists include nineteenth-century English writer and socialist William Morris; twentieth-century American literary scholar and critic Roy Harvey Pearce; and twentieth-century German historian Friedrich Meinecke, who urged the historicist in “Historicism and Its Problems” (1956) “to enter into the very souls of those who acted, to consider their works and cultural contributions in terms of their own premises and, in the last analysis, through artistic intuition to give new life to life gone by — which cannot be done without a transfusion of one’s own life blood.”
Historicism in Anglo-American literary criticism flourished particularly in the early twentieth century, with the majority of critics focusing on a work’s historical content and basing their interpretations on the interplay between the text and historical contexts, such as the author’s life or intentions in writing the work. By mid-century, however, historicism had given way to the New Criticism, a formalist, text-oriented approach to literature in which works were treated as self-contained, self-referential objects. Then, in the 1980s, a new form of historical criticism — the new historicism — arose; its practitioners analyzed texts with an eye to history but took a broader, more general approach than their predecessors; among other things, the new historicists incorporated diverse discourses such as Marxism and reader-response theory and were less inclined to see history as linear and progressive.