New historicism, the
New historicism, the: A type of historically oriented literary criticism that developed during the 1980s, largely in reaction to the text-only approach pursued by formalists, including practitioners of the New Criticism. Pioneers of the new historicism include American literary theorists Louis Montrose and Stephen Greenblatt, whose approach transformed the field of Renaissance studies and influenced the study of American and English romantic literature.
New historicists, like formalists, acknowledge the importance of the literary text, but they analyze it with an eye to history. In this respect, the new historicism is not “new”; the majority of critics between 1920 and 1950 embraced historicism, focusing on a work’s historical content and basing their interpretations on the interplay between the text and historical contexts (such as the author’s life or intentions in writing the work). The historical criticism practiced in the 1980s, however, was not the same as that of the past. Indeed, if the word “new” serves any useful purpose in defining contemporary historical criticism, it is in distinguishing it from such older forms of historicism.
The new historicism is informed by diverse discourses, including the poststructuralist and reader-response theory of the 1970s, as well as the thinking of feminist, cultural, and Marxist critics. New historicist critics assume that literary works both influence and are influenced by historical reality, and they share a belief in referentiality, that is, a belief that literature both refers to and is referred to by things outside itself. They are also less fact- and event-oriented than historical critics used to be, questioning whether the truth about what really happened can ever be objectively known. They are less likely to see history as linear and progressive, as something developing toward the present, and they are also less likely to think of it in terms of specific eras, each with a definite, persistent, and consistent Zeitgeist (spirit of the times). Hence, they are unlikely to suggest that a literary text has a single or easily identifiable historical context.
New historicists also tend to define the discipline of history more broadly than did their predecessors. They view history as a social science and the social sciences as being properly historical. In Historical Studies and Literary Criticism (1985), American scholar Jerome McGann spoke of the need to make sociohistorical subjects and methods central to literary studies; in The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (1985), he linked sociology and the future of historical criticism. Similarly, in “Toward a New History in Literary Study” (1984), Herbert Lindenberger found anthropology particularly useful in the new historicist analysis of literature, especially as practiced by anthropologists Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz.
Geertz, who related theatrical traditions in nineteenth-century Bali to contemporaneous forms of political organization in his study Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (1980), influenced many new historicists to reject the conventional distinction between literature and the history relevant to it. Unlike historicists of the past, who viewed historical contexts as “background” information necessary to appreciate fully the separate world of art, new historicists erased the line dividing historical and literary materials as well as the one separating artistic works from their creators and audiences. For instance, in “The Historical Necessity for — and Difficulties with — New Historical Analysis in Introductory Literature Courses” (1987), Brook Thomas proposed that discussions of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820) begin by considering where Keats would have seen such an urn — and how a Grecian urn came to rest in an English museum. Important historical and political realities, Thomas suggested, underlie and inform Keats’s definitions of art, truth, beauty, the past, and timelessness. Moreover, new historicists have used what Geertz called thick descriptions — i.e., contextual descriptions of cultural products or events — to blur distinctions between history and the other social sciences, background and foreground, political and poetical events.
Indeed, new historicists have sought to decenter the study of literature, not only by incorporating historical studies but also by struggling to see history itself from a decentered perspective, which entails recognizing that a historian’s position is historically determined and that events seldom have a single cause. New historicists remind us that it is treacherous to reconstruct the past as it really was — rather than as we have been biased or conditioned by our own place and time to believe that it was. They also remind us that historical criticism must be “conscious of its status as interpretation,” as Greenblatt put it in Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (1980). Hence, when new historicist critics describe a historical change, they are likely to discuss the theory of historical change that informs their account and to acknowledge that the changes they notice are ones that their (historically determined) theory enables them to see.
In his introduction to a collection of writings on The New Historicism (1989), H. Aram Veeser outlined certain “key assumptions,” namely, that: “expressive acts” cannot be separated from “material” conditions; the boundary between “literary and nonliterary texts” is false; neither “imaginative” nor “archival” (historical) discourse “gives access to unchanging truths nor expresses inalterable human nature”; historical critiques tend to depend on the methods they condemn; and critical discourses “adequate to describe culture under capitalism participate in the economy they describe.”
These same assumptions are shared by a group of historians practicing the new cultural history. Influenced by Annales-school historians in France and post-Althusserian Marxists, the new cultural historians share with their new historicist counterparts an interest in anthropological and sociological subjects and methods; a creative way of weaving stories and anecdotes about the past into revealing thick descriptions; a tendency to focus on nontraditional, noncanonical subjects and relations (historian Thomas Laqueur is best known for Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud ); and the tendency to invoke or engage the writings of Michel Foucault.
Foucault, a French philosophical historian who often made connections between disparate incidents and phenomena, argued that no historical event has a single cause; rather, each event is tied into a vast web of economic, social, and political factors. Moreover, like Karl Marx, the German philosopher who founded Marxism, Foucault saw history in terms of power, but his view of power probably owed more to Friedrich Nietzsche, another nineteenth-century German philosopher. Foucault viewed power not simply as a repressive force or a tool of conspiracy but, rather, as a complex of forces that produces what happens. Not even a tyrannical aristocrat simply wields power, for the aristocrat is himself empowered by discourses and practices that constitute power.
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) illustrates some of Foucault’s key ideas. The book opens with a description of the public execution of a Frenchman who attempted to assassinate King Louis XV in the eighteenth century, then details rules that govern the daily life of twentieth-century Parisian felons. What happened to torture, to punishment as public spectacle? Foucault asked. What network of forces made it disappear? In seeking to understand this “power,” Foucault noted that, in the early years of the nineteenth century, crowds would sometimes identify with the prisoner and treat the executioner as if he were the guilty party, but he set forth other reasons for keeping prisoners alive, moving punishment indoors, and eliminating physical torture in favor of mental rehabilitation: prisoners could be used to establish colonies and trade; they could also be used as infiltrators and informers.
Greenblatt, a founding editor of the journal Representations and still the best known new historicist, is among the critics who have followed Foucault’s lead in redefining the boundaries of historical inquiry. For instance, in Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare, he interpreted literary devices as if they were continuous with all other representational devices in a culture, turning to scholars in other fields in order to better understand the workings of literature. In Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (1990), Greenblatt also acknowledged the influence of Marxist cultural critic Raymond Williams, who addressed topics excluded from Greenblatt’s literary education at Yale. Questions about “who controlled access to the printing press, who owned the land and the factories, whose voices were being repressed as well as represented in literary texts, what social strategies were being served by the aesthetic values we constructed — came pressing back in upon the act of interpretation.” Blending such concepts with poststructuralist thought about the undecidability, or indeterminacy, of meaning, Greenblatt developed a critical method he called cultural poetics, a term that he came to prefer to “the new historicism.” More tentative and less overtly political than cultural criticism, cultural poetics involves what Thomas called “the technique of montage” in “The New Literary Historicism” (1995): “Starting with the analysis of a particular historical event, it cuts to the analysis of a particular literary text. The point is not to show that the literary text reflects the historical event but to create a field of energy between the two so that we come to see the event as a social text and the literary text as a social event.”
Other new historicist critics like Thomas owe more to German Marxist Walter Benjamin, best known for essays such as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) and “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940). Still others — McGann, for example — have followed the lead of twentieth-century Soviet critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who viewed literary works in terms of polyphonic discourses and dialogues between the official, legitimate voices of a society and other, more challenging or critical voices echoing popular culture.
The new historicism today remains subject to revision as historical circumstances change. Indeed, new historicists themselves stress the need to perpetually redefine categories and boundaries, and many now work at the border of other approaches, including cultural, feminist, Marxist, postcolonial, poststructuralist, and reader-oriented criticism.