Study Guide

New Historicism Basics

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  • Beginnings

    Back in the 1970s in California, a group of young academics from all kinds of different disciplines—among them literary critics, art historians, historians, and anthropologists—met randomly in a pizza parlor and realized they all liked pineapple with anchovies.

    When they were full, they sat around and chatted and came up with all kinds of theories about the relationship between history and literature, art and history, anthropology and literature. They wanted to knock down all those big walls that separated different disciplines from one another (isn’t anthropology kind of relevant to reading literature? And doesn’t literature maybe explain some stuff about history? Um, yes.)

    As a result of these discussions, they decided to start a new journal called Representations, which would focus on the links and relationships between these different disciplines. Many of the early New Historicist scholars published in this journal.

    And from there, a new way of historicizing was born.

  • Big Players

    New Historicism didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. Early New Historicists like Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher were inspired by three theorists: Michel Foucault, Clifford Geertz, and Raymond Williams.

    And who were these guys?

    • Foucault was a bald, bespectacled French theorist who wrote a lot about “discourse” and all the different things it could mean and ways it was related to power. 
    • Clifford Geertz was an anthropologist who spent a lot of time in cool places like Bali, Indonesia studying cockfights (and no doubt also hanging out on the beach). Geertz’s big idea was that culture should be analyzed like a text. 
    • Raymond Williams was a Marxist critic who was one of the first to look really closely at the relationship between literature and broader socio-economic issues like class and politics.

    Now that you’re experts on these three really important figures in twentieth-century intellectual history, you can understand why New Historicism only really took off when Stephen Greenblatt and his buddies came along and snatched up Foucault, Geertz, and Williams’ ideas and applied them in new ways.

    More on that soon, but first—we can’t speak about New Historicism without speaking about Greenblatt. His 1980 book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, is the book that kick-started the New Historicism craze. Greenblatt insisted that we can’t understand English Renaissance writers like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe without understanding the historical context that shaped them and their work. That may seem pretty clear today, but it was kind of a big deal back in 1980.

    Stevie was basically the leader of one main group within the field of New Historicism—the Renaissance clique, who focused on stuff by Shakespeare and other writers from around the 14th to the 17th century. He joined by other New Historicist scholars like Catherine Gallagher and Louis Adrian Montrose, who also focused on English Renaissance literature and showed how texts and contexts are related in this period.

    The second important group of New Historicists focus on the Romantic period. Scholars like Marjorie Levinson and Jerome McGann study the “big” Romantic poets—William Wordsworth, John Keats, and George Gordon (more commonly called “Lord”) Byron among others—to show that beneath all the flowers and trees and gardens we find in Romantic poetry, there’s also a lot of politics and class and social issues going on.

  • Key Debates

    The New Historicists’ biggest enemies are the New Critics. These two schools have serious beef with one another: when everyone calls themselves New, who gets to be the newest? New Historicism emerged partly in response to New Criticism (well, that answers the newer thing), but the New Critics are all about analyzing the text and nothing but the text.

    They’d say things like: who cares about the author’s biography? Or the text’s historical context? Or (heaven forbid!) its economic context?! We just need to sit there with a poem or a novel, take a deep breath, and analyze it. It will give up all its secrets to us if we just read closely. Everything we need to know is already in the text.

    To this, the New Historicists say: as if! We can’t understand a text just by doing close reading. We have to find out about everything surrounding the text. Who wrote it? When did they write it? What was happening in the society at the time? What was happening the day the author was writing it? If we don’t know all of these contextual details, we’re bound to misread a work of literature. Through their studies of Renaissance and Romantic authors, the New Historicists set out to prove the New Critics wrong. Way wrong.

    Another big issue in the field has to do with the canon. And we’re not talking about the gun that shoots out shells (that’s spelled cannon). We’re talking about the literary canon here: the group of works that is acknowledged to be the “greatest” and “best” in any given literature. If we’re talking about English literature, for example, Shakespeare would definitely be in the canon. So would Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Milton, and Charles Dickens (yup, white dead men. Jane Austen’s there too, if it helps).

    So now that you know what the canon is, you should know that the New Historicists think it’s wrong to draw a line between “canonical” and “non-canonical” (read: inferior) literature. When we do that, they argue, we’re just being snobs. And do we really want to be snobs? No.

    So the New Historicists get down with studying “non-canonical” works alongside “canonical” works—by putting Shakespeare next to some no-name playwright who nobody’s heard of, for instance. This approach not only pissed a lot of people off; it shocked them. How can we say that non-canonical literature is just as important as canonical literature? Gasp!

    But the New Historicists aren’t ones to be easily intimidated. One of their trademarks is to challenge the line between “high” and “low” literature. Heck, they even like to challenge the line between “literary” and “non-literary” texts. Why not analyze a historical document in the same way that we analyze a poem? Who says we can’t? Needless to say, this approach was, and still is, quite controversial. But it’s what the New Historicists are famous for.

  • State of the Theory

    New Historicism isn’t quite as much the rage as it was in the 1980s, when it was as hot as swatches and never washing your hair so it would frizz out Madonna-style. Today there’s a sense that, well, maybe you should try shampoo.

    Even if New Historicism’s heyday is past, the fact of the matter is that it did change our approach to the study of literature. The New Historicists basically made it cool for us to go and dig up all kinds of interesting historical and cultural facts in order to understand a work of literature better. That was a big no-no in the time of New Criticism (and they didn’t even wear swatches yet—I mean, come on).

    The New Historicists also made it acceptable for us to look at the relationship between literature and social, political, and economic forces. They insisted that all art—including “high” literature—is implicated in power structures. This interdisciplinary approach to the study of literature was hugely influential. Today, having an interdisciplinary approach to literary studies is considered “sexy.” And that’s thanks in no small part to the New Historicists.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    Everything is literature! A Youtube video, twerking, King Lear, the Super Bowl are all “texts” that we can analyze as New Historicists. As long as we do this new thing of putting them in their historical context.

    What is an author?

    An author is a product of a certain time and place. Authors just can’t escape their social and historical environment, and their work reflects this. They’re trapped!

    What is a reader?

    A reader is someone who analyzes “texts” of all kinds—plays, rituals, social conventions—in order to understand how that text is shaped by its socio-historical environment—and how it comments on or critiques that environment.

    But we readers, like authors, are also the product of a specific time and place. So yes: we’re trapped too.

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