Study Guide

New Historicism Timeline

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How It All Went Down

1971: Michel Foucault’s “Orders of Discourse

Foucault is famous as a “historian of ideas” and wrote a lot about the relationship between power and knowledge. In this essay he focused on how discourse works—meaning, how not just objects, but also knowledge and ideas are organized based on society-wide conceptions of reality, and how that idea of reality is shaped through language.

And that view of language was—you guessed it—dependent on historical and cultural contexts. Hence, the New Historicists went nuts for this, and used Foucault’s ideas as a jumping-off point for forming their brand new discipline

1973: Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures

In this book, Geertz elaborates his famous idea of culture as text, which would prove to be super-inspirational to the New Historicists.

Basically, Geertz made the point that symbols (like a totem pole, a guy on a cross, or a swatch) are way important to how meaning is understood by whole communities, so anthropologists should look out for the key symbols in different cultures to study how members of those cultures communicated, organized their lives, and understood the world around them.

Pretty tied to history and culture, right? That’s why the New Historicists were so down with Geertz.

Late 1970s: A group of academics from different disciplines (literature, art history, history, anthropology) start getting together in California

These guys and gals, including our fave, Stephen Greenblatt, found a common desire to tear down those big institutional walls between different disciplines. Who says we can’t look at the relationship between anthropology and literature? Or literature and history?

When they started asking those questions, that was the start of New Historicism as its own, anti-disciplinary discipline.

1980: Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare

This is the book that’s widely credited with kick-starting the New Historicism craze. And it made Stephen Greenblatt a household name in the emerging field of New Historicism.

The book talks about the sixteenth century (ye olde time of Shakespeare) and how new questions and ideas about identity and art were emerging at that time. Pretty groundbreaking, we know.

1983: The academic journal Representations is founded

Greenblatt and his buddies decide that they want create a forum to share their ideas with the public. They come up with the academic journal Representations, which becomes a broad venue for academic writing on all sorts of stuff, both from way back in Shakespeare’s day and all the way in contemporary culture, too.

1983: Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation

Jerome McGann applies the New Historicist approach to the Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and their little buddy Percy Bysshe Shelley. Who knew those Romantics were covertly obsessed with politics? We thought they just wrote about trees and flowers.

1988: Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England

Another big book from the man whose name is synonymous with New Historicism. And the hero? You’ll never guess. Shakespeare! We know, totally shocking. This one got deep about cultural processes and how politics and society affected both Billy and the plays he wrote.

1989: Rethinking Historicism: Critical Readings in Romantic History is published

A collection of essays by a number of important New Historicists—including Marjorie Levinson, Jerome McGann, and Marilyn Butler—focusing on the history of the Romantic period, and how that history’s a lot more hard to define than most folks think. Most importantly, these New Historicists want to prove that there’s a whole lot more goin’ on in Romantic poetry than, well, emotion and nature.

1989: The New Historicism, a collection of essays, is published

This collection of essays brings together New Historicists of all stripes, and it ranges across different periods and themes: from Romantic poetry to the Renaissance, to New Historicism’s relationship to Marxism and feminism.

Let’s be clear: when you get a fat collection like that, that’s when your theory is legit on the academic map. This volume showed up to prove that New Historicism was here to stay.

2001: Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt’s Practicing New Historicism

The two bigwigs of New Historicism get together and show us simple folk how New Historicism is done. And they explain some of the underlying principles of New Historicism—things like anecdotes, forms of representation, the human body and ideology, all those things you should be paying attention to. And if you do, you’ll understand that New Historicism isn’t a theory, it’s a practice!

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