What are some basic tenets of the literary theory of known as "new historicism"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The so-called “new historicism” differs from traditional historical criticism in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • New historicists generally believe that traditional historical criticism was often too simplistic.  They believe that traditional historical critics tended to look for unity in the past rather than for complexity.  The standard example of this tendency is a famous and widely read little book called The Elizabethan World Picture, by E. M. W. Tillyard, which begins by stressing

political order [that] . . . was always a part of a larger cosmic order.

  • New historicists would object to this emphasis on "order" and also to practically every single word of Tillyard's title.  The word “The,” for instance, implies that the Elizabethans had only one basic way of looking at the world – a way they all shared.  The word “Elizabethan” again implies unity, as if all people who lived during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I were basically identical in their views and values.  The word “Elizabethan” also emphasizes the influence of the socially and politically powerful, whereas new historicists are interested as well in the influences that marginalized or non-powerful people might have on a culture. Finally, the phrase “World Picture” implies, again, a very simple degree of unity and agreement.  A better title, from a new historicist point of view, might be “Different and Competing World Pictures Held by the Wide Varieties of Persons Living During the Period  from 1558-1603.” Such a title would be preferable for the following reasons:
  • It implies that political, social, cultural, and economic views are always in flux; they are always in a kind of competition or negotiation with one another.
  • It implies that some people and groups and views may have exercised more power than others at any given moment in time, but that the situation was never static and was always subject to possible change.
  • It implies that a society or culture is made up of many different groups and that the experiences of groups at the margins of social power are just as interesting and worthy of study as the experiences of groups at the center of social power.
  • It implies that literary texts are not only influenced by cultures but are parts of cultures and can therefore influence cultures themselves, so that the relationship is not a simple one (with culture influencing literature) but a complex and dynamic one (with influences running in both directions).
  • It implies that any piece of evidence from a past culture is relevant to all the other pieces because they are all part of the same dynamic, constantly fluctuating system. Thus a new historicist essay might begin by examining some piece of evidence that seems, at first, to have very little to do with literature but which is nevertheless relevant to the complex cultural system from which a given work of literature emerged.

To put it as simply as possible, new historicists look for complexity of all kinds.  They think that traditional historical criticism is insufficiently complex.  In studying both history and literature, new historicists are suspicious of any claims of unity and harmony. Another key assumption of new historicists is that everything is political.  In other words, everything is in some way involved in or affected by the struggles or negotiations for power.  To pretend otherwise is, once again, to be simplistic and even naïve.


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