The word “new” seemingly separates New Historicism as a mode of inquiry from “old” historical approaches, but the claim that there are “old” and “new” approaches is perhaps a misnomer. Many traditional historical approaches to literary and cultural analysis are still in practice; this fact suggests that they are not outdated, nor have they been replaced by New Historicism. To better understand how New Historicism is distinct from its predecessors and contemporaries in the field of historical inquiry, it is important to understand the ways in which their various theories and methodologies diverge.
Traditional historical inquiry suggests that to understand a work of literature, the scholar must first investigate the author’s life and background, the society in which the author lived, and the prevailing ideas of the time. Traditional historical critics give preeminence to the literary text, with historical texts providing supporting background material. For instance, an understanding of the sewer system, or the lack of one, in eighteenth century London elucidates the black humor of Jonathan Swift’s poem “A Description of a City Shower” (1710), which lists in graphic detail the various items of refuse that wash through the streets of the city during a rainstorm. As Steven Lynn points out in Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory (1994), “The modern reader who is unaware of the sanitary problems in Swift’s day may find the poem’s imagery incredible.” Thus, one aspect of traditional historical criticism is to prove the...
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