Origins and founders

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The decade of the 1980’s marked the emergence of New Historicism as a recognized mode of inquiry in literary and cultural studies. It followed on the heels of and in reaction to New Criticism (1940’s-1970’s), which maintained that the text of a literary work was sacrosanct. New Critics focused exclusively on properties integral to a poem, particularly its formal and linguistic qualities, and rejected biographical or historical contexts as unnecessary to an understanding and appreciation of a poem. The poet, the era, and the circumstances of a poem’s composition were of no concern to the New Critics. The poem, in and of itself, provided the key to understanding.

Prior to the influx of new critical approaches, literary scholars had engaged in historical research, but the New Historicism that emerged in the 1980’s was unlike its forerunners. Practitioners of New Historicism were informed by other more radical criticisms that developed in the 1970’s, including reader-response, feminist, and Marxist approaches. Questioning the status quo was a common practice on university and college campuses, where many emerging theorists, such as French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault and American literary historian Greenblatt, were professors. Particularly in light of the Civil Rights and women’s movements and of organized opposition to the Vietnam War, rethinking the status quo was popular in higher education. Foucault, Greenblatt, and others extended...

(The entire section is 402 words.)