New Historicism Analysis

Origins and founders

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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...

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Beliefs and methodologies

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While its main founder, Greenblatt, is a noted Renaissance scholar associated with the field of English literature, the range of New Historicists is vast. In addition to literary scholars, New Historicism includes cultural critics, anthropologists, and historians, all of whom work across the curriculum, utilizing methods from various disciplines and sharing epistemological tools. Given this diversity of backgrounds, interests, and methods, it is not surprising that disagreements emerge among New Historicists. Even Greenblatt regrets the term “New Historicism”; he prefers to call his approach a poetics of culture.

In his introduction to The New Historicism (1989), editor H. Aram Veeser identifies five epistemological threads that connect practitioners of New Historicism. First, Veeser notes that “every expressive act is embedded in a network of material practices,” suggesting that even a simple couplet at the end of a sonnet, a type of expressive act, is the product of the cultural milieu from which it originated. Second, he notes that “every act of unmasking, critique and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practice it exposes,” an admission that any claim to objective inquiry is a fallacy. New Historicists are vulnerable to and operate within the same cultural power grids that produced the texts they study. There is no still-point in the universe from which to conduct textual analyses. Critics, like...

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A number of terms appear frequently in scholarship by New Historicists and in works about New Historicism. Crucial to an understanding of New Historicism are the following terms: “discourse,” “power,” “representations,” and “self-positioning.” “Discourse” refers to a vocabulary associated with a particular group of people with a shared knowledge. The discourse allows members to communicate with each other, define standards for outsiders, and keep those who do not share their specialized knowledge out of the discussion. Discourses exist in areas such as law, medicine, higher education, and sports. Foucault’s three-volume Histoire de la sexualité (1976-1984; History of Sexuality, 1978-1987, 3 vols.), for example, notes the frequency with which psychiatrists and sexologists invented new terms for human sexual behavior, determining what was acceptable and what was reprehensible through this vocabulary. Foucault further notes how views toward sexuality shifted as a result of this specialized and expanding discourse.

“Power,” along with ethics and truth, is a means by which humans are subjugated by the societies in which they exist. Foucault believes that power is a construct, not a reality. Power is associated with knowledge; to possess knowledge, particularly specialized knowledge, as is the case with government leaders, surgeons, and college professors, for example, is to be able to wield power over others. Power gives one the authority to determine whether something is true or false, acceptable or repugnant, valid or invalid. For New Historicists, truth is a construct backed by power.

The idea and term “representations” is central to New Historicism, so much so that the title of the journal founded by Greenblatt is Representations. “Representation” means that which is opposed to reality. Because New Historicists question the nature of reality—because reality is often defined by those in power—the preferred term to describe phenomena is “representations.” History becomes not just one story, but many stories through representations. How people from diverse backgrounds and times view events differs dramatically. No single representation can claim the truth. Similarly, self-positioning refers to the fallibility of the scholar who cannot step outside history to evaluate the phenomena of humanity. The term is a reference to the inevitable subjectivity of all human inquiry.


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The popularity of New Historicism continues to grow, as evidenced by the increasing number of scholarly articles and books that employ this method of inquiry, including Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004), which reached a popular audience and became a best seller. However, New Historicism’s detractors are also increasingly evident. Opponents object to the ideological scrutiny under which works of literature are placed by New Historicists, including their emphasis on socially constructed and socially enforced belief systems. Detractors argue that such a politically charged focus detracts from an enjoyment and appreciation of poems, plays, short fiction, and novels. They argue, for example, that they want to read Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591), not as evidence of repressive sexual politics in the sixteenth century, but as a classic love story. Other critics, who hark back to New Criticism, desire a return to textual meaning. More traditional methods of historical criticism aim toward the recovery of a text’s original meaning; New Historicists question the very notion of an obtainable meaning. The author’s intentions, often the product of social forces beyond the writer’s control or ken, are irrecoverable.

Late twentieth century conservative pundits George Will and William Bennett perceive something much more sinister at work in New Historicism: the complete eradication of shared cultural values. New Historicism is argued to be a vehicle by which liberal intellectuals disrupt any semblance of aesthetic norms. Greenblatt countered this perception in an interview, noting that One thing that’s very puzzling about the ferocity of some of these attacks is that—though they’re often mounted in the name of American culture, what George Will calls our “social cement”—they seem to me oddly hostile to democratic currents in America, to our ability to absorb lots and lots of different things and make them our own.


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Gallagher, Catherine, and Stephen Greenblatt. Practicing New Historicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. A clearly written work that focuses its examination on five central New Historicist themes: the “recurrent use of anecdotes, preoccupation with the nature of representations, fascination with the history of the body, sharp focus on neglected details, and skeptical analysis of ideology.”

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Greenblatt Reader. Edited by Michael Payne. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005. This reader gathers Greenblatt’s most important New Historicist writings, including his works about “culture, Renaissance studies, and Shakespeare.” Also includes essays on storytelling and miracles. Counters assertions that New Historicism fails to embrace ideas of literary and aesthetic value.

Laden, Sonja. “Recuperating the Archive: Anecdotal Evidence and Questions of ’Historical Realism.’” Poetics Today 25, no. 1 (Spring, 2004): 1-28. Examines the role of anecdotal evidence in New Historicist writing. Explores connections between literary artifacts, literary scholarship, and historical discourse within New Historicist practices.

Lynn, Steven. “Connecting the Text: Biographical, Historical, and New Historical Criticism.” In Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008. Delineates assumptions and strategies associated with New Historical practices in literary criticism. Provides examples as well.

Robson, Mark. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Routledge, 2008. A biographical study of New Historicism’s early practitioner, Stephen Greenblatt. Examines his foundational works as well as key concepts in the practice, including context, cultural poetics, power and subversion, thick description, and the anecdote.

Ryan, Michael. “History.” In Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction. 2d ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007. Introduces New Historicism in the context of traditional historical methods and other emerging historical practices. Applies New Historical methods to literary works, including poems by Elizabeth Bishop.

Veeser, H. Aram, ed. The New Historicism. New York: Routledge, 1989. Anthology of classic New Historicist essays, including entries by Stephen Greenblatt, Jane Marcus, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and a helpful introduction that defines New Historicism and places the movement in a theoretical context.

_______. The New Historicism Reader. New York: Routledge, 1994. In the introduction to this collection of now-classic essays, Veeser examines New Historicism’s “allies and opponents, surveys related fields, and identifies now-emerging New Historicist themes.”

Wilson, Scott. “The Economimesis of New Historicism (Or, How New Historicism Displaced Theory in English Literature Departments).” Journal for Cultural Research 11, no. 2 (April, 2007): 161-174. Posits why New Historicism has gained ground in academia while other theoretical models of literary analysis have fallen from favor.