New Historicism

The 1980s witnessed the emergence of a new movement in Anglo-American literary scholarship which, in methodological sophistication, theoretical all-inclusiveness, and classroom appeal, bid fair to rival anything from Germany and France. The moment was ripe for such a homegrown movement to appear. For several years, many scholars in English and American universities - ranging from Frederick Crews, George Watson, and E. D. Hirsch, Jr., on one end of the scale to Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and Frank Lentricchia on the other - had been raising a clamour for a return to historical scholarship in the academic study of literature. The historical nature of literary works, it was said, had been badly neglected over the past half century of Anglo-American criticism. The time had come to move beyond the narrowly "formalistic" or "text-centred" approach to literature. A new historical approach was needed and, in the course of events, a new movement arose to meet the demand.

The "New Historicism," as by general agreement the movement has come to be called, is unified by its disdain for literary formalism. Specifically, leaders of the movement describe themselves as unhappy with the exclusion of social and political circumstances (commonly known as the "context") from the interpretation of literary works; they are impatient with the settled view that a poem is a self-contained object, a verbal icon, a logical core surrounded by a texture of irrelevance. In this they are setting their jaws against the New Criticism, albeit rather late in the day. But their hostility can never (to use one of their own favoured terms) be unmediated. New Historicism in literary study has emerged in this decade not so much in the spirit of counter-insurgency as after the manner of a corporate reorganization. It has been a response not to literature but to literary studies. It has been called forth not by the subject matter under study; not by actual poems, novels, and plays; but by the institutional situation in which young scholars now find themselves.

The situation in English as the twentieth century entered its final two decades was one that placed a greater premium on method than ideas. In addition, there was a rising sense that literary study had reached something of an impasse. On one side were the students of the New Critics, still doing readings of long-accepted texts; on the other were the deconstructionists, showing how texts undo themselves. Both seemed remote from the true interests of the new professoriat, which had cut its teeth on the political slogans of the sixties. As Jean E. Howard frankly says in a defence of the new movement, by the early eighties professors had grown weary of teaching literary texts as "ethereal entities" floating above the strife of history. For a short time, perhaps, feminism seemed close to solving the dilemma; it appeared to hold out the hope of transforming literary criticism into an agent for social change. But gradually many within the discipline began to awaken to the fact that feminism had no distinctive method of its own; the feminist critic knew what she wanted to say about a text, but she had to adopt other interpretive "strategies," as the saying went, to make her themes appear. This began more and more to be the case. Younger critics had to resort to a tandem operation, using deconstruction or some other variant of poststructuralist method to clear the ground on which an assortment of radical political notions was carted in to raise a new interpretation. But such a procedure left critics anxious lest their interpretations fail to go beyond the already familiar readings of the text. It was in this situation that the New Historicism emerged. It appeared to offer a distinctive approach, a rigorous method, along "with the opportunity to salvage one's political commitments. Indeed, at times the New Historicism seemed almost designed to methodise the political interpretation of literature.

The movement has gained rapid acceptance in English departments. It already has its classical texts (e.g., Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Louis Adrian Montrose's uncollected essays on Shakespeare, especially the one entitled "Shaping Fantasies"); it has its own journal (Representations, published by the University of California Press). Its special methods of interpretation are practiced by a large number of critics in England and America Jonathan Dollimore, Jane Tompkins, Don E. Wayne, Walter Benn Michaels, Catherine Gallagher, Arthur F. Marotti, Jean E. Howard, Stephen Orgel, Annabel Patterson, and Peter Stallybrass, to name only a few). It has set off an enthusiasm of historical research. Younger critics have begun to comb through parliamentary reports, religious tracts, labour statistics, and dusty stacks of ephemera published by contemporaries of the great English and American writers. Slightly older critics have begun, as it were, to retool themselves - to "rehistoricize" their scholarship for the new market conditions. Last year the English Institute devoted a large share of its program to the

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