New Historicism

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New Historicism is a school of literary theory which first developed in the 1980s, primarily through the work of the critic and Harvard English Professor Stephen Greenblatt, and gained widespread influence in the 1990s.[1] New Historicists aim simultaneously to understand the work through its cultural context and to understand intellectual history through literature, which follows the 1950s discipline of history of Ideas and refers to itself as a form of "Cultural Poetics."

H. Aram Veeser, introducing an anthology of essays, The New Historicism (1989),[2] noted some key assumptions that continually reappear in New Historicism; they are:

  1. that every expressive act is embedded in a network of material practices;
  2. that every act of unmasking, critique and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practice it exposes;
  3. that literary and non-literary "texts" circulate inseparably;
  4. that no discourse, imaginative or archival, gives access to unchanging truths, nor expresses inalterable human nature#
  5. […] that a critical method and a language adequate to describe culture under capitalism participate in the economy they describe.
    — H. Aram Veeser, The New Historicism

The study

"Sub-literary" texts and uninspired non-literary texts all came to be read as documents of historical discourse, side-by-side with the "great works of literature". A typical focus of New Historicist critics, led by Stephen Orgel, has been on understanding Shakespeare less as an autonomous great author in the modern sense than as a means of reconstructing the cultural milieu Renaissance theatre—a collaborative and largely anonymous free-for-all—and the complex social politics of the time.[3] In this sense, Shakespeare's plays are seen as inseparable from the context in which he wrote (see contextualism, thick description). Influential historians behind the eruption of the New Historicism are Lynn Hunt and Michel Foucault, as they both taught at UC-Berkeley during its rise as a postmodern approach to history.

In this shift of focus, a comparison can be made with the best discussions of works of decorative arts. Unlike fine arts, which had been discussed in purely formal terms, comparable to the literary New Criticism, under the influences of Bernard Berenson and Ernst Gombrich, nuanced discussion of the arts of design since the 1970s have been set within social and intellectual contexts, taking account of fluctuations in luxury trades, the availability of design prototypes to local craftsmen, the cultural horizons of the patron, and economic considerations—"the limits of the possible" in economic historian Fernand Braudel's famous phrase. An outstanding pioneer example of such a contextualized study was Peter Thornton's monograph Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland (1978).


In its historicism and in its political interpretations, New Historicism is indebted to Marxism. But whereas Marxism (at least in its cruder forms) tends to see literature as part of a 'superstructure' in which the economic 'base' (i.e. material relations of production) manifests itself, New Historicist thinkers tend to take a more nuanced view of power, seeing it not exclusively as class-related but extending throughout society. This view derives primarily from Michel Foucault and his work in critical theory.

In its tendency to see society as consisting of texts relating to other texts, with no 'fixed' literary value above and beyond the way specific cultures read them in specific situations, New Historicism is a form of postmodernism applied to interpretive history.

New Historicism shares many of the same theories as with what is often called cultural materialism, but cultural materialist critics are even more likely to put emphasis on the present implications of their study and to position themselves in disagreement to current power structures, working to give power to traditionally disadvantaged groups. Cultural critics also downplay the distinction between "high" and "low" culture and often focus predominantly on the productions of "popular culture." (Newton 1988). [7] New Historicists analyze text with an eye to history. With this in mind, New Historicism is not “new”. Many of the critiques that existed between the 1920s and the 1950s also focused on literature's historical content. These critics based their assumptions of literature on the connection between texts and their historical contexts (Murfin & Supriya 1998).

New Historicism also has something in common with the historical criticism of Hippolyte Taine, who argued that a literary work is less the product of its author's imaginations than the social circumstances of its creation, the three main aspects of which Taine called race, milieu, and moment. It is also a response to an earlier historicism, practiced by early 20th century critics such as John Livingston Lowes, which sought to de-mythologize the creative process by reexamining the lives and times of canonical writers. But New Historicism differs from both of these trends in its emphasis on ideology: the political disposition, unknown to the author that governs their work.

Foucauldian basis

There is a popularly held recognition that Foucault’s ideas have passed through the New Historicist formation in history as a succession of épistèmes or structures of thought that shape everyone and everything within a culture (Myers 1989). It is indeed evident that the categories of history used by New Historicists have been standardised academically. Although the movement is publicly disapproving of the periodisation of academic history, the uses to which New Historicists put the Foucauldian notion of the épistème amount to very little more than the same practice under a new and improved label (Myers 1989).


New Historicism is often criticized for lacking a grasp of historiography as practiced by professional historians. As a postmodern form of historiography, New Historicism denies the grand narrative of modernity, often taking relativist stances which deny scientific, transhistorical concepts or social forms.[citation needed]

Many critics[who?] allege New Historicism has turned literary criticism into a form of pushing a politically correct agenda, rather than attending to literature as an art form. New Historicists often view a work of art as "cultural effect" (though "culture" under New Historicism is rarely defined).[citation needed]

Carl Rapp argues that "[the New Historicists] often appear to be saying, 'We are the only ones who are willing to admit that all knowledge is contaminated, including even our own'".[4]

Camille Paglia likewise cites "the New Historicism coming out of Berkeley" as an "issue where the PC academy thinks it's going to reform the old bad path, I have been there before they have been, and I'm there to punish and expose and to say what they are doing...a piece of crap."[5] Elsewhere, Paglia has suggested that New Historicism is "a refuge for English majors without critical talent or broad learning in history or political science. [...] To practice it, you must apparently lack all historical sense."[6]

Harold Bloom criticizes the New Historicism for reducing literature to a footnote of history, and for not paying attention to the details involved in analyzing literature.

See also


  1. David Mikics, ed. A New Handbook of Literary Terms, 2007, s.v. "New historicism".
  2. Veeser, ed. The New Historicism, (Routledge, Chapman and Hall) 1989, "Introduction", p. xi. Nineteen essays by contributors.
  3. An "ancestor" of the New Historicism noted in Mikics is C.L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959), which set the comedies against a contemporary cultural background of popular traditions like the "lord of misrule", where authority was inverted, transgressed and burlesqued.
  4. Myers, D. G. 1989, The New Historicism in literary study, viewed 27 April 2006
  5. Interview with Reason Magazine
  6. Paglia, Camille. "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders : Academe in the Hour of the Wolf," reprinted in Sex, Art and American Culture: New Essays (1992), ISBN 978-0-679-74101-5.

Further reading

  • The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary 2004, 4th edn, Oxford University Press,South Melbourne.
  • Dixon, C. 2005, New Historicism, viewed 1 January 2011, [1]
  • Felluga, D. 2003, General introduction to New Historicism, viewed 28 April 2006, [2]
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Translation of Surveiller et Punir. Vintage, 1979.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning. U Chicago P, 1980.
  • Hedges, W. 2000, New Historicism explained, viewed 20 March 2006 [3]
  • Licona, Michael. "The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach." IVP Academic, 2010.
  • Murfin, R. & Ray, S 1998, The Bedford glossary of critical and literary terms, Bedford Books, St Martins.
  • Myers, D. G. 1989, The New Historicism in literary study, viewed 27 April 2006, [4]
  • Orgel, Stephen. The Authentic Shakespeare. Routledge, 2002.
  • Parvini, Neema. Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory: New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. Bloomsbury, 2012.
  • Rice, P. & Waugh, P. 1989, Modern literary theory: a reader, 2nd edn, Edward Arnold, Melbourne.
  • Seaton, J. 1999, "The metaphysics of postmodernism", review of Carl Rapp, Fleeing the Universal: The Critique of Post-rational Criticism (1998), in Humanitas 12.1 (1999), viewed 29 April 2006, [5]
  • Veeser, H. Aram (Ed.). The New Historicism. Routledge, 1989.

External links

  • New Historicism from the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism