The children of new historicism: Literary scholarship, professionalization, and the will to publish

Rebecca Munson, Claude Willan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


We - members of the current generation of graduate students - can without any distortion of fact be labeled children of New Historicism. Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning was first published in 1980, four years before either of us were born. Granted, we may be some of the younger academics out there, but the fact that New Historicism has, quite literally, been around longer than we have makes a strong case for the need for a new set of critical practices. As the backdrop of our experiences with higher education, New Historicism has formed our intellectual landscapes to the degree that its practices and assumptions have become our default ideological framework, both as undergraduates at Oxford and Columbia, and in the Oxford Master's program in which we both enrolled as preparation for the doctoral study in which we are now engaged. It might be appropriate to begin with an anecdote. Part of our Master's course consisted of seminars with academics from the Oxford faculty in which they would share with us their routes into the profession. These were designed to inform, orient, and possibly to disabuse us if we assumed that reaching their position was a given. These were generally a delight; the professors were humane and generous, recalling their own uncertainties as fledgling graduates, and took the time generally to reassure us that it was worth pursuing doctoral work even in the face of difficulties with the faculty or with funding. One such seminar, however, was not such a positive experience. Given halfway through the year by an academic, who, in the short time since receiving a doctorate had published three books, our group of Master's students was told that to succeed in academia we ought to adhere to a methodological orthodoxy. This orthodoxy was not simply historicist literary study but an interdisciplinary literary historiography. Both of us felt compelled to ask our professor whether this wasn't somehow wrong-headed, whether telling graduate students that to study literature with professional success they had to prepare to use it as a lens through which to examine historical circumstance wasn't a little defeatist about the possibility of genuinely literary study. Our questions were not answered, and the seminar moved on. But those questions stayed with us, and the seminars and conferences we attended at Oxford continued to endorse the study of literature with historical goals. We both wondered: how had it come about that the prevailing literary hegemony was one which shied away from, well, literature? To us, the answer seems to be that the hold that New Historicism, as it is currently practiced, has on literary studies is one that is self-perpetuating and which combines a resistance to individual reading and a ready method for professional validation with the possibility of an extensively re-iterable method. This sort of "historical" use of contemporary texts is often positivistic, and myopic, and represents an inconsistency of analysis and an impoverishment of scholarship. We believe that there is literature and that the job of the critic is partly to uncover it wherever it can be found. Similarly, there is a proper use of history in literary study. Understanding the historical moment in which a text has been written, as well as the one in which it is read, is a process which can transform the meanings sought or found in a text. There is value in working towards an understanding of both the ideologies which might have influenced a text's production and those in which the moment of interpretation takes place. An understanding of the social structures that these narratives endorse, whether through happenstance or through design, is critical to the assembly of an honest and self-aware critique. This historical self-awareness, however, has been practiced to the point of paralysis, and the preferment of social texts to texts and of socio-historical circumstances to individual artistry has been ultimately damaging to literary studies as a whole. Further, finding the "historical" roles a text can assume is every bit as challenging a task as establishing its literariness, and is just as asymptotic a process. The idea of history is as tenuous as the idea of literature, and any attempts to use these words, unexamined, to tie texts down into ontological security must surely founder. Just as each "literary" work changes the corporate (most accurate) definition of "literature," as each work is imputed into a historical narrative, that narrative is itself to some extent transformed. After the demise of Deconstruction, its purely textualist ahistorical approaches were deemed unacceptable. In reaction against the theoretical uncertainties it had evoked, literary scholars seized on the supposed absoluteness and incontrovertibility of historical fact and have used that apparent insuperability with a lack of caution that belies the New Historicist rhetoric of social responsibility. A truly socially responsible literary scholar would attend as closely to precisely how they and their studies are socially involved as they would to the mere fact of that involvement. As New Historicism continues to enjoy a relatively uncontested hegemony over literary studies, a supremacy that is only more entrenched by the mechanisms of professionalization that this article examines, a certain sense of entitlement has entered the tones of many critics who find the obscurity of the work its own justification. Just because something has not been said does not mean that it is worth saying. And just because something has been said doesn't mean that that statement isn't worth revisiting and re-exploring. The sheer number of contexts that exist to be applied to canonical and non-canonical texts alike means that literary studies faces, at best, a future consisting of the careful interrogation of historical narratives and, at worst, a serial iteration of a historical methodology that emphasizes its own counterintuitiveness. Each fresh text can be used as historical evidence, either anecdotally, to disrupt an accepted historiography, or to disrupt an accepted literary hermeneutic by inserting a new historical perspective. This does not promote collective and gradual refinements of an aesthetic, but rather a culture of serial statements made devoid of mutual significance. This is the least constructive kind of opposition. Nothing, not even argument, has been established beyond the mere fact of disagreement. At what point does a culture of intellectual opposition cease to bear fruit? Surely it is the point at which opposition is routinely not engagement but disengaged and discrete assertion. A responsible, viable, and valuable history can, like literature, only be approached through an assiduous re-evaluation of the terms under which its study is conducted. The rhetoric of social responsibility used by New Historicists is undercut by the irresponsibility with which some critics use history. Literature and history do both exist. They are very thoroughly intertwined, and they are both worth fighting for, as much for their differences as for their similarities. In this essay we will discuss the calcification of New Historicism from an idea into an iterative ideology; examine the influence that a pervasive anxiety about the role of literature departments in the university has on this process; consider the increasing imperative to produce publications; and propose a qualified idealism that has been missing from recent approaches and which offers a way to rehabilitate the practice of reading and, with it, the study of literature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Limits of Literary Historicism
PublisherThe University of Tennessee Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)1572338318, 9781572338203
StatePublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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