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Tuesday, 30 October 2007


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In terms of theorists who influenced many New Historicists (or at least many "New New Historicists"), Pierre Bourdieu should be mentioned - especially _Distinction_ and _The Rules of Art_.

For me, Bourdieu sums up much of what is (or should be) distinctive about New Historicism. It doesn't just trace the sources of literary texts (although it does that too). Rather, its ultimate goal is to historicize the literary field, to show how ideas of literature and the aesthetic are historically contingent and to see what kind of cultural work those ideas accomplish in various contexts.

Tim Lacy

This list interests me insofar as it demonstrates the connections between history and literature as professional endeavors. Common authors or influences include James Harvey Robinson, Van Wyck Brooks, Clifford Geertz, Foucault, and Ann Douglas. Good stuff.

But I've always wanted to ask the following questions of today's literary historicists: Who were the Old literary Historicists? And who, furthermore, were the Old Old Historicists?

Clearly the NEW in New Historicism baffles me.

And don't brush me off by telling me to read Gerald Graff's Professing History. It's a fascinating read, but it clearly didn't offer a pithy memory trick for understanding who the Old and Old Old Historicists were.

So, SEK, I expect new lists and a few memory tricks. - TL


To build off what Stephen mentions about theory, I usually think of New Historicism engaging with Marxism and Marxist/cultural studies theorists while still being ambivalent about using scholarship to advocate or press for political/social change (whereas I think of "old historicism"(?) as being much more a "history of ideas" or at least taking class and material culture much less into account.

A good book to pair with Ann Douglas, though _nowhere_ near as impressively massive in scope, is New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism Between the Wars, by William J. Maxwell.

And to be picky and annoying about your lists: these Americanist texts seem to break down on a black-white racial paradigm. Are there no new historicists who study Latina/o, Native or Asian American historicisms? Or do those scholars work in RES fields with completely different approaches and thus not "do" new historicism? And what about new historicist books in gender studies?


Susie, the black/white dynamic of the lists is an artifact of my (original) dissertation idea: to do work on liberalism and African-American literature in the '20s and '30s. (The Maxwell, as you can well imagine, was an important text there.) I agree with you about New Historicism, which is why I expanded this to the New New Historicism: people who consider themselves historicists (myself and Stephen included) don't think (at least I don't think we think) of themselves as wedded to the early '80s paradigm set up by Greenblatt et al. I think we're much closer to Old Historicism, i.e. intellectual history, than we are to New Historicism.

This goes some way to answering Tim's question, I think. An example: when I met with Eric Rauchway for the UC Davis event, he said that I while I may be in an English department, I'm really interested in the History of Ideas, only I'm tracking them through literary texts. (He said this to other historians, I suppose to invalidate their preconceptions of what people do in English departments.) I can't help but agree: I'm using the techniques of literary scholarship (close-reading, &c.) to do the work of an intellectual historian.

As for who the Old Historicists were: read Professing Literature.

... I kid, I kid. Although it does have a few chapters on the kind of biographical and philological material the New Critics responded to, and that, generally speaking, is "Old Historicism." They didn't call themselves such; they were called such by the New Historicists, in order to demonstrate that they weren't doing biographical studies of Chaucer (Robertson) and Twain (Van Wyck Brooks) or philological studies of Chaucer (Muscatine).

Stephen, I agree with you about Bourdieu, even though he's not (as you know) that important an influence on me. (Because this is all about me. ME ME ME. Ahem.) In fact, Distinction and The Rule of Art both fell to the fury of the Five Year Rule recently. Maybe I should rectify that ...

Tim Lacy

Well said, SEK. BTW: I think my incorrect reference to Graff's Professing HISTORY [sic] was a kind of Freudian slip due to his role in that particular book. Mea culpa anyway.- TL


Did you see this Chronicle article: "History Descending a Staircase: American Historians and American Culture" by Richard Pells? It's another interesting take on this historian/ new-historicist- in-the-English-department thing, and was especially interesting to me because I knew all the stuff he referenced and had read most of the books. Evidently, while I've been trying to overcome my feelings of being a fraud about American history and culture, historians have been ignoring the whole area of study. Or so says Pells.

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