Sunday, 02 April 2006

New New Historicism: A Primer Today seems to be the day I hit publish on all those lists I've been compiling. So for all of you future historicists out there, I present to you a list of works which will introduce you to exciting world of literary historicism. I'll begin with what a less careful chap would call "prehistoricism." These works posit a naive relation of historical moment to literary production; that said, they exhibit a thoroughness which many works of new historicism would (often proudly and willfully) lack: The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook, James Harvey Robinson America's Coming of Age , Van Wyck Brooks "On Creating a Usable Past," Van Wyck Brooks On Native Grounds , Alfred Kazin Love and Death in the American Novel , Leslie Fiedler They are all men, yes, and American exceptionalists at that. I could list many more such men—including important ones like Charles Beard and F.O. Matthiessen—but the point I wish to make with this list is that dry, empty formalism was not the only available mode of literary scholarship in the years before and of New Critical dominance. Now let's move to some of the theoretical influences of the New Historicists: "Linguistics and Literary Theory," Leo Spitzer, trans. Michel Foucault "Philology and Weltliteratur," Erich Auerbach, trans. Marie and Edward Said "The Thinking of Thoughts," Gilbert Ryle "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture," Clifford Geertz Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality , Michel Foucault Note the emphasis on late Foucault. New Historicists think less about the repressiveness of power and more about the organization and channeling of it. Note, however, the conspicuous absence of the Annales school. As constructed from these particular sources, New Historicism embraced a radical perspective on the events and narratives they purported to explain. Despite the attempt to distance themselves from the "stuffy" historians of the first half of the century, in the end they had far more in common with the Progressive School of historiography than they're wont to admit. The historicism I espouse fails all sorts of political tests. It does not attempt to the advance the cause of the working class. It bombs every test of direct social effect one could throw at it. It is more interested in an account of what happened and why and how than in tracking the flow of power at a particular moment in order to liberate contemporary readers from said moment's social or political bequest. But if one is to be an historicist today one must be familiar with that form of historicism and should therefore read: The New Historicism , H. Aram Vesser Seminal, that is. It addresses most of the aforementioned works . . . only in a way that makes one wonder whether there isn't some unstated principle of selection at work. The collection's triumphalist tone remains clarion-loud throughtout with one exception. I implore you to read the entirety of the book from which that exception is excerpted: The New Historicism and Other...

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