The New Historicism in Literary Study

Originally published in Academic Questions 2 (Winter 1988-89): 27-36.

The eighties 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 clamor 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-centered" 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 favored terms) be unmediated. The French nouvelle critique and German philosophical hermeneutics have intervened, at least in the history of fashions within the university; and the new movement has arisen at least as much in response to these later developments as to a critical establishment which has made a formalistic view of literary works its official doctrine. Thus the New Historicism in literary study has emerged in this decade not so much in the spirit of a 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, plays—but by the institutional situation in which young scholars now find themselves.

The situation in English as the 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, 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 defense 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.1 For a spell, 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 were having 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 were 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 methodize 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,2 Louis Adrian Montrose’s uncollected essays on Shakespeare, especially the one entitled "Shaping Fantasies"3); 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, labor 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 new approach. Graduate students have begun to catch on, and they had better. The year before, Wesleyan University’s English department became the first in the country to advertise a job opening for a New Historicist.

There have been other "new historicisms" before this. Fredric Jameson’s style of neo-Marxist historicism as practiced in The Political Unconscious (Cornell University Press, 1981) has been described as "new," but Jameson locates the grounds of his argument not in historical research but in recent theory; he is "historicist" only in respecting the past as past while seeking to make it serve the present. Similarly, Wesley Morris’s Toward a New Historicism (Princeton University Press, 1972) is unrelated to the movement which has usurped that name. A student of Roy Harvey Pearce, Morris sought an approach that would somehow balance the recognition that a literary work belongs to its own time with the confidence that literary works can nevertheless transcend their time. Perhaps needless to say, Morris’ effort was not followed up by younger critics. The winds of doctrine in university English departments in the last quarter of this century have not been favorable to anyone who suggested the possibility of transcendence.

But the movement that now goes by the name of New Historicism differs from both of these. Perhaps the central statement of its themes is the introduction to Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning.4 Even the title suggests the main focus of the movement. Within the ranks of the New Historicism, literature is considered to be one of the social forces that contributes to the making of individuals; it acts as a form of social control. Although most New Historicists are scrupulous to distinguish themselves from Marxist critics, the fact remains that the central task of the New Historicism is the same as that of Marxist criticism: first to call into question the traditional view of literature as an autonomous realm of discourse with its own problems, forms, principles, activities, and then to dissolve the literary text into the social and political context from which it issued. In fact, the New Historicism tries explicitly to solve the theoretical difficulty in Marxist criticism of relating the cultural superstructure to the material base. Its claim to newness might be put in terms of its claim to having solved that problem.

What are the principles—or what Greenblatt calls the "enabling presumptions"—behind the New Historicist method? The movement establishes itself upon four main contentions. (l) Literature is historical, which means (in this exhibition) that a literary work is not primarily the record of one mind’s attempt to solve certain formal problems and the need to find something to say; it is a social and cultural construct shaped by more than one consciousness. The proper way to understand it, therefore, is through the culture and society that produced it. (2) Literature, then, is not a distinct category of human activity. It must be assimilated to history, which means a particular vision of history. (3) Like works of literature, man himself is a social construct, the sloppy composition of social and political forces—there is no such thing as a human nature that transcends history. Renaissance man belongs inescapably and irretrievably to the Renaissance. There is no continuity between him and us; history is a series of "ruptures" between ages and men. (4) As a consequence, the historian/ critic is trapped in his own "historicity." No one can rise above his own social formations, his own ideological upbringing, in order to understand the past on its terms. A modern reader can never experience a text as its contemporaries experienced it. Given this fact, the best a modern historicist approach to literature can hope to accomplish, according to Catherine Belsey, is "to use the text as a basis for the reconstruction of an ideology."5

Such an approach stands traditional historical scholarship on its head. The first principle of traditional scholarship—its generally agreed-upon point of departure—was that the recovery of the original meaning of a literary text is the whole aim of critical interpretation. But the New Historicism premises that recovery of meaning is impossible, to attempt it naive. What practitioners of the new method are concerned with, by contrast, is the recovery of the original ideology which gave birth to the text, and which the text in turn helped to disseminate throughout a culture. This dimension of critical interpretation has been neglected by traditional scholars not merely because the required concept, the "enabling presumption" of ideology, was unavailable to them until recently; in the New Historicist view, it had never been widely attempted because literary texts themselves suppress the means by which they construct ideology. A traditional formalistic approach, treating the text as self-contained, can never locate these ideological operations, also known as "representations." Only a historicist approach, treating the text as one element in the ideology of an age, can hope to lay them bare.

Although the movement represents itself, then, as being more faithful to the true, hitherto-neglected nature of literature, in reality its key assumptions are derived from the institutional milieu in which it arose. Its concepts and categories are simply those which, over the last few years, have conditioned a large part of the literary thought within the university. Thus, the New Historicism is critical of the ‘‘enabling presumptions" of its more distant, but not of its more immediate, predecessors. For instance, the movement follows poststructuralism in its assurance that literary works mean any number of things to any number of readers (the doctrine of the plurality of meaning), freeing New Historicists to find the warrant for their interpretations not in the author’s intentions for his work but in the ideology of his age. Similarly, the New Historicist effort to assimilate the literary text to history is guaranteed by the poststructuralist doctrine of textuality, which states that the text is not aloof from the surrounding context, that there is a contiguity, an ebb and flow, between text and whatever might once have been seen as "outside" it. Yet these ideas are obtained secondhand. They are not established by original inquiry or argument. They are simply the precipitate of an academic climate in which a plurality of meanings is recognized as offering the greatest good for the greatest number of literary scholars, and in which the reassimilation of text to context is the goal of practically everybody.

The other sources of the movement will be equally familiar to observers of the academic scene. The doctrine of historicity is a Heideggerian motif that came to the movement via the writings of German hermeneutical philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. The New Historicist conception of ideology is not that of Marx, but rather that of the French structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser— though, in plain fact, the New Historicists seem more directly influenced by expositors of Marxist doctrine like Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton than by Althusser. Finally, in its general orientation toward scholarship and historical research the New Historicism dances attendance on the figure of the late Michel Foucault. Again, though, the influence of Foucault is a generalized and secondhand one: it permeates the New Historicist conception of history as a succession of épistémes or structures of thought that shape everyone and everything within a culture. But this is no more than to say that Foucault has provided New Historicists with their own épistéme. Their work cannot really be said to extend or elaborate upon Foucault’s. Nor is it critical of Foucault’s concept of the épistéme. It merely embraces the concept as a given.

What do these assumptions lead New Historicists to argue? The initial effort is to relocate the literary text among the other, traditionally nonliterary "discursive practices" of an age. The representation of character in the nineteenth-century novel, for instance, is said to be bound up with contemporary debates over parliamentary representation; or, Iago’s plot against Othello is described as typical of Elizabethan attempts to deny the otherness of subject peoples.6 But the larger purpose of New Historicist inquiry is the reconstruction of the actual (as opposed to the "represented") relations in which people lived during a particular time. For example, in one of the most widely read essays by a New Historicist, Louis Adrian Montrose interprets A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an ideological attempt to comprehend the power of Queen Elizabeth—to make sense of it and place it safely within bounds—while simultaneously upholding the authority of males within Elizabethan culture.7 By citing a variety of contemporary writing (in order to reinstate the "discursive practices" of the age), Montrose demonstrates the Elizabethans’ ambivalence toward their queen: abiding respect mixed with a dark desire to master her sexually. In this context, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. is reread as a fable of the restoration of male governance. Mothers are significantly excluded from the dramatis personae of the play, just as the danger of matriarchy (with which the Elizabethans flirted in their fascination with the myth of the Amazons) was quietly suppressed by the celebration of Elizabeth’s virginity. The very real possibility that power might actually be passed from mother to daughter was concealed from women of the age by such cultural productions as Shakespeare’s play, in which Elizabeth was a willing collaborator as much by her decision to remain unwed and barren as by her "cultural presence" within the play.

It is in this sense that works of literature such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream are "representations" of the culture from which they emerge. They are the emanations, the active agents, of the culture’s circumambient ideology. Literary works are both what a culture produces as well as what reproduces the ideology. The term "representations" is misleading insofar as it suggests a mimetic theory of literature. Nothing could be further from New Historicist truths. In fact, the New Historicism presumes that artistic fiction does not imitate human action; it mediates it. That is, fiction is defined as the lens through which a certain portrait of the human experience is brought into focus. And as mediation rather than as imitation of social practices, it can be thus be said to shape rather than to reflect an age’s understanding of human experience and potentiality.

In New Historicist interpretation, as a consequence, history is not viewed as the cause or the source of a work. Instead, the relationship between history and the work is seen as a dialectic: the literary text is interpreted as both product and producer, end and source, of history. One undeniable side benefit of such a view is that history is no longer conceived, as in some vulgar historical scholarship, as a thing wholly prior, a process which completes itself at the appearance of the work. At the same time, though, it must not be thought that the New Historicism dispenses with the cognitive category of priority. For the New Historicist it is ideology, not history, which is prior. The literary text is said to be a constituent part of a culture’s ideology by virtue of passing it on; but the ideology nevertheless exists’ intact’ intelligible, in a form separate from (and therefore prior to) the work. If it didn’t, the critic could not discern a relationship between work and ideology; and if the ideology were not prior to the work, it wouldn’t be a historical relationship.

But the apriorism of ideology in New Historicist thought raises large questions. The principal one is this: How does the critic know that the ideology located in the work of literature under discussion genuinely belongs to the past? How can he be sure that the ideology is not simply his own political sympathy which has been injected into the work and then ‘‘located" there by means of an ingenious selection of the evidence? These questions occur spontaneously to anyone who reads very widely in New Historicist writing, so much of which expresses a politically au courant sympathy for exploited peoples, powerless women, workers, slaves, peasants. A critic like Stephen Greenblatt is too intelligent not to acknowledge that his own sympathy for such peoples is a priori. In the essay that launched the New Historicist journal Representations, Greenblatt interprets a Dürer sketch in The Painter’s Manual (1525) for a monument commemorating a victory over rebellious peasants—a somewhat ludicrous design topped off by a peasant stabbed in the back—as ironic and subversive.8 Greenblatt goes on to admit, though, that ‘‘[t]he bitter irony we initially perceived [in Dürer’s sketch] was constituted less by concrete evidence of Dürer’s subversiveness than by our own sympathy for the peasants, sympathy conditioned by our century’s ideology, by recent historical scholarship, and no doubt above all, by our safe distance from the fear and loathing of 1525." He does not stop there, however. This admission, he continues, "though necessary, seems inadequate, for our solidarity with early sixteenth-century German peasants is of interest only insofar as it seems to have been called forth by Dürer’s monument and not simply read into it" (emphasis added). Yet how can the critic be certain that the work studied has not simply provided him with an occasion for a renewed outbreak of familiar feeling, like a pop song from our adolescence that reminds us of a girl we once ached for? Greenblatt passes silently over such a question. The real question for him "is how Dürer could have created a brilliant, detailed, and coherent design that could lend itself to a strong interpretation so much at odds with his own probable intentions"? But this isn’t a scholarly question so much as it is a dilemma for a certain kind of scholar. For such a scholar (i.e., one for whom the intentions of the artist are not normative), almost any work, no matter how brilliant, detailed, and coherent, can be made to lend itself to almost any interpretation at all. For Greenblatt, the aim of scholarship is to square the artist’s intentions with the scholar’s own sympathy. He simply assumes that Dürer’s design is "at odds" with the sympathy any sensitive modern would feel. The sympathy is treated as a fact of equal importance (and comparable ontological status) with the design. No effort is made to ascertain whether the design really is at odds with anything; it is simply treated as a donnée of interpretation that it must be. The critic knows because of the way he feels.

The error of the New Historicism lies not in its political allegiances, however, but in the logic of its method. That method might be described as a way of salvaging initially favored hypotheses (or "strong interpretations") in the face of a lack of concrete evidence. Two main objections to such a procedure come to mind. First, we may simply disagree with the conviction that has inspired the argument in the first place. We may not happen to agree that it is a prima facie likelihood that all of the men within any given culture have sought to oppress the women or that those who express contempt for peasants are expressing the ambivalence of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. And if we disagree, no amount of evidence about the "discursive practices" of the age will persuade us otherwise. The very choice of what to quote in corroboration of this view (and what to withhold) will be made on the basis of the conviction that it is true—a conviction that is held long in advance of a search for evidence. But secondly, even if for the sake of argument we grant this assumption, we are not bound to any conclusion reached by its means. We can yield the point that Elizabethan culture u as patriarchal, or that those who serve ruling minorities desire secretly to see them toppled, and still go on to deny that A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Dürer’s sketch contain these meanings. If it is not self-contradictory for us to do this—if we can simultaneously grant an assumption and reject its interpretive significance—it follows that any interpretation grounded upon an unproven assumption about a work’s historical context is trifling, if not untenable. Only if a reader of a New Historicist argument is prepared to accept its a priori assumptions can its conclusions be accepted as true to history. The essential categories of New Historicist thought make the necessary facts appear.

"The whole point" of the New Historicist enterprise, Jean E. Howard says, "is to grasp the terms of the discourse which made it possible [for contemporaries] to see the ‘facts’ [of their own time] in a particular way—indeed, made it possible to see certain phenomena as facts at all."9 At first glance, this objective appears to be little different from that of traditional historical interpretation: the discourse of the past is grasped in its own terms. But what has been subtly introduced is a comparison. The New Historicist sees facts that the people of the time did not, and this special insight is what enables him to grasp the "discursive practices" that "produced" the facts that the people did see. But there remains a question: How can the New Historicist be certain that this second set of "facts"—those so painfully clear to a modern reader—are not merely produced by the discursive practices of his own time? Surely the terms in which he explains the past—"representations," "subversiveness," "cultural presence," etc.—belong to no age so much as his own. They are to be numbered among the discursive practices of the recent academic past. How then does the New Historicist know that the facts which show up so clearly in his interpretive framework can also be found in the distant past? There is no provision for them in his own theory of historical knowledge. If he can never escape his own historicity, how can the New Historicist know for certain that those "facts" exist at all?

Despite its theoretical sheen, the New Historicism is strikingly unphilosophical about these and other problems of knowledge raised by its methods of interpretation. Movement writers never explain how it is that, though we are unable to recover the original meaning of a literary text, we are nevertheless able to reconstruct its original ideology. Nor do they account for why, though we cannot experience a text from an earlier age as its original readers would have experienced it, this problem disappears when we are faced by a text from the more recent past—say, a critical essay by a New Historicist. Indeed, it is clear that the New Historicism’s categories of history are the standard academic ones. Although the movement is publicly contemptuous of the "periodization" of academic history, the uses to which New Historicists put the Foucauldian notion of the épistéme amount to very little more than the same practice under a new, improved label. A historical age is conceived of as a structure of thought held together by the same discursive practices. But the extent and duration of an épistéme is never fixed, and how one can be distinguished from another is never explained, except by the use of such labels as "Renaissance" or "Victorian England." Problems like these are not confronted, because academic categories in which New Historicist thinking occurs act something like ear-stoppers against unwelcome sounds.

None of these doubts is likely to dampen the enthusiasm within English departments for the new movement. The vindication is simply too persuasive. "If we don’t do it this way we can’t justify interpreting literary works any longer," movement regulars seem to be saying, "or what’s worse, we’ll have to go back to our old ways." Hence the distinctive terminology: "discursive practices," "representations," "mediations," "contradictions," "ruptures," "subversion." What the New Historicism offers to students of literature is the joy of new explanations, new paradigms. It does not designate an unexplored area of scholarly investigation. It does not raise new problems, new questions. If its attempts to "historicize" literary study were merely an inducement to look into new kinds of documents, to ask about the relation of literature to social history in a new way, the movement would perform a service for scholarship. But it does not. The New Historicism cannot be considered a new subspecialty within the discipline of English in the same sense as the older subspecialties of textual criticism or Renaissance studies. It is instead an academic specialty in the same sense that feminism is—a school of interpretation predisposed to find the same themes in every work it reads and to explain them always in the same terms. The specialization, in other words, is not a disciplinary but a bureaucratic one. It seeks to establish a new jurisdiction in a reorganized university. At such a juncture, the question of method becomes a matter of group loyalty. New Historicists like to picture themselves as challenging "the institution of criticism"— breaking loose from what Jane Tompkins describes as "the extremely narrow confines of literary study as it is now practiced within the academy."10 In reality, however, the movement is another step toward the reconfinement of literary study. As jobs are created for New Historicists and space in the critical journals is set aside for their essays—as academic decisions are increasingly made on the basis not of scholarly competence but of methodological affiliation— the pressure on younger scholars and graduate students to enlist in the movement becomes enormous: that way employment, advancement, and prestige lie. It seems to worry no one that this might take away from individual scholars the determination of what sort of research to pursue and put it in the hands of hiring committees and editorial boards. Yet such a state of affairs can only end by narrowing the possibilities for fruitful scholarship and abridging the academic freedom of those who would go their own way.

The philosopher Michael Oakeshott has pointed out that a student of the past cannot learn the history of something without first discovering what kind of thing it is. In this respect, the New Historicism is not a genuine historical inquiry; it does not inquire into the true nature of literary works, because it is confident it already knows what they are. They are agents of ideology. Contrary to appearances, the movement is not an effort to discover what it means for a literary work to be historical; it is really little more than an attempt to get literary works to conform to a particular vision of history. For the university as a whole the movement represents a further stage in literary scholarship’s progressive abandonment of literature.


1. Jean E. Howard, "The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies," English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986), p. 15.

2. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From .More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

3. Louis Adrian Montrose, "Shaping Fantasies: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture," Representations 2 (1983): 61-94. Other important essays by Montrose include: "Celebration and Insinuation: Sir Philip Sidney and the Motives of Elizabethan Courtship," Renaissance Drama, n.s. 8 (1977): 3-35: "'Eliza, Queen of shepheardes,' and the Pastoral of Power," English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 153-82; "Gifts and Reasons: The Contexts of Peele's Araygnment of Paris," English Literary Renaissance 47 (1980): 433-61; "'The Place of a Brother' in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form," Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 28-54; "Of Gentlemen and Shepherds: The Politics of Elizabethan Pastoral Form," English Literary Renaissance 50 (1983): 415-59; "The Elizabethan Subjects and the Spenserian Text," in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, eds. Patricia Parker and David Quint (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 303-40; and "Renaissance Literary Studies and the Subject of History," English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986): 5-12.

4. See also Greenblatt's Introduction to the special issue of Genre 15 (1982) entitled The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance, pp. 3-6.

5. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Methuen, 1980), p. 144.

6. See Catherine Gallagher, The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form, 1832-1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 219-67; and Greenblatt, Renaissance, pp. 222-54.

7. Montrose, "Shaping Fantasies."

8. Stephen Greenblatt, "Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion," Representations 1 (1983): 1-29; the quoted passages are from p. 9.

9. Howard, p. 27.

10. Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural W0rk of American Fiction, 179o-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. xiv.