New Historical Criticism

Introduction to Literature
Michael Delahoyde

New Historicism

Historical Criticisminsisted that to understand a literary piece, we need to understandthe author’s biography and social background, ideas circulatingat the time, and the cultural milieu. This school of criticismfell into disfavor as the New Critics emerged.

New Historicismseeks to find meaning in a text by considering the work withinthe framework of the prevailing ideas and assumptions of its historicalera. New Historicists concern themselves with the political functionof literature and with the concept of power, the intricate meansby which cultures produce and reproduce themselves. These criticsfocus on revealing the historically specific model of truth andauthority (not a “truth” but a “cultural construct”)reflected in a given work.

In other words, history here is not a merechronicle of facts and events, but rather a complex descriptionof human reality and evolution of preconceived notions. Literaryworks may or may not tell us about various factual aspects ofthe world from which they emerge, but they will tell us aboutprevailing ways of thinking at the time: ideas of social organization,prejudices, taboos, etc. They raise questions of interest to anthropologistsand sociologists.

New Historicism is more “sociohistorical”than it is a delving into factoids: concerned with ideologicalproducts or cultural constructs which are formations of any era.(It’s not just where would Keats have seen a Grecian urn in England,but from where he may have absorbed the definitions of art andbeauty.)

So, New Historicists, insisting that ideologymanifests itself in literary productions and discourse, interestthemselves in the interpretive constructions which the membersof a society or culture apply to their experience.

Works Consulted

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms.7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

Biddle, Arthur W., and Toby Fulwiler. Reading,Writing, and the Study of Literature. NY: Random House, 1989.

Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: WritingAbout Literature with Critical Theory. 2nd ed. NY: Longman,1998.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The BedfordGlossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books,1997.

Critical Theory
Introduction to Literature