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What is New Historicism?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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New Historicism is a theory in literary criticism that suggests literature must be studied and interpreted within the context of both the history of the author and the history of the critic. The theory arose in the 1980s, with Stephen Greenblatt as its main proponent, and became quite popular in the 1990s. Critics using this approach look at a work and consider other writings that may have inspired it or were inspired by it, as well as the life of the author and how it relates to the text. There are many other competing critical theories, however, so there are some critics who do not care for this approach.

The Basic Approach to Literature

Unlike previous historical criticism, which limited itself to simply demonstrating how a work reflected its time, New Historicism evaluates how the work is influenced by the time in which the author wrote it. It also examines the social sphere in which the author moved, the psychological background of the writer, and the books and theories that may have influenced him or her. Beyond that, many critics also look at the impact a work had and consider how it influenced others.

The Critic in This Approach

New Historicism acknowledges that any criticism of a work is colored by the critic’s beliefs, social status, and other factors. Many New Historicists begin a critical reading of a novel by explaining themselves, their backgrounds, and their prejudices. Both the work and the reader are affected by everything that has influenced them. New Historicism thus represents a significant change from previous critical theories like New Criticism, because its main focus is to look at many elements outside of the work, instead of reading the text in isolation.

Illustrating This Approach to Criticism

It can be said that New Historicism often looks for ways in which writers express ideas or possible opinions within their writing. For example, Jane Austen novels are often confined to a very limited sphere of society, namely the landed gentry. While a New Historicist may praise the work, he or she might also note that the servant class is completely marginalized in Austen’s work. Austen's writing asserts the pre-eminence of the landed gentry above any other class of society, and is quite critical of those who marry “beneath” their social status.

The critic in New Historicism might then evaluate why Austen would display this prejudice, giving information about books she had read, events in her life that may have influenced her, and her own choices in regards to marriage. Austen is, in a way, at odds with her own work, which suggests power may be purchased through good marriages, since she never married. In fact, Austen’s life stands outside her own espoused theories in literature; as a female novelist, she gained prestige through her work rather than through marriage. A New Historicist would likely discuss this contrast, between her work and her life, and consider it when reading her writing.

Objections to This Approach

Criticisms of New Historicism are mostly levied by those who practice New Criticism and similar approaches. The New Critic argues that literature should be read as a self contained work without considering other influences. To such critics, the life of a writer is irrelevant, since the writing can speak for itself and should be taken as an isolated work.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon357284 — On Dec 03, 2013

Like one African writer once said, "a writer without the sense of history is like a disarmed lion". Thus, I firmly agree that history has a great influence and impact on a literary text. Notwithstanding, the reader should contribute his or her own impression as influenced by his society.

By anon349211 — On Sep 24, 2013

How has new historicism influenced writers of literature?

By anon165937 — On Apr 06, 2011

what is new historicism in general and what are the characteristics of it?

By anon128625 — On Nov 20, 2010

is new historicism also used for the interpretation of works of art?

By anon123919 — On Nov 03, 2010

#1, #2: I would have a difficult time arguing that Foucault was a founder of new historicism, although his work definitely influenced it. Foucault focused his criticism on power and social structures, with relatively little dependence on written text. I can't think of a single essay he wrote that dealt with literary criticism, which is the real focus of new historicism.

#5: I never heard this before, that new historicists claim originality in recognizing universal textual/authorial bias, but yes, it would be irksome. Post-structuralists have known this forever, and predator new historicists by decades. Even around the turn of the last century, modernist criticism dealt considerably with the inherent subjectivity of the author. So I think we can put this one to rest. Also, my pet peeve: deconstructionists are post-structuralists, not post-modernists.

#6: New historicism generally is recognized to have started in the US in the early 80's. See also: historical materialism, which is very similar in approach but grew up in the UK around the same time.

#10, #11: I'd say that sounds about right. But there is also the concept of reading parallel texts together, one being the novel under analysis, others being related historical documents of the era. A great example of this would be the Bedford/St. Martin's edition of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." Sinclair wrote this novel at the turn of the 20th century to draw attention to Capitalists preying upon workers in Chicago's Stock Yards. This edition is oriented toward new historical criticism in that it contains also a historical report by two government officials sent by Roosevelt to investigate the veracity of the claims of Sinclair's book. It is worth noting that the two texts, the novel and the report, are held in equal status. The report is not secondary/supplementary to the novel -- that's one of the tenets of this method of criticism.

For anyone really interested, there is a great book by Peter Barry, "Beginning Theory" (Manchester, 2009), that has a great discussion of new historicism. He also illustrates how a new historicist might approach the analysis of a particular set of works, for anyone who is looking to find out how to actually put this into practice. Have a good one. --DPH

By anon108484 — On Sep 03, 2010

The essay was very useful. it helped me to prepare for my research.

By anon86639 — On May 26, 2010

The way I understand is that you have to do a lot of extra reading and get a profound knowledge of historical background of the period the writer lived in. Then, you just try to think about what the writer might actually be reacting to and what could have been bugging him.

Sounds like it's all about guesses but some of them might eventually turn out to be correct.--Frank

By anon80725 — On Apr 28, 2010

How is new historicism used to study a literary text?

By anon73556 — On Mar 28, 2010

thanks to this article I was able to write a portion of my research paper about translation and editing of texts. It gave me a lot of info which were very helpful to my paper. Basically, my research paper was confined to the approaches and theories about translation.

By sts123 — On Mar 08, 2010

who cares? why is there even an article on the meaning of new historicism? i understand it's a way of writing and a way of looking at things etc. but because of this, i have a headache. i don't really understand it and i have to write an essay about it. it's so weird and dumb (according to me).

By anon69258 — On Mar 07, 2010

And where did New Historicism start?

By anon65563 — On Feb 14, 2010

"Deconstructionists seem largely annoyed that New Historicists claim to be the only ones who admit that all texts, including their own interpretations, are biased." LOL i'm actually a fan of deconstruction, but that is so very true and so very funny.

By anon30646 — On Apr 22, 2009

He's one of the founders. google it.

By hana — On Oct 22, 2008

hi. to what extent does Foucault contribute in new historicism?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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