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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.