It’s All History?

A Dahomean Elder once said to, I believe, a missionary that ‘white people educate their children in schools and use books, but we use stories to educate our children, stories are our books.’ I find the preoccupation to classify and separate knowledges endlessly frustrating since it is clear that a western worldview is peculiar to how human knowledge operates in other cultures: stories teach all kinds of lessons – yet, in western cultures stories are “entertainment” and textbooks hold knowledge (insert eye roll here). Historicism is a way to bring history and literature together again – but the fact is that history and literary studies have always worked together.

If you study literature, then you likely use historical evidence to facilitate your research, particularly if you are interested in issues of textual transmission, sourcing, biography and so forth. I can remember a time when I sneered a bit at historicizing literature, mainly because one of the fields I research, American lit and culture, is so damn preoccupied with all things historical. But I have come to understand that there is an ethical way to conduct historical research that refuses to re-entrench the status quo. Hey, if you have followed this blog for a while, you know I like stuff that upsets the apple-cart, and “new historicism” does just that.

I just reviewed an essay for Studies in American Fiction (a terrific journal, fyi) that represents, in my opinion, the best kind of historicism, in which a literary work is set within the ideas, attitudes, and ideologies of its time. Yes, yes, literary works are “for all time” or some such nonsense, but it’s really neat to see what debates literary works engage. In the essay, the author contextualized Owen Wister’s The Virginian (published in 1902 and considered one of the originators of the popular western) within the popular ideas of economic disparity and redistribution of wealth. Confused? I mean, what does a western written in the early twentieth century have to do with issues of income equity? More to the point, what DOESN’T The Virginian have to do with issues of equality?  That’s the beauty of historicism: when a work is contextualized within the ideas of its time, then it can be read in a whole new light.

Let me review some of the arguments the author makes (I can’t really quote the article without the author’s permission until it’s published, but look for it in the summer or fall volume of SAF). Basically, debates over equality in the U.S.– economic, racial, gender – raged in the early twentieth century and, generally, communist and socialist approaches were not winning the day; however, there was one treatise that caught on fire. Edward Bellamy’s late nineteenth-century novel Looking Backward was enormously popular, so much so that “Bellamy Clubs” popped up all over the country. The closing of the frontier had suspended western expansion, claimed Bellamy, and so the opportunities were not as available to his generation. Therefore, there must be some kind equalizing practice that would eliminate differences in income based on, for example education and inheritance. Whoa!  Wait!  You might be saying – is this the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA we are talking about here?  Yes, Virginia, there is a strong vein of socialism that has and always will flow through American culture, sometimes a trickle and sometimes a torrent, but always there. So what happened? Owen Wister’s The Virginian happened, that’s what (see! Literature DOES change the world!).

“Eternal inequality” or ‘some people are more equal than others’ could be the motto of the entire book!  The main character, the Virginian, rises through the ranch ranks based on his natural ability and character – THAT, said Wister and Teddy Roosevelt were the real equalizers. Anyone can be successful, said they, if a (white male) person had the right character. Calling Oprah anyone? Anyone living that “best life?”  Building a better character? Strapping boots and tightening laces and marching forward….ad nauseum?  And so The Virginian countered Bellamy’s suggestions and matchedRoosevelt’s philosophies – the novel was a blistering success and so Bellamy’s ideas have been lost to the ravages of time.

Still, it is clear what the value of historicism is: The Virginian had the might of the White House behind it, among other important benefactors. The novel supports income disparity and the status quo, but now we know that there was a popular alternative. No one should passively accept that any literary work is canonized because of its genius – a work becomes entrenched in the social order because it performs cultural and social functions.

So what does historicism have to do with critical race theory? Lots. Historicism counters the idea that there can be one universal reading of a literary work because historical changes affect reading practices and publics. The audience changes with the work and the work changes for the audience. Othello is a great example of this fact – parodied by Blackface actors in minstrel shows, Othello became less about the tragic fall of a great man and more about controlling and shaping the social and cultural text of black masculinity. Therefore, the way most literary scholars approach literary history is not to sort out what the “best” work is or to simply recount a glorious past, but to “tease out” cultural and political histories that literature expresses, debates, and shapes.


However, there is a major criticism of (new) historicism that will never be resolved: the historical position of the researcher/critic will always intercede in the recounting of the past. I do not think this is a problem per se, but some critics believe politicizing historical study will sully the end result. Of course, the other criticism is much more serious, which is that historicism creates links between disparate periods of time and makes claims for continuity and “sameness.” My advice is to use a little Foucauldian skepticism combined with precision analysis and both will cure the urge to create “totalizing” readings.

If you are interested in reading further about historicism, then pick up Paul Hamilton’s seminar work on the subject Historicism.


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