Permalink for this paragraph 0 Fredric Jameson claims in The Political Unconscious that we must "always historicize!" In other words, Jameson tells us that we must put "things" into a historical context in order to better understand the overall "picture" (how’s that for specificity in writing!). But what do we mean by "history"? The new historicists find this question intriguing and perplexing. The old historical perspective viewed history as a monolithic structure that led to a complete and objective presentation of the past. As Jean Howard defines it, the old historical sense suggested that
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- "history is knowable"
- "that literature mirrors or at least by indirection reflects historical reality"
- "that historians and critics can see the facts of history objectively" (18)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 If we believe in such a historical world-view, then history is unchangeable, a static entity that can be memorized and mastered.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Enter new historicism (NH). NH tells us that things aren’t quite that easy. Peter Barry provides a useful definition of new historicism:
Permalink for this paragraph 0 A simple definition of the new historicism is that it is a method based on the parallel reading of literary and non-literary texts, usually of the same historical period. That is to say, new historicism refuses (at least ostensibly) to "privilege" the literary text: instead of a literary "foreground" and a historical "background" it envisages and practises a mode of study in which literary and non-literary texts are given equal weight and constantly inform or interrogate each other. (172)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Thus to the NH movement, history can be seen as a text, or as Stephen Greenblatt calls it, the "poetics of culture." It follows, then, that literature can be seen as a "historical artifact," as history becomes on some level a "fictional" artifact. Literature and history are interwoven into a tightly knit fabric of discourses. Steven Lynn provides us with a useful overview of the three main assumptions of NH:
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- History is knowable only in the sense that all texts are knowable—that is by interpretation, argument, speculation.
- Literature is not simply a mirror of historical reality; history in fact isn’t a mirror of historical reality. Literature is shaped by history, and even shapes history; it is also distorted by history, and is even discontinuous with history.
- Historians and critics must view "the facts" of history subjectively; in fact, the "facts" must be viewed as their creation. (131)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Thus, NH critics view literature from various vantage points, including history but also sociology, anthropology, popular culture, politics, religion; NH critics also integrate a variety of critical approaches to their NH enterprise—psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, and deconstruction. For more about the premises of New Historicism and descriptions of the movement’s major thinkers, visit the entry on New Historicism in the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.
New Historical Assignment
Permalink for this paragraph 0 One of the challenges of new historical criticism is that it requires a real and deep knowledge of history. There’s nothing worse than an essay that talks vaguely about "people back then" or "THE PAST." New historical arguments should be grounded in specific, thoroughly-researched events, people, movements, etc.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 In order to help you write an effective new historical critique, this assignment will unfold in two parts:
Part 1: Writing an episode for the History Engine
Permalink for this paragraph 0 an educational tool that gives students the opportunity to learn history by doing the work—researching, writing, and publishing—of an historian. The result is an ever-growing collection of historical articles or "episodes" that paint a wide-ranging portrait of life in the United States throughout its history, available in our online database to scholars, teachers, and the general public.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 For the first half of this assignment, you will research and write an episode that springs from a historical observation drawn from your reading in a literary text. When composing your History Engine episode, you will focus on a specific historical event related to your chosen literary piece—the literature itself need not, and likely will not, be mentioned in your episode.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The History Engine provides extensive guidelines about both how to research and how to write an episode for the site. They even provide a style guide and a citation guide. You will use the historical periodicals archives below to find primary sources for your episodes; we’ll talk more about how to do this research in class.
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- Making of America (Michigan)
- Making of America (Cornell)
- The Nineteenth Century in Print
- Chronicling America
- Google Books
- New York Times Historical Archive
- List of online newspaper archives
Permalink for this paragraph 0 This part of the assignment will be complete when your episode is published on the History Engine. The purpose of this part of the assignment will be to help you flesh out your understanding of a highly specific historical event that will, in the second part of the assignment, help you more fully understand your literary work. This part of the assignment will also help you think about your writing as aimed at a broader audience than your instructor. As the History Engine says,
Permalink for this paragraph 0 A final important difference is that your instructor will not be the only person reading your final product. You will make an important contribution to understanding the American past by uploading your finished episodes to the History Engine database.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 You will actually add to a resource used by students around the world in their history classes. When you complete your episode, you’ll be a published historian.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Technical notes: When you first visit the History Engine, you’ll need to register for an account. Use the registration code iDG-LG in order to be placed into my class. This way, I’ll be able to see all of your episodes, and visitors will know which episodes were published by our class.
Part 2: A New Historical critical essay
Permalink for this paragraph 0 From here, the remainder of this assignment should feel more familiar. You will write an essay that demonstrates how the historical dimension you explored in part 1 is important to our understanding of your chosen literary work. You may think more broadly than you did in your History Engine episode, reflecting on the historical phenomenon your HE event was part of, rather than only the single event your wrote your episode about.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 As you write, remember the distinction we’ve drawn in class between topics and research questions. In part 1 of this assignment you investigated and wrote about a topic; in part 2 you must move toward interpretation, and demonstrate why this topic should matter to a scholar studying your chosen literary work. Your paper shouldn’t merely point to each allusion to your chosen event in your chosen poem, story, or novel. Instead, your paper should present an argument about how that historical event should inform our interpretation of the literary work—why, in other words, should the reader of your chosen work care about this historical context? How does an understanding of that history allow you to develop a “thick description” of the literary work in question?
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Your new historical essays must incorporate at least 5 research sources, which could include historical newspapers, letters, critical studies, historical studies, etc. You will have used at least two sources in part 1; for part 2 you must expand your critical background even further.