New historicism

New historicism is a form of literary theory whose goal is to understand intellectual history through literature, and literature through its cultural context, which follows the 1950s field of history of ideas and refers to itself as a form of "Cultural Poetics". It was first developed in the 1980s, primarily through the work of the critic and University of California, Berkeley English professor Stephen Greenblatt and gained widespread influence in the 1990s.[1] The term new historicism was coined by Greenblatt when he "collected a bunch of essays and then, out of a kind of desperation to get the introduction done, I wrote that the essays represented something I called a 'new historicism'".[2]

Harold Aram Veeser, introducing an anthology of essays, The New Historicism (1989),[3] noted some key assumptions that continually reappear in new historicism; they are:

  1. that every expressive act is embedded in a network of material practices;
  2. that every act of unmasking, critique and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practice it exposes;
  3. that literary and non-literary "texts" circulate inseparably;
  4. that no discourse, imaginative or archival, gives access to unchanging truths, nor expresses inalterable human nature;
  5. ... that a critical method and a language adequate to describe culture under capitalism participate in the economy they describe.

The study

"Sub-literary" texts and uninspired non-literary texts all came to be read as documents of historical discourse, side-by-side with the "great works of literature". A typical focus of new historicist critics, led by Stephen Orgel, has been on understanding Shakespeare less as an autonomous great author in the modern sense than as a means of reconstructing the cultural milieu Renaissance theatre—a collaborative and largely anonymous free-for-all—and the complex social politics of the time.[4] In this sense, Shakespeare's plays are seen as inseparable from the context in which he wrote (see contextualism, thick description). Influential historians behind the eruption of the new historicism are Lynn Hunt and Michel Foucault, as they both taught at UC-Berkeley during its rise as a postmodern approach to history.

In this shift of focus, a comparison can be made with the best discussions of works of decorative arts. Unlike fine arts, which had been discussed in purely formal terms, comparable to the literary New Criticism, under the influences of Bernard Berenson and Ernst Gombrich, nuanced discussion of the arts of design since the 1970s have been set within social and intellectual contexts, taking account of fluctuations in luxury trades, the availability of design prototypes to local craftsmen, the cultural horizons of the patron, and economic considerations—"the limits of the possible" in economic historian Fernand Braudel's famous phrase. An outstanding pioneer example of such a contextualized study was Peter Thornton's monograph Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland (1978).


In its historicism and in its political interpretations, new historicism is indebted to Marxism. But whereas Marxism (at least in its more orthodox forms) tends to see literature as part of a 'superstructure' in which the economic 'base' (i.e. material relations of production) manifests itself, new historicist thinkers tend to take a more nuanced view of power, seeing it not exclusively as class-related but extending throughout society. This view derives primarily from Michel Foucault.

In its tendency to see society as consisting of texts relating to other texts, with no 'fixed' literary value above and beyond the way specific cultures read them in specific situations, new historicism is a form of postmodernism applied to interpretive history.

New historicism shares many of the same theories as with what is often called cultural materialism, but cultural materialist critics are even more likely to put emphasis on the present implications of their study and to position themselves in disagreement to current power structures, working to give power to traditionally disadvantaged groups. Cultural critics also downplay the distinction between "high" and "low" culture and often focus predominantly on the productions of "popular culture" (Newton 1988). [7] New historicists analyse text with an eye to history. With this in mind, new historicism is not "new". Many of the critiques that existed between the 1920s and the 1950s also focused on literature's historical content. These critics based their assumptions of literature on the connection between texts and their historical contexts (Murfin & Supriya 1998).

New historicism also has something in common with the historical criticism of Hippolyte Taine, who argued that a literary work is less the product of its author's imaginations than the social circumstances of its creation, the three main aspects of which Taine called race, milieu, and moment. It is also a response to an earlier historicism, practiced by early 20th century critics such as John Livingston Lowes, which sought to de-mythologize the creative process by reexamining the lives and times of canonical writers. But new historicism differs from both of these trends in its emphasis on ideology: the political disposition, unknown to the author that governs their work.

Foucauldian basis

There is a popularly held recognition that Foucault's ideas have passed through the new historicist formation in history as a succession of épistèmes or structures of thought that shape everyone and everything within a culture (Myers 1989). It is indeed evident that the categories of history used by new historicists have been standardized academically. Although the movement is publicly disapproving of the periodization of academic history, the uses to which new historicists put the Foucauldian notion of the épistème amount to very little more than the same practice under a new and improved label (Myers 1989).


Carl Rapp argues that "[the new historicists] often appear to be saying, 'We are the only ones who are willing to admit that all knowledge is contaminated, including even our own'".[5]

Camille Paglia likewise cites "the New Historicism coming out of Berkeley" as an "issue where the PC academy thinks it's going to reform the old bad path, I have been there before they have been, and I'm there to punish and expose and to say what they are doing...a piece of crap."[6] Elsewhere, Paglia has suggested that new historicism is "a refuge for English majors without critical talent or broad learning in history or political science. ... To practice it, you must apparently lack all historical sense."[7]

Harold Bloom criticizes the new historicism for reducing literature to a footnote of history, and for not paying attention to the details involved in analyzing literature.

Sarah Maza argues that "[Catherine] Gallagher and Greenblatt seem oblivious of the longer range of disciplinary development in history; they reject grand narratives as extensions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalist, socialist or whiggish programs, obfuscating the fact that such mid-twentieth century innovations as histoire totale and quantified social history, large in scale as they were, originated from a desire to make history more democratic and more inclusive."[8]


  1. ^ David Mikics, ed. A New Handbook of Literary Terms, 2007, s.v. "New historicism".
  2. ^ Greenblatt, Stephen (2007). Learning to Curse. Routledge. p. 197. ISBN 978-0415771603.
  3. ^ Veeser, ed. The New Historicism, (Routledge, Chapman and Hall) 1989, "Introduction", p. xi. Nineteen essays by contributors.
  4. ^ An "ancestor" of the new historicism noted in Mikics is C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959), which set the comedies against a contemporary cultural background of popular traditions like the "lord of misrule", where authority was inverted, transgressed and burlesqued.
  5. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-05-03. Retrieved 2006-05-03.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link) Myers, D. G. 1989, The New Historicism in Literary Study, viewed 27 April 2006
  6. ^ Virginia Postrel (August/September 1995). "Interview with the Vamp" Archived 2008-10-15 at the Wayback Machine. Reason.
  7. ^ Paglia, Camille. "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders : Academe in the Hour of the Wolf", reprinted in Sex, Art and American Culture: New Essays (1992), ISBN 978-0-679-74101-5.
  8. ^ Sarah Maza, "Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicism, and Cultural History, or, What We Talk about When We Talk about Interdisciplinarity", Modern Intellectual History 1, no. 2 (2004): 262.

Further reading

  • The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary 2004, 4th edn, Oxford University Press,South Melbourne.
  • Dixon, C. 2005, New Historicism, viewed 1 January 2011, [1]
  • Felluga, D. 2003, General introduction to New Historicism, viewed 28 April 2006, [2]
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Translation of Surveiller et Punir. Vintage, 1979.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning. U Chicago P, 1980.
  • Hedges, W. 2000, New Historicism explained, viewed 20 March 2006 [3]
  • Licona, Michael. "The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach." IVP Academic, 2010.
  • Murfin, R. & Ray, S 1998, The Bedford glossary of critical and literary terms, Bedford Books, St Martins.
  • Myers, D. G. 1989, The New Historicism in literary study, viewed 27 April 2006, [4]
  • Orgel, Stephen. The Authentic Shakespeare. Routledge, 2002.
  • Parvini, Neema. Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory: New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. Bloomsbury, 2012.
  • Parvini, Neema. Shakespeare and New Historicist Theory. Bloomsbury, 2017.
  • Rice, P. & Waugh, P. 1989, Modern literary theory: a reader, 2nd edn, Edward Arnold, Melbourne.
  • Seaton, J. 1999, "The metaphysics of postmodernism", review of Carl Rapp, Fleeing the Universal: The Critique of Post-rational Criticism (1998), in Humanitas 12.1 (1999), viewed 29 April 2006, [5]
  • Veeser, H. Aram (Ed.). The New Historicism. Routledge, 1989.

External links

  • New Historicism from the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism
Alastair Fowler

Alastair David Shaw Fowler CBE FBA (born 1930, Glasgow, Scotland) is a Scottish literary critic and editor, an authority on Edmund Spenser, Renaissance literature, genre theory, and numerology. Fowler was educated at the University of Edinburgh, M.A. (1952). He was subsequently awarded an M.A. (1955), D.Phil. (1957) and D.Litt. (1962) from Oxford. As a graduate student at Oxford, Fowler studied with C. S. Lewis, and later edited Lewis's Spenser's Images of Life.

Fowler was junior research fellow at Queen's College, Oxford (1955–59). He also taught at Swansea (1959–61), and Brasenose College, Oxford (1962–71). He was Regius Professor of literature at the University of Edinburgh (1972–84) and also taught intermittently at universities in the United States, including Columbia (1964) and the University of Virginia (1969, 1979, 1985–98).Fowler is known for his editorial work. His edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost, part of the Longman poets series, has some of the most scholarly and detailed notes on the poem and is widely cited by Milton scholars. Writing in The Guardian, John Mullan called it "a monument of scholarship."His book Kinds of Literature is a pioneering study in the field of genre scholarship.

Fowler has been critical of some recent trends in literary scholarship, including "new historicism." In 2005, he published an extremely critical review of Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, which was widely discussed.He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to literature and education.Fowler's papers are on deposit at the National Library of Scotland.

Australian philosophy

Australian philosophy refers to the philosophical tradition of the people of Australia and of its citizens abroad.

Catherine Gallagher

Catherine Gallagher (born 16 February 1945) is an American historicist literary critic and Victorianist, and is Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include The Body Economic : Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel (2005). She is married to Martin Jay, an Intellectual Historian in the History department at Berkeley.

She is a recipient of the 2010/2011 Berlin Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin.

Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History (2018)

Cosmology (philosophy)

Philosophical cosmology, philosophy of cosmology or philosophy of cosmos is a discipline directed to the philosophical contemplation of the universe as a totality, and to its conceptual foundations. It draws on several branches of philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of physics, philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, and on the fundamental theories of physics. The term cosmology was used at least as early as 1730, by German philosopher Christian Wolff, in Cosmologia Generalis.

Cultural materialism (cultural studies)

Cultural materialism in literary theory and cultural studies traces its origin to the work of the left-wing literary critic Raymond Williams. Cultural materialism makes analysis based in critical theory, in the tradition of the Frankfurt School.

Danish philosophy

Danish philosophy has a long tradition as part of Western philosophy.

Perhaps the most influential Danish philosopher was Søren Kierkegaard, the creator of Christian existentialism, which inspired the philosophical movement of Existentialism. Kierkegaard had a few Danish followers, including Harald Høffding, who later in his life moved on to join the movement of positivism. Among Kierkegaard's other followers include Jean-Paul Sartre who was impressed with Kierkegaard's views on the individual, and Rollo May, who helped create humanistic psychology.

Debora Shuger

Debora Kuller Shuger (born December 15, 1953) is a literary historian and scholar. She studies early modern, Renaissance, late 16th- and 17th century England. She writes about Tudor-Stuart literature; religious, political, and legal thought; neo-Latin; and censorship of that period.

Early modern philosophy

Early modern philosophy (also classical modern philosophy) is a period in the history of philosophy at the beginning or overlapping with the period known as modern philosophy.

Harold Aram Veeser

Harold Aram Veeser is a professor of English at City College of New York. Largely collected by libraries, he is the author of Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism (2010), Painting Between the Lines, with Dana Self and Linda Nochlin (2001), and the editor of The New Historicism (1989), The New Historicism Reader (1994), Confessions of the Critics (1996), and The Stanley Fish Reader (1999). He has also written for The Nation Magazine and various academic quarterlies, including The Journal of Armenian Studies, Ararat, and Armenian Forum.

He holds a BA, MA, and PhD from Columbia University, and he is Professor of English at the City College of New York, where he teaches courses on (auto)biography, 17th century British Poetry, Modern and Contemporary British Literature, and Postcolonialism.


Historicism is the idea of attributing meaningful significance to space and time, such as historical period, geographical place, and local culture. Historicism tends to be hermeneutical because it values cautious, rigorous, and contextualized interpretation of information; or relativist, because it rejects notions of universal, fundamental and immutable interpretations. The approach varies from individualist theories of knowledge such as empiricism and rationalism, which neglect the role of traditions.

The term "historicism" (Historismus) was coined by German philosopher Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel. Over time it has developed different and somewhat divergent meanings. Elements of historicism appear in the writings of French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) and Italian philosopher G. B. Vico (1668–1744), and became more fully developed with the dialectic of Georg Hegel (1770–1831), influential in 19th-century Europe. The writings of Karl Marx, influenced by Hegel, also include historicism. The term is also associated with the empirical social sciences and with the work of Franz Boas.

Historicism may be contrasted with reductionist theories—which assumes that all developments can be explained by fundamental principles (such as in economic determinism)—or with theories that posit that historical changes occur as a result of random chance.

The Austrian-English philosopher Karl Popper condemned historicism along with the determinism and holism which he argued formed its basis. In his Poverty of Historicism, he identified historicism with the opinion that there are "inexorable laws of historical destiny", which opinion he warned against. If this seems to contrast with what proponents of historicism argue for, in terms of contextually relative interpretation, this happens, according to Popper, only because such proponents are unaware of the type of causality they ascribe to history. Talcott Parsons criticized historicism as a case of idealistic fallacy in The Structure of Social Action (1937).

Post-structuralism uses the term "New Historicism", which has some associations with both anthropology and Hegelianism.

The theological use of the word denotes the interpretation of biblical prophecy as being related to church history.

List of works in critical theory

This is a list of important and seminal works in the field of critical theory.

Otto Maria Carpeaux

História da Literatura Ocidental, 8 vol. (Portuguese, 1959–66)

M. H. Abrams

The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition

Theodor Adorno

Aesthetic Theory

Negative Dialectics

Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer

Dialectic of Enlightenment

Louis Althusser

For Marx

Lenin and Philosophy

Erich Auerbach

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

Mikhail Bakhtin

Discourse in the Novel

Rabelais and his World

Roland Barthes

Image, Music, Text


Jean Baudrillard

The Perfect Crime

Simulation and Simulacra

Walter Benjamin


The Origin of German Tragic Drama

Homi K. Bhabha

The Location of Culture

Pierre Bourdieu

La distinction

Kenneth Burke

A Rhetoric of Motives

A Grammar of Motives

John Brannigan

New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

Cleanth Brooks

The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry

Sean Burke

The Death and Return of the Author

Judith Butler

Bodies That Matter

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

Cathy Caruth

Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Biographia Literaria

Jonathan Culler

Structuralist Poetics

The Pursuit of Signs

Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction

Gilles Deleuze

Difference and Repetition

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari

Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus (pt.1) and A Thousand Plateaus (pt.2)

Jacques Derrida

Of Grammatology

Writing and Difference

Peter Dews

The Limits of Disenchantment

The Logic of Disintigration

Terry Eagleton

Marxism and Literary Criticism

The Idea of Culture

Antony Easthope

The Unconscious

William Empson

Seven Types of Ambiguity

Some Versions of Pastoral

The Structure of Complex Words

Norman Fairclough

Language and Power

Critical Discourse Analysis

Frantz Fanon

Black Skins, White Masks

Stanley Fish

Is There a Text in this Class?

Northrop Frye

Anatomy of Criticism

Gerald Graff

Literature Against Itself

Jürgen Habermas

Legitimation Crisis

The Theory of Communicative Action, volumes 1 & 2

The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity

Wolfgang Iser

The Act of Reading: a Theory of Aesthetic Response

Leonard Jackson

The Poverty of Structuralism

Fredric Jameson

The Political Unconscious

Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

The Prison-House of Language

Frank Kermode

Romantic Image

Julia Kristeva

Desire in Language

Powers of Horror

Jacques Lacan


The Seminars

F.R. Leavis

The Great Tradition

Ania Loomba


Herbert Marcuse

Reason and Revolution. Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory

Eros and Civilization

Soviet Marxism. A Critical Analysis

One-Dimensional Man

Toril Moi

Sexual/Textual Politics

I.A. Richards

Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement

Principles of Literary Criticism

K.K. Ruthven

Critical Assumptions

Edward Said

Culture and Imperialism

Orientalism (1978)

Jean-Paul Sartre

What Is Literature? (1947)

Ferdinand de Saussure

Cours de linguistique générale (posthumously 1916)

Alfred Schmidt

The Concept of Nature in Marx (1962)

Zur Idee der Kritischen Theorie (German, 1974)

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Between Men

Epistemology of the Closet

Susan Sontag

Against Interpretation

Styles of Radical Will

Under the Sign of Saturn

Where The Stress Falls

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

"Can the Subaltern Speak?"

In Other Worlds

Raymond Tallis

Not Saussure

Scott Wilson

Cultural Materialism

W.K. Wimsatt

The Verbal Icon

Virginia Woolf

A Room of One's Own

Slavoj Žižek

The Sublime Object of Ideology

The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology

Literary theory

Literary theory in a strict sense is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing literature. However, literary scholarship since the 19th century often includes—in addition to, or even instead of literary theory in the strict sense—considerations of intellectual history, moral philosophy, social prophecy, and other interdisciplinary themes which are of relevance to the way humans interpret meaning. In the humanities in modern academia, the latter style of scholarship is an outgrowth of critical theory and is often called simply "theory".

As a consequence, the word "theory" has become an umbrella term for a variety of scholarly approaches to reading texts. Many of these approaches are informed by various strands of Continental philosophy and of sociology.

Louis Montrose

Louis Adrian Montrose is an American literary theorist and academic scholar. His scholarship has addressed a wide variety of literary, historical, and theoretical topics and issues, and has significantly shaped contemporary studies of Renaissance poetics, English Renaissance theatre, and Elizabeth I. Montrose was an influential early proponent of New Historicism, especially as it applied to the study of early modern English literature and culture. He is currently Professor of English Literature at the University of California, San Diego.


A metanarrative (also meta-narrative and grand narrative; French: métarécit) in critical theory and particularly in postmodernism is a narrative about narratives of historical meaning, experience, or knowledge, which offers a society legitimation through the anticipated completion of a (as yet unrealized) master idea.

Paul Cantor

Paul A. Cantor (born 1945) is an American literary and media critic. He is currently the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor in the English Department at the University of Virginia.

As a young man Cantor attended Ludwig von Mises' seminars in New York City. He went on to study English literature at Harvard (A.B., 1966, Ph.D., 1971), where he also studied politics with Harvey Mansfield. Cantor has taught for many years at the University of Virginia, where he is the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English.

Cantor has written on a wide range of subjects, including Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Jane Austen, Byron, Shelley, Rousseau, Romanticism, Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Nietzsche, Leo Strauss, Samuel Beckett, Salman Rushdie, Tom Stoppard, Don Delillo, New Historicism, Austrian economics, postcolonial novels, contemporary popular culture, and relations between culture and commerce.


Representations is an interdisciplinary journal in the humanities published quarterly by the University of California Press. The journal was established in 1983 and is the founding publication of the New Historicism movement of the 1980s. It covers topics including literary, historical, and cultural studies. The founding editorial board was chaired by Stephen Greenblatt and Svetlana Alpers. Representations frequently publishes thematic special issues, for example, the 2007 issue on the legacies of American Orientalism, the 2006 issue on cross-cultural mimesis, and the 2005 issue on political and intellectual redress.

Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Jay Greenblatt (; born November 7, 1943) is an American Shakespearean, literary historian, and author. He has served as the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University since 2000. Greenblatt is the general editor of The Norton Shakespeare (2015) and the general editor and a contributor to The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Greenblatt is one of the founders of New Historicism, a set of critical practices that he often refers to as "cultural poetics"; his works have been influential since the early 1980s when he introduced the term. Greenblatt has written and edited numerous books and articles relevant to New Historicism, the study of culture, Renaissance studies and Shakespeare studies and is considered to be an expert in these fields. He is also co-founder of the literary-cultural journal Representations, which often publishes articles by new historicists. His most popular work is Will in the World, a biography of Shakespeare that was on the New York Times Best Seller List for nine weeks. He won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2012 and the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2011 for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

Thick description

In the social science fields of anthropology, sociology, history, religious studies, human-centered design and organizational development, a thick description results from a scientific observation of any particular human behavior that describes not just the behavior, but its context as well, so that the behavior can be better understood by an outsider. A thick description typically adds a record of subjective explanations and meanings provided by the people engaged in the behaviors, making the collected data of greater value for studies by other social scientists.

The term was introduced by the 20th-century philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz later developed the concept in his The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) to characterise his own method of doing ethnography (Geertz 1973:5-6, 9-10). Since then, the term and the methodology it represents has gained currency in the social sciences and beyond. Today, "thick description" is used in a variety of fields, including the type of literary criticism known as New Historicism.

Turkish philosophy

Turkish philosophy has long been affected by Islam and the country's proximity to Greece and ancient Greek philosophy.

Literary theory

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