1 Mehdi Hassanian esfahani
Mehdi Hassanian esfahani
Matric number: GS22456
Critical Appreciation (BBL 5202)
Dr. Rohimmi Noor
University Putra Malaysia
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New Historicism in the history:
Before talking about New Historicism, it is helpful to look at the timeline diagram of
literary theories in late 20 century.
New Criticism (1920s – 1960s)
New Historicism (1980s – 1990s)
In this diagram, New Historicism is a kind of replacement for New Criticism,
and is followed by Cultural Criticism. It is worth mentioning that Cultural Criticism is
quite a branch of New Historicism. While the first two are opposing each other,
Cultural Criticism accepts New Historicism and tries to apply its theories on more
specific subjects. I would start with a short review of New Criticism, and move
forward to Cultural Criticism, while the major work would be on New Historicism.
A brief review of New Criticism:
After decades of reading about a text, when Traditional Historical [and Biographical]
Approach had focused on extra-text materials, such as biography of the author, to
understand and criticize a work of art, New Criticism claimed that the emphasis
should be upon the close reading and the text itself as an independent entity, and
not upon the external circumstances or effects or historical position of the work.
It is not that much important to know about the author’s biography or its
historical or cultural background as New Criticism says, instead, a critic should pay
attention to individual words; the only present elements of the text, and look at
imagery, metaphor, rhythm, meter, and the like to find the meaning and beauty of the
They rejected any kind of criticism based on extra-text sources, especially
biography, and advocated the explication or close reading of the text sentences, and
syntax in order to find the true [hidden] idea of the author among their words.
3 Mehdi Hassanian esfahani
Once again, let’s look at the diagram;
New Criticism (1920s – 1960s)
New Historicism (1980s – 1990s)
What is New Historicism?
The term suggests that it is a new view to literature, rooted in historicism. That’s true,
but it is actually a reaction toward New Criticism. Comparing with previous literary
theories, it would lead us to an understanding about New Historicism
First of all, there is a major difference between Traditional Historicism and
- New Historicism believes that history is a story, narrated by historians and
not a set of documents to make facts. They assert that history is narrated
subjectively, as no one is free of bias, and not objectively as Traditional Historicism
They would explain f furthermore, that this prejudice happens in two ways: First
about the viewpoint of the narrators; it is very obvious that history is narrated
differently in different countries. World’s history would have been different if Nazi
army had won WWII. Secondly, it is the priority that historians apply toward historical
events, when they try to see and narrate some happenings, meanwhile ignore and
try to forget others. This can be even unconsciously.
- Believing that every narration i subjective, New Historicism rejects the
ery is ricism
prominent account of the power narration of history. Here, the words of a jobless
middle-class teenage guy a equal to the official statements of a president.
- Concerning about the ignored parts of history and the marginalized people in
society, New Historicism eeven tries to explore and discover these forgotten areas
more. It prefers to study a pulp fiction rather than an academic theory book; or to
analyze a movie based on a book rather than the Pulitzer winner b book! Analyzing a
more popular issue brings about the chance of plurality in voices, which causes a
more accurate understating of it.
- Unlike Traditional Historicism, New Historicism states that Power (which was
once the only reliable source of narrating history) is never confined to a single
person or a single level of society. It moves through the culture by the exchange of
ideas between the members of society, as well as the exchange of the goods or
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human beings. It influences the culture, and is influenced by the culture. In other
words, historical events, as well as texts and artifacts are shaped by, and shape their
culture at the same time.
That’s why New Historicism sharply rejects New Criticism’s notion of close
reading of a text in an isolated situation, and asserts that a text should be studied in
its context. Social and political orientation can influence the work of art produced in
that situation, meanwhile, the works of art produced in a society can give a clue to an
accurate understanding of history.
To illustrate, I want to look at a phenomenon in Iran, which is Ahmadi-nejad.
Traditional Historical approach will discuss his words, his biography and his acts in a
particular time of the political history of Iran. But New Historical approach claims that
it is not sufficient. In order to understand this particular period of history, one should
analyze the culture in which Ahmadi-nejad appeared. New Historicism doesn’t
analyze the phenomenon in an isolated manner, rather asks why the phenomenon
happened, and how? It was the passive voice of lower middle-class in society, it may
claim, and their economical needs that brought about Ahmadi-nejad to power.
Consequently New Historicism asserts that a literary text, like any other
phenomenon, is formed and structured by the particular conditions of a time and
place, and should be discussed in its own context, i.e. the social and cultural
patterns of that era, and cannot be understood fully unless one considers these
Why do we need to study literature?!
As we discussed now, New Historicism says that history is narrated subjectively and
should be interpreted (it is not a fact to be accepted). In search of a clue to interpret
the history, it finds literature as a way to reach the culture and society of the time, in
which particular phenomenon has happened. This is the first function of literature, in
New Historicism; to help us interpret history more accurately.
Next step is the usage of New Historicism in literature. In this case, the
procedure is the same. One tries to understand the cultural and social setting of the
time, in which a book was introduced, to understand the text better. New Historicism
wants to know why a particular text was written in a particular time in a particular
society. It may discuss the other literary works of the time, or analyze the political,
social related issues in order to find more information regarding the time, place and
situation that produced the work.
Furthermore, New Historicism would try to interpret the culture of a time, by
discussing all its available materials, such as literary works, any social, political,
artistic or popular documents, or even the written history of the time.
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1. History, like any other narrations such as books and novels, is written
subjectively. Therefore we should talk about interpretations of event not the
2. The issue we want to discuss in New Historicism, which could be a political
phenomenon or a book, i influenced by its social and cultural context, and
is tural con
has an influence on it too. That’s why we cannot analyze it as an isolated
creation, because it is a cultural and social production of that time.
3. New Historicism tends to discuss more popular events. Ignoring noble and
“high” culture, it tends to stick to middle-class interests, such as TV programs
and pulp fiction.
4. New Historicism tends to discuss more neglected subjects, such as post-
nds ts, post
colonial, African-American, lesbian, gay, queer issues, as well.
erican, issues ell.
Prominent figures of New Historicism:
Stephen Greenblatt (born: 1943) is an
American literary critic, theorist and scholar.
Greenblatt is regarded by many as one of the
founders of New Historicism. His works have
been influential since the early 1980s when he
introduced the term quot;cultural poeticsquot; (or New
Historicism). 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.
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Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828 - 1893) was
a French critic and historian.
He argued that a literary work is less the
product of its author's imaginations than the
social circumstances of its creati
three main aspects of which Taine called
race (nation), milieu (environment), and
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ry d practice.
Saddle River: New Jersey, 2007.
Myers, D. G. “The New Historicism in literary study.” In Academic Questions 2.
Winter 1988-89, 27-36.
Rice, Philip, and Patricia Waugh. Modern literary theory. Edward Arnold: Great
Tyson, Lois. Critical theory today. Garland Publishing: USA, 1999.