I. Genealogy of American Studies

II. Myth and Symbol

III. Interpretive Social Science Theory

IV. Marxisms

V. Poststructuralist & Postmodern Theories

VI. Gender, Race, Sexuality & Dis/ability

VII. Historical Theories & Methods

VIII. Literary Theories & Methods

IX. (British) Cultural Studies

X. Postcolonial & Transnational Theories

XI. Theorizing Interdisciplinarity (forthcoming)

Comments? Corrections? Suggestions?


VIII. Literary Theories & Methods

Just as historical theory is of interest beyond the profession of history, literary theory, by raising general questions of interpretation, has had a broad impact beyond literary study in recent years. A number of strands of new literary and "textual" theory (i.e., feminist, neo-marxist, deconstructive) are represented in other sections. Here I want to offer a few overview texts and then draw attention to some American works of two important schools not treated in other sections, "reception/reader-response" criticism and the "new historicism," that have had a significant impact on AS. The former shifts emphasis from texts to readers as the sites of meaning making and thus raises general questions about the history of audiences for cultural texts. Jay Mechling has quipped that the New Historicism looks alot like the Old American Studies, and they do share an interest in the conjunction of literary, historical, and cultural analysis. Still, the particular inflection given by some new historicists is indeed new, and has shaped a variety of recent American studies projects. New Historicism uses Foucault, Geertz, Bakhtin and others to return to questions about historicizing cultural texts in the wake of and in light of post-structuralism's critique of naive empirical forms of historical representation (perhaps illustrating Roland Barthes' comment that while a little formalism turns one away from history, a lot of formalism turns one back to it).


  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction.Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983. Sections on phenomenology, reader/reception theory, structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, and a concluding call for "political criticism." Eagleton provides a lively, wittily argumentative introduction to literary theory.

  • Lentricchia, Frank. After the New Criticism.Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980. Lentricchia is after the new criticism in more ways than one. He brilliantly analyzes what he characterizes as ahistoricism and philosophical idealism in American literary criticism from the early New Critics, through phenomenological critics to American deconstruction. A sophisticated, tendentious survey that raises general questions about the politics of cultural interpretation.

  • Leitch, Vincent B. American Literary Criticism from the Thirties to the Eighties.New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988. Historical survey of major schools of American literary criticism and theory. More comprehensive and American than Eagleton (if generally less engaged and engaging), Leitch is also more sympathetic to recent schools of theory like deconstruction.

  • * Allen, Robert C. ed. Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism.Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1992; 1995). A collection of articles introducing various schools of contemporary literary/cultural theory and method (semiotics, narrative theory, reader-response, genre studies, psychoanalytic, feminist, neo-marxist, and British cultural studies) via a focus on television. A good survey that also demonstrates how recent theory is making for a much more sophisticated study of popular culture.

  • * Murfin, Russ, ed., The Scarlet Letter.Includes five essays introducing some of the major schools of recent literary theory (deconstruction, new historicism, reader response, feminist, psychoanalytic), along with five additional essays applying each of these approaches to Hawthorne's novel.

  • * Staton, Shirley F. ed. Literary Theory in Praxis.Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. Using several core texts (including Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," and Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"), this anthology allows you to compare how various schools of theory (deconstruction, Lacanian, reader-response, structuralist, new criticism, phenomenology, historicist, feminist) read the same text. The critical essays are uneven, but the comparative strategy can be very illuminating.

Reader-Response/Reception Criticism:

  • Mailloux, Steven. Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction.Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982. The first two chapters provide a very insightful survey and critique of the various schools or strands of reader-response criticism, while the remainder applies aspects of these theories in interpreting some American texts, in particular Hawthorne's story, "Rapaccini's Daughter."

  • Pratt, Mary Louise. "Interpretive Strategies/Strategic Interpretations: On Anglo-American Reader-Response Criticism," in Jonathan Arac ed. Postmodernism and Politics. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1986. Pratt provides a provocative analysis of the virtues and especially the limits of the reader-response school, charging it with an untenable emphasis on the individual as meaning maker free from socio-linguistic determinations.

  • Radway, Janice. "American Studies, Reader Theory, and the Literary Text," in D.E. Nye and C.K. Thomsen, eds. American Studies in Transition. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1985. A lucid introduction to reader response theory and its applicability to AS.

  • * --- Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature.Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, [1984] 1991. A pathbreaking book combining formalist methods of analysis with in-depth ethnographic interviews contextualizing the responses of a suburban group of romance novel readers. This new edition contains some of Radway's more recent reflections on her methods.

  • Suleiman, Susan and Inge Crosman eds. The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation.Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980.

  • Tompkins, Jane ed. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980. This collection and the Suleiman collection cited above contain most of the landmark essays by major figures in the reader theory school (Stanley Fish, Wolfgand Iser, Norman Holland, etc.), and is a good place to get a sense of the range of concerns addressed by these approaches.

  • * Davidson, Cathy. Revolution and the Word.NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986. This brilliant work combines reader-response criticism with social history, while also utilizing insights from post-structuralism, genre-based literary theory, and the French "histoire du livre" school of cultural history (studying the social and material history of books). Davidson applies all these approaches to the first American novels of the late 18th, early 19th century.

New Historicism:

  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980. The locus classicus for the new historicism (though Greenblatt prefers the term "cultural poetics"), this text displays the influences of Foucault and Geertz that underlie much work in this mode. Greenblatt explores the way that a variety of texts from high and low culture "circulate," forming and reforming patterns of knowledge/power.

  • ---. Shakespearean Negotiations. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988. The first chapter outlines some cogent revisions of Greenblatt's earlier method, including a number of self-critical remarks on the tendency of his previous work to homogenize culture through an exaggerated, undifferentiated notion of "power."

  • Armstrong, Nancy ed.,"Literature as Women's History":. Special issue of Genre, 19/20 (1986-87). Interesting examples of what might be called "feminist new historicism."

  • * Fisher, Philip, ed. The New American Studies.Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1991. Despite Fisher's rather misleadingly conservative introduction, a rich collection of essays originally appearing in the important new historicist journal Representations that apply various new historicist reading strategies to key texts in American history and letters.

  • * Jay, Gregory S. "American Literature and the New Historicism: The Example of Frederick Douglass," Working Paper #10, Center for Twentieth Century Studies, Univ. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Fall 1988). Excellent critical introduction to and application of new historicist method to Douglass's Narrative; includes a careful analysis of what Jay sees as dangerous tendencies in some kinds of new historicism.

  • * Reed, T.V. Fifteen Jugglers, Five Believers: Literary Politics and the Poetics of American Social Movements. Berkeley: UC Press, 1992. A useful corrective to more conservative versions of new historicism, this work argues for an alliance between literary theory and radical social movements in the United States, while examining a variety of contemporary American literary and cultural texts (including social movements as "texts" of resistance).

  • Simpson, David. "Literary Criticism and the Return to 'History'" Critical Inquiry14 (1988): 721-47. Lucid survey of various ways in which the question of history has been reintroduced into literary study in the wake of textualist critiques of naive postivist historicism.

  • * Thomas, Brook. "The Historical Necessity for -- and Difficulties with -- New Historical Analysis in Introductory Literature Courses," College English49 (1987): 509-22. A clear introduction to the new historicism that has the added virtue of raising issues of its pedagogical uses.

  • Veeser, H.A.,ed., The New Historicism. London and New York: Routledge, 1989. A nicely tendentious collection of essays arguing for, against and around something that various authors claim does or does not exist, that may or may or not be new, that should or should not be called the "new historicism" or "New Historicism." If it exists, the new historicism is probably a return to history after post-structuralism, but one that "extends the ontology of the 'text' into the realm of historicity itself" (i.e., no contextual nets to catch the scholarly acrobat).

  • Bové, Paul. "Notes Toward a Politics of 'American' Criticism," in In the Wake of TheoryMiddletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1992. An important critique of Sacvan Bercovitch's new Americanist version of New Historicism arguing that in certain respects it may be caught within the forces of hegemony it claims to resist.

  • Pease, Donald, ed. National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives.Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994. Powerful set of essays representing the "new Americanists" who have articulated a more politically rich kind of new (anti)historicism.

Return to Top