It's Good, But is It History?


Oberlin College

In literary studies of the 1980s "historicism" has become fashionable almost overnight. Yesterday, to confess to an interest in literary history was to risk being thought a fuddy-duddy; today one can say it with a swagger. The three monographs scrutinized in Christopher Wilson's discerning essay exemplify the high quality of the best of this "newer historical criticism," and show, in their diversity, why it ought to be referred to in the plural rather than the singular. Because I believe that Wilson has done scrupulous justice to the distinctive strengths of Michaels, Howard, and Denning, however, I shall concentrate mainly on the ironic side of his diagnosis: namely, that despite their respective historicist pretensions none of their books is likely to be recognized as sound historiography by most practicing American historians.

Wilson's allegation is probably correct, as is his explanation why: that most American historians, especially social historians, will find these books insufficiently empirical and rigorous in pursuing their notions of the relation between text and context, that most will likely find the main arguments of Mechanic Accents seriously undersubstantiated and will not likely consider The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism and Form and History in American Literary Naturalism to be legitimate historiography at all. The question, to my mind, is not the plausibility of this sketch of historians' reactions but whether literary scholars committed to what they like to think of as historicist study ought to cue about such a reception. Should practitioners of the newer historical criticism in literary studies worry about being thought irresponsible by those who think of themselves as professional historians?

The answer to this as to most important questions is, I think, yes and no. On the "yes" side, Wilson has performed a valuable service in holding up the image of a more rigorous empiricism as a kind of scholarly conscience for literary colleagues, whose interest in the subject of history has been dominated by the sense of history's construction (as text or as ideology, for example), often tending to sideline "factual" evidence as polluted or trivial. As Wilson observes, this has produced some major attenuations and elisions, like the single-envelope theory of "culture" postulated by Michaels, which turns out to rest on a contestible notion of capitalism and an unexamined relationship to old style consensus historiography. Denning's generalizations about working-class responses to the dime novel invoke a much more extensive data base of social theory and social historiography about class structure, but a paucity of documented testimony by bona fide working-class readers, so that his thesis works itself out not as a presentation of how such readers read but how they must have read assuming that they read with a properly awakened sense of class identification. All three studies are much interested in the mediating status of literary institutions, but they trace this primarily at the level of textual nuance rather than at the level of the literary marketplace itself notwithstanding their common commitment at the notional level to the importance of literary commodification as a phenomenon in literary history. In order to get at the latter, one must turn to Wilson's own monograph, The Labor of Words, which gives a much fuller account of how American publishing institutions functioned at the turn of the twentieth century. From a social historian's standpoint, that is the nitty-gritty; and any text-centered analytic is going to seem pretty much as unmoored as old style new critical close readings.

But while it may be timely and legitimate to hold up hardheaded empiricism as a corrective, it would be misguided to invoke it as a programmatic nom, as if all self-styled literary historicists had to become William Charvat or Frank Luther Mott. The supposedly typical social historian's disapproval of the supposedly typical present day new literary historicist might just as easily be read as a sign of incomprehension of legitimate difference. And so let me switch from the image of the social historian as superego to that of the social historian as interlocutor, in need of some explanation of the presumptuousness of calling by the deceptively familiar name of historicism what seems in fact an alien enterprise.

For there can be no doubt that the newer historical criticisms represent a significant effort to historicize literary studies by breaking through the boundary that formerly divided texts classified as "literature" from texts that fell into the category of "historical background" (for example: Michaels's economic texts, Howard's sociological texts) and by demanding that the former be read in light of their participation in the latter. This thrust is succinctly encapsulated by Afro-American culture critic Cornel West's dictum that "we must no longer be literary critics who presume that our cultivated gaze on literary objects . . . yields solely or principally judgments about the literary properties of these objects."1 It arises most fundamentally from the desire to establish in the face of a recent past seen as dominated by formalist interpretation the imperativeness of understanding literary works as socially and ideologically situated productions. This reading of precontemporary literary scholarship may surprise American historians for whom the best known "literary" scholar of the period was Perry Miller. One who stands within or (like West) tries to imagine the discipline's past from an insider's perspective will, however, think of Cleanth Brooks as a more typical precursor.

The practitioners of the newer historical criticism look back upon themselves as continuing the reaction of the 1970s against the supposed hegemony of American "New Criticism" of the 1940s through the early 1960s, which in the (somewhat melodramatized) light of retrospect now seems to have inflicted upon literary studies of that period a norm of studying literature as a series of discrete, internally cohesive artifacts meaningfully unified as a larger field by aesthetic properties to be understood through intratextual, not contextual, analysis. By contrast, newer historical criticisms aspire to a more socially conscious form of literary commentary than either old style new criticism or most of the more recent poststructuralist theories that greatly dominated literary studies of the 1970s - a form of commentary, however, that profits from 1970s theory in the self-awareness (at best) with which it confesses and examines its presuppositions. Among the three monographs Wilson reviews, Howard's is particularly exemplary in this respect.

At the same time, an increasingly higher percentage of those increasing numbers of people today who consider themselves to be studying texts with a view to their--and our--imbrication in history refuse to look to history as an objective constraint on the subjectivity of interpretation. For example, the 1982 manifesto in which Stephen Greenblatt baptized the "new historicism" criticized traditional literary historiography precisely for its unselfconscious objectivism; more particularly for its tendency to reduce texts to "a single political vision". . ."not thought to be the product of the historian's interpretation, nor even of the particular interests of a given social group in conflict with other groups."2 As an antidote Greenblatt prescribed a theoretically self-reflexive, rather than doctrinaire, treatment of the literary text-history relationship, which he sees as a symbiosis of mutually constitutive fields of play rather than a binary separation of text and context whereby the slipperiness of the one is decoded using a key supplied by the stability of the other. The main thrust of Greenblatt's program seems to be rather to textualize history than to historicize literary texts. As is evident from his more recent work, what especially excites him are the imaginative possibilities suggested to the critic by analogizing back and forth between literary text and "social text": for example, King Lear and the discourse of/against exorcism in Shakespearean England. Perhaps it is his own awareness of how greatly his critical practice is driven by his relish for creative analogizing that has led Greenblatt to adopt the slogan "cultural poetics" in preference to "new historicism" in his latest book.

As the two foregoing paragraphs are meant to suggest, the newer historical criticisms are both unified and divided over the nature of their own historicism. They are most obviously unified and most specifically historical in their reaction against the innocence of previous scholarship that rests more or less unselfconsciously on a formalist examination of a field of vision presumed to consist of great works of imaginative literature, the canon of which was more or less accepted without examination. As a result of such critical practice, "social fiction" like the naturalist novel tended to be denigrated and popular genres like the dime novel regarded as trivial. Against this, the work of Michaels, Howard, and Denning has been most valuable in restoring interest and potency to such writings by showing some of the important ways that contemporary economic, social, and political preoccupations play through these literary texts much more intricately than readers had previously imagined, and by suggesting how in consequence "literary" rubrics like "character", "plot," and "author" have to be defined in terms of forces that extend and indeed typically originate well outside the aesthetic domain.

The newer historical criticisms are internally divided, however, with regard to what specifically they wish to do with this expanded vision of a literary work's contextual indebtedness. The vision itself is in principle historicist, but that historicism may become either a set of ground rules for interpretative play directed, say, to teasing out the nuances of selected primary literary texts or to a hypothesis leading to a more thickly-textured account of how the work or genre is situated in its institutional context. Roughly speaking, these alternatives are posed among the works Wilson reviews by Michaels and Denning. Admittedly such dichotomizing is facile. Michaels's close readings of Dreiser and Norris in the light of (his version of contemporary) economic discourse constitutes a kind of substantiation, even if within a closed theoretical system, while Denning's substantiation never ceases to read like an allegory of his theory of multi-accentualism. But there does seem to be a major divergence between the two that is perhaps not so much one of method or even theory as one of taste: between their respective commitments to the pleasures of elaborating an intellectual complexity in the verbal artifact that arises from its interiorization of socially prevalent discourses (Michaels's cultural poetics), versus the pleasures of achieving an unprecedentedly intricate formulation of art's status as social act or praxis (Denning's Marxist hermeneutic).

Both cases, and especially Michaels's, show the very understandable continuing indebtedness of the newer historical criticisms to the recent critical traditions they ostensibly supersede. It still comes naturally (I use that loaded word advisedly) for us to center our historicist monographs on detailed readings of individual literary texts (Michaels, Howard); it comes more naturally to engage history as theory (Howard, Denning) than as archive; it comes more naturally to cite the Foucault of The Archaeology of Knowledge than the Foucault of The Birth of the Clinic; it comes more naturally to draw upon the luminous images of Foucault's Discipline and Punish (the panopticon image, especially) for our heuristic possibilities than to replicate Discipline's institutional case study aspect as an historiographic model.

Hence Wilson's invocation of the empiricist historian as conscience. As the present essay and my own scholarship show, this is a position for which I have considerable sympathy, at least when it is directed to my own tribe of literary scholars. For, to cite a defense of intellectual history by Dominick LaCapara that literary scholars like to cite out of context, the "methodological scrapegoating" process of which LaCapra complains (archive-oriented social historians marginalizing intellectual history) usually works the other way in literary circles (criticism and theory marginalizing archivalism as grubwork).3 Yet I would de-emphasize that intertribal complain before an audience of social historians skeptical about what they were pleased to regard as the ungrounded speculation of the three works Wilson reviews, for they impress me (as Wilson also indicates) as signs of a more vigorous upsurge of historicist reflection in American literary studies than our discipline has seen since the decline of myth-symbol criticism, and more sophisticated in its accounts of literature's interweave with history. Whatever attitude such interpretive historicizing may hold toward literary historicizing of a more empiricist kind, it creates a more fertile climate for such work to be done more penetratingly and to be read more attentively. Such work, often cross-fertilized by more theoretical historical criticism, is in fact increasingly being done and is receiving increasing acclaim. Under the circumstances, the lacunae descried by Wilson do not concern me overmuch.


1. Cornel West, "Minority Discourse and the Pitfalls of Canon Formation," Yale Journal of Criticism 1 (Fall 1987): 200.

2. Stephen Greenblatt, "Introduction" to symposium on "The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance," Genre 15 (Spring-Summer 1982): 5.

3. Dominick LaCapra, History and Criticism (Ithaca, 1985), 90.