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New Historicism as Literary Criticism

Updated on July 9, 2012
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New Historicism and Subjective History?


In Literary Criticism, Charles Bressler describes New Historicism as an evolution of Old Historicism and a reaction to New Criticism. New Historicism does not accept New Criticism’s claim that there is only one accurate interpretation of a poem. It also does not agree that literature is merely a reflection of history or that history simply provides background information for the interpretation of a poem.


New Historicists use history to focus on human experiences and actions that are unified in some way. They also proclaim that history itself is subjective based on the biases of authors, and they take this into account when formulating literary critiques. New Historicists consider history in “relation to culture and society.” Greenblatt argued that society and art have a reciprocal relationship where each affects the other. This relationship also exists between readers and poems. He also argued that New Historicism should be called “Cultural Poetics” since its criticism is more of a “reading practice.”


The New Historicist, Foucault, took an archaeological approach to his literary interpretation by analyzing the different eras of history and how each era had its own perceptions of what to value and what defined truth. On the other hand, Geertz took an anthropological approach by placing more emphasis on history and cultural structures. Geertz also concentrated on aspects of history which others may have deemed trivial to explore contradictory beliefs within a culture. Geertz showed that all aspects of a culture have meaning and should be part of literary discourse.


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