Tuesday, September 05, 2017

History of literary historicism

Without knowing much about the school of literary criticism known as "New Historicism," I always kinda liked the idea that it stood for understanding literary works, not as pure eternal works standing free of time and context, but as being embedded in a time and place. How could a historian not like that, even though it was clear that New Historicism had large literary-critical ambitions and its aspiration was never to kowtow to us historians by reducing literary criticism into a subfield of history.

When I read Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World some years ago, I thought it was what New Historicism should be aiming for: a literary scholar steeped in Shakespeare's plays reading deeply into the evidence of Shakespeare's times and what they suggested about the man, and then thinking about the plays in the context of both man and times. It worked for me, and that it was enormously conjectural and speculative about Shakespeare's biography did not much bother me: the author was a literary scholar, not a historian. It seemed okay to me that students of literature should let their imaginations run free, even though (history being as complex as it is) it was most unlikely that any large proportion of his historical and biographical conjectures would be precisely correct should the evidence to test them ever come to light. The author's evident passion for his subject, and for literature, and for writing and thinking vigorously and well about literature -- they all kind of disarmed me.

All this is by was of introduction to a review of Stephen Greenblatt in a conservative American magazine called New Criterion. The whole essay can be read simply as a fine example as the review article as furious diatribe. Bruce Bawer does not just disagree with Greenblatt. Actually, he holds him responsible for:the long, slow destruction of the serious study of literature in the American academy.
Few people, if any, have played as significant a role in this process as he has—and few have profited from it as much, either professionally or financially.
Bawer blames him for the  existence, no less, of the whole field of Cultural Studies:
The typical practitioner of Cultural Studies combines a breathtaking cultural and historical illiteracy with a tendency to lean on pseudo-radical tropes about Western imperialism and so forth. In sum, it’s an intellectual and scholarly disaster. And its spiritual father is Stephen Greenblatt.
Bawer says Greenblatt's new book, about Adam and Eve in literature, feels:
like a gratuitous contrivance, a mishmash of second- and third-hand material that doesn’t seem to add up to anything particularly coherent or compelling.  ,,, [It will] affirm yet again his position at the forefront of the very institution, the academic humanities, for whose ongoing demise no one on the planet is more responsible than he.
There is way too much personal abuse in the review, which denounces Greenblatt as a cynic, a fraud, and a willing liar who will write anything just for the money, That strikes me as absurd as well as nasty. Surely any serious reader can see that Greenblatt loves his subject and writes for the pure pleasure of it. And any serious observer of modern academic culture knows that as longtime holder of an endowed chair at Harvard, he would hardly need the money anyway.

I do rather agree, however, with the contention that Greenblatt's speculations constantly go way beyond what the evidence will sustain. Maybe it's just that I don't think of him as a historian, and therefore don't mind that much, in the same way that I don't expect historical movies or historical novels to meet historical standards.
Follow @CmedMoore