Stephen Greenblatt's New Historicism. A Viable Theory?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Stephen Greenblatt's New Historicism
2.1 Stephen Greenblatt's New Historicism
2.2 Styles and Techniques of New Historicism

3. Criticizing New Historicism

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“ My deep, ongoing interest is in the relation between literature and history, the process through which certain remarkable works of art are at once embedded in a highly specific life-world and seem to pull free of that life-world. I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago. ” 1

Temporality lies in the very nature of literature. Whenever a piece of writing is produced, it materializes in a fixed form, and thus becomes a “snapshot”, so to speak, of the author's thoughts. It literally becomes history, if we define history as events before our own time.

In a less philosophical approach, literature then can give us insights on the thoughts of a person that has lived long before our own time. And this is what Stephen Greenblatt expresses in his above-cited statement. Greenblatt sees literature as a window into the past, a window into history.

Yet therein also lies a significant problem. If literature represents the snapshot of an author's thoughts at a given period in history, how much can be inferred from this individual statement concerning the reconstruction of a more general picture of the era in question, the “specific life-world”? It is the same problem that literary studies have always faced regarding the connection between the author and his works. How much of an author's personality, how much of his very own, personal convictions enter his writings? Can an author's personality be reconstructed from his writings, and on a larger scale, can history be reconstructed on the grounds of literature? The relative accuracy of such a reconstruction is of course dependent on the body of work respectively the number of authors taken into consideration. Nevertheless, the problem remains.

In the 1980s, a new theoretical approach emerged, which tried to solve these problems. By the 1990s, New Historicism and its main progenitor Stephen Greenblatt rose to the attention of scholars worldwide, and it is now a widely accepted theory.

If one can speak of a theory, since New Historicism has often been accused of lacking a distinct theoretical program. However, this did not remain the sole critical reproach New Historicism had to deal with. As with many a radically new idea, the approach provoked discontent as well. Inaccuracy and “armchair historicism” were among the accusations New Historicism had to cope with. Nevertheless, its popularity increased, and it is well nigh impossible to imagine literary studies today without it.

Despite its importance and popularity, the New Historicism has to this day successfully refused to be thoroughly theorized and classified, to be forced into a strict set of rules. It therefore remains a difficult task to label anything truly “New Historicist”, as even New Historicists themselves are reluctant to give a subsumable definition of the concept.

Nonetheless, this paper will attempt to give such a description. What are the main principles that govern this barely graspable theory? What makes a text New Historicist? These are the questions I will try to answer in the first part of my examination. Preference will be given to Stephen Greenblatt's writing, since he is commonly accepted as the figurehead of New Historicism, and is thus most paradigmatic for the concept as a whole. The text that naturally suggests itself for such a purpose is his co-authored book “Practicing New Historicism” which therefore will be utilized in my examination.

For the sake of a more comprehensive analysis and a more detached look at Greenblatt's theory, I will include one non-Greenblattian source in my examination as well. The text, titled “Greenblattian Self-Fashioning and the Construction of 'Literary History'” by Sonja Laden will enable me to take a closer look at Greenblatt's style and technique in particular, and introduce the concept of a poetical respectively non-poetical New Historicism. This distinction will come in handy at the evaluation of the criticism.

In the final part of my paper, I will take a closer look at the discontents and the criticism which New Historicism has evoked. Exemplary for the whole body of criticism, I will take into consideration an essay by Paul Cantor, which contains most of the more frequently expressed counterarguments against New Historicism. The principal question of my thesis, which I hope to answer by a careful, yet personal evaluation of the hitherto gathered information, is eventually a bold one. Is New Historicism a viable theory after all? Despite the international acclaim it has earned, does it keep its promises? Has it revolutionized modern literary studies?

2. Stephen Greenblatt's New Historicism

As I have remarked before in my introduction, the theoretical elaboration of the concept of New Historicism can be at best referred to as sparse. Although most scholars today seem to be familiar with the theory, and some claim to practice it as well, a clear definition is hard to attain.

2.1 Stephen Greenblatt's New Historicism

The most promising source for information on this topic must quite unsurprisingly be its first advocate, the founding father of New Historicism, Stephen Greenblatt. It was not until as late as 2000 that Greenblatt, in collaboration with his colleague and fellow New Historicist Catherine Gallagher, thought of setting down some theoretical concept. In the introduction to their aptly titled book “Practicing New Historicism” , Greenblatt expressed his astonishment at what had become of “his” creation:

“When years ago we first noticed in the annual job listing of the Modern Language Association that an English department was advertising for a specialist in new historicism, our response was incredulity. How could something that didn't really exist, that was only a few words gesturing toward a new interpretative practice, have become a 'field'? When did it happen and how could we not have noticed? If this was indeed a field, who could claim expertise in it and in what would such expertise consist? Surely, we of all people should know something of the history and the principles of new historicism, but what we knew above all was that it (or perhaps we) resisted systematization.”2

Greenblatt himself admits that New Historicism neither had a program nor did he apparently want it to have one. The evolvement of his theory on its own was quite a shock for him, if mingled with an spark of pride. Still this realization also convinced him of the necessity to raise his voice in the theoretical confusion that surrounded New Historicism. But Greenblatt would not be Greenblatt if he did not eventually avoid clear theoretical boundaries and restraints. In the end, “Practicing New Historicism” delivers exactly what its title promises. It is yet another case study, that can give only hints at what the concept really comprises, it is yet another example for practicing New Historicism. And that is all Greenblatt ever wanted to achieve, stating almost apologetically in the conclusion to the introduction of “Practicing”:

“Writing the book has convinced us that new historicism is not a repeatable methodology or a literary critical program. Each time we approached that moment in the writing when it might have been appropriate to draw the 'theoretical' lesson, to scold another school of criticism, or to point the way toward the paths of virtue, we stopped, not because we're shy of controversy, but because we cannot bear to see the long chains of close analysis go up in a puff of abstraction. So we sincerely hope you will not be able to say what it all adds up to; if you could, we would have failed.”3

What Greenblatt basically claims here, is that genuine New Historicism not only defies definition but is virtually inexplicable. Much like literary texts themselves, New Historicist writing is much more akin to art than to traditional criticism. A thought that I will take up again at a later stage of my paper.

This very intangibility was initially the spark that gave life to New Historicism. Explaining how discussions with fellow academics laid the foundation for the concept, Greenblatt writes that “the effect on the two of us was to underscore the difficulty of constructing an overarching theory, prior to or independent of individual cases, that would integrate historical and literary interpretation […]” (Gallagher/Greenblatt 2000: 3).

How, then, can an integration of literary and historical interpretation be realized? To combine the two, Greenblatt introduces the concept of culture as a text:

“The notion of culture as a text has a further major attraction: it vastly expands the range of objects available to be read and interpreted. Major works of art remain centrally important, but they are jostled now by an array of other texts and images. Some of these alternative objects of attention are literary works regarded as too minor to deserve sustained interest and hence marginalized or excluded from the canon. Others are texts that have been regarded as altogether nonliterary […].”4

In this concept, a synthesis between historical and literary approach can be achieved. By a comparison for example, Greenblatt suggests, between works of high literary merits and non-literary, neglected texts, a more widespread picture of the period in question can be painted. Moreover, it can enable us to draw hitherto unimagined conclusions on power structures, matters of political subversion and social control. This method can not only serve to include the to date unheard voices, be they underprivileged by their own time or our present, into literary and historical studies, but also serve to emphasize the singularity and importance of a canonical work.5

Nonetheless, Greenblatt is very well aware of the challenges this approach poses. The problem of the selection of sources is one that can barely be solved in advance. Only by teaching and writing, by trial and error, he proposes, can the wheat be sorted from the chaff, can the more promising texts be separated from those that prove less fruitful for an analysis. Once more, there is no panacea to this issue.6 To treat an entire culture as a text implies a whole array of new difficulties. Everything is equally entitled to be event and representation alike, and it becomes increasingly intricate to discern between the two.7

Most importantly, the idea of a whole culture as a text renders it increasingly difficult to

“[...] invoke 'history' as a censor. That is, for new historicism, history cannot easily exercise that stabilizing and silencing function it possessed in analyses that sought to declare the limits of the sayable and thinkable. […] In any culture that has left a complex record of itself […] there turn out to be virtually no boundaries that are not transgressed by someone or other (or imagined by those in power to be transgressed in some dark corner). Against the determinism that attempts to insist that certain things in a given period were beyond conception or articulation, new historicism invokes the vastness of the textual archive, and with that vastness an aesthetic appreciation of the individual instance.”8

On the one hand, New Historicism thus endeavors to include non-canonical, non- literary texts into its considerations, on the other hand it readily accepts the notion of the genius, who thinks way ahead of his time. It is a characterizing feature of Greenblatt's New Historicism to try to incorporate both sides of the coin. Non- canonical and canonical, literary and non-literary writings, literature reconstructed through history, and history reconstructed through literature - Greenblatt tries to examine the subject of his studies from all possible angles. In his own words:

“From the beginning we thought it crucially important to have it both ways: we wanted to delve as deeply as possible into the creative matrices of particular historical cultures and at the same time we wanted to understand how certain products of these cultures could seem to possess a certain independence.”9

One cannot help to wonder whether this is an over-ambitious undertaking. Can it be truly possible to do justice to all the factors involved in reconstructing history? It is this aspiration for totality, for an all-encompassing analysis that has aroused the most criticism. Yet, one should not forget that Greenblatt is always talking about possible reconstructions of history.


1 Stephen Greenblatt in „Greenblatt named University Professor of the Humanities“, The Harvard University Gazette, September 21st 2000, Harvard University, October 14th 2011, <>.

2 Catherine Gallagher/Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism, Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2000: 1.

3 Gallagher/Greenblatt 2000: 19.

4 Gallagher/Greenblatt 2000: 9.

5 cf. Gallagher/Greenblatt 2000: 10.

6 cf.Gallagher/Greenblatt 2000: 14.

7 cf.Gallagher/Greenblatt 2000: 15.

8 Gallagher/Greenblatt 2000: 16.

9 Gallagher/Greenblatt 2000: 16.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Stephen Greenblatt's New Historicism. A Viable Theory?
University of Constance
Kulturkontakte: Theorien in den Geschichts- und Literaturwissenschaften
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
544 KB
Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicism
Quote paper
Sebastian Langner (Author), 2011, Stephen Greenblatt's New Historicism. A Viable Theory?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Stephen Greenblatt's New Historicism. A Viable Theory?

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free