I found the idea that history and literature could experience a sort of role-reversal when reading the chapter on New Historicism. Stating that the historical event became a social text while the literary text serves as the social event was a little confusing at first, but then started to make sense once we discussed what this means in class. Professor Seaman stated that our reading suggests that even as an event happens, it doesn’t occur in a historical sense but in a literary one. Looking at a work of literature from this standpoint, then, one can gather a sense of the event or people it depicts rather than of the historical facts themselves.
In regards to Chaucer, it was really intriguing to see Patterson’s perspective on his intentions and his depiction of the Wife herself. The idea that she represents an ideal of the time seems to insinuate that he was simply reproducing the conventions of his time period in that people accepted this stereotype. Thinking of Chaucer as consciously attempting to write in the form of literary representation true to the tradition makes me wonder what else he may have meant by his description of his characters. Making the Wife’s story center on marriage because that is how she is represented as a subject of literary attention also seems interesting. If she had been presented as an artisan, her story would have had a different significance at the time and would have elevated her skill level for the readers. However, the fact that she is defined by her social position makes her seem more ordinary, and in doing so she becomes important historically as signifying a simple character of the time period. In my opinion, Chaucer seemed to acknowledge that in preserving this cultural norm of his time he could create an ideal true to his era while at the same time keeping her in the social constrictions that would have been in place. The benefit of this today is that we get a sense of the role of women—even though she is unusually happy and content with her life through her good (and bad) marriages—that would have been ordinary at the time yet are culturally telling for a retrospective standpoint.
In re-reading the History chapter of TT, I found myself drawn to the concept that “history narrates the lives of the victorious and powerful from their perspective, whereas literature tends to side with the vanquished and powerless, recounting their version” (Nealon 117). This was an idea I was immediately drawn toward, and felt like a kind of momentary enlightenment. I began racking through the literary canon for great literature from the side of the winners, and found myself coming back to the idea that maybe there is something to that old concept that great writing stems out of melancholia and despair—not exactly the fodder for champions and the successful. They go on to say this trend is somewhat less applicable after the 60’s and specifically point to Post colonialism. It connected to what we were studying this week in two ways. First of all, there was the immediate connection to New Historicism, and the idea that maybe literature can be read as history, and while historical records may give us dates and accounts of the major occurrences, literature is often the key to contextualizing and interpreting the raw data. Then, we read the chapter about Post-Colonialism. “Of course,” I thought, “that’s why it isn’t applicable after the 60’s,” thinking especially of O’Brien, Caputo and Vietnam War Literature. After all weren’t we the “powerful” ones? All at once there is a muddling of the colonizers, the foreigners, and the colonized; the repressing, oppressors, and oppressed, and in this instance the lines become very blurred. Of course, this could be used as an example of how the powerful perhaps produced the literature while the oppressed determined the history. But the literature, for the most part, comes from American soldiers who, while oppressing a group within Vietnam, were simultaneously being repressed by their government. Their literature did stem out of a sense of powerlessness, a willingness to have ‘their side’ of the story heard. So perhaps the axiom can be continued into the 60’s and 70’s, if we take a broader understanding of the idea of the oppressors/oppressed and start seeing post-colonialism in more of a grayscale.
I think I enjoy this criticism the most. It is more comfortable as it is what I know from my upbringing in English, and thus I believe that it is what I know best. It is intriguing to think about the roles we all play in history and in interaction with texts throughout our exposure as we as a reading audience still play a part in the criticism as a whole, how we respond, how we read into it, how we allow works of literature to affect us.
New Historicism is very much so exciting as well as interesting. It offers the idea that there are an almost infinite amount of possibilities in the approach one has to the circumstances around a piece. That there is no one set way or condition, that there are always multiple perspectives, and ultimately that our view of history does not really hold to anything more than our reconstructed vision of it. Thus, those who have dug too deep into history for a foundation in anything, be it nationalism, religion, cultural identity, etc, there will be problems.
My favorite aspect in New Historicism is that it reinforces our need to accept that our foundations could be false and our assumptions could be proven wrong. It is inherent that we accept this, as such we will not succumb to the fate of those who are ignorant by choice, yet lay their claims’ bases to falsehoods that are blindly accepted for blind reasons. It is in challenging our assumptions that our positions arrive on more solid ground, and not blind acceptance. I think that the truth behind most everything lies not as one solid thing, but a concept that becomes more solid as it is investigated. It gives us a reason to continually pursue our curiosities and to continually challenge our beliefs.
The New Historicism is intriguing because it involves many different forms of criticism throughout its process. Ross C Murfin explains that New Historicism should not be called “new” because it often “work[s] on the border of another school” (124). Instead, this collaboration, I believe, makes New Historicism interesting because it allows the critic to delve into issues often addressed in a Marxist or feminist reading, just to name a few, in regards to the historic context of the topic. New Historicism breaks away from the New Critics because it approaches literature by taking the text’s historic influences into account. Rather viewing history as constant facts presented in a linear pattern, New Historicists recognize history as a reconstruction, one that is greatly influenced by our own perceptions of it. With this in mind, New Historicism studies texts within history but they stay away from defining texts based on some general “Spirit of the Age” that historians have assigned to different time periods. Looking at literature this way presents a new way of studying works in relation to the time period they come from, for they often reflect aspects of life that do not fit in the “Spirit of the Age” that their time period supposedly possessed.