The New Cultural History: Essays

The New Cultural History: Essays

The New Cultural History: Essays

The New Cultural History: Essays


Across the humanities and the social sciences, disciplinary boundaries have come into question as scholars have acknowledged their common preoccupations with cultural phenomena ranging from rituals and ceremonies to texts and discourse. Literary critics, for example, have turned to history for a deepening of their notion of cultural products; some of them now read historical documents in the same way that they previously read "great" texts. Anthropologists have turned to the history of their own discipline in order to better understand the ways in which disciplinary authority was constructed. As historians have begun to participate in this ferment, they have moved away from their earlier focus on social theoretical models of historical development toward concepts taken from cultural anthropology and literary criticism.

Much of the most exciting work in history recently has been affiliated with this wide-ranging effort to write history that is essentially a history of culture. The essays presented here provide an introduction to this movement within the discipline of history. The essays in Part One trace the influence of important models for the new cultural history, models ranging from the pathbreaking work of the French cultural critic Michel Foucault and the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz to the imaginative efforts of such contemporary historians as Natalie Davis and E. P. Thompson, as well as the more controversial theories of Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra. The essays in Part Two are exemplary of the most challenging and fruitful new work of historians in this genre, with topics as diverse as parades in 19th-century America, 16th-century Spanish texts, English medical writing, and the visual practices implied in Italian Renaissance frescoes. Beneath this diversity, however, it is possible to see the commonalities of the new cultural history as it takes shape. Students, teachers, and general readers interested in the future of history will find these essays stimulating and provocative.


Lynn Hunt

In 1961, E. H. Carr announced that “the more sociological history becomes, and the more historical sociology becomes, the better for both.” At the time, the pronouncement was a battle cry directed primarily at Carr’s fellow historians—especially those of the English variety—whom Carr hoped to drag along, however unwillingly, into the new age of a socially oriented history. in retrospect, it seems that Carr was quite right: the cutting edge for both fields was the social-historical. Historical sociology has become one of the most important subfields of sociology, and perhaps the fastest growing; meanwhile, social history has overtaken political history as the most important area of research in history (as evidenced by the quadrupling of American doctoral dissertations in social history between 1958 and 1978, surpassing those in political history).

In history, the move toward the social was fostered by the influence of two dominant paradigms of explanation: Marxism on the one hand and the “Annales” school on the other. Although Marxism was hardly new in the 1950s and 1960s, new

1. Edward Hallett Carr, What Is History? (New York, 1965; first published 1961), p. 84.

2. Robert Darnton, “Intellectual and Cultural History,” in The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States, ed. Michael Kammen (Ithaca, N.Y., 1980), p. 334.

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