In a postmodern world of literary criticism where the ambiguities of absences, traces, and endlessly shifting signifiers threaten to reign supreme, a significant movement of the past decade has been a critical approach called "New Historicism." Although those who have been called, or who call themselves, "New Historicists" are so diverse that no clear cut definition of the term is possible--indeed, attempts to do so have become a central occupation of various theorists--two general features of this kind of scholarship can be identified: the first is a concern with locating a literary text within the parameters of a specific cultural context or historical moment; the second is the belief that "to understand" a text is "to retrieve what it meant to its contemporaries" (During 172).
Accordingly, one strategy employed by those who wish to historicize literary works is a focus on reader response, just as the works which seem to function best as cultural indicators are those which have popular appeal. Both aspects are well represented in Janice Radway's recent study of "Harlequin" type romance. Instead of attempting to interpret such works from her own "educated" perspective, Radway attempts to "read the romance" in the ways that its contemporary readers do. By conducting extensive interviews with such readers, she is able not only to account for the popularity of such fiction but also to relate it to various cultural pressures.
"Reading" popular literature of earlier periods is, of course, more difficult. Readers of such works are no longer available for questioning, just as records of their responses are rare. Moreover, the entire cultural context needs to be reconstructed. Thus, to account for the popularity of pre-20th-century "best sellers," what seems required is attention to the role of technological, religious, economic, legal, political and social factors in the production and reception of literary texts.
In short, one could argue that only historians are fully equipped to "historicize" literary texts, and it is indeed from this quarter that "New Historicism" has been criticized. According to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, for example, New Historicists know too little about actual history to make any convincing arguments (214). To the same effect, but more inclusively, Brook Thomas has argued that no one can possibly recreate the entire cultural milieu in which a text appeared, and consequently New Historicists doom themselves to interpretive blunders, inadequate cultural theorizing, and hopeless historical generalizations (9).
Instead of wanting utterly to reject attempts to historicize literary texts, however, Thomas is mainly concerned with the need for a more modest objective and methodology. Specifically, he argues that a more realistic endeavor for the scholar who wishes to look at a text in its original context is to focus on one particular aspect of that context and to explore how that aspect relates to the reception of the text.
My purpose in the following essay is to combine the strategy recommended by Thomas with the attitude which informs Radway's study. I want to focus on the Protestant intellectual milieu as a way of historicizing one of the most popular works of the late 19th century--Ben-Hur, by Lew Wallace. First published in 1880, by 1893 Ben-Hur had become the best-selling novel of the century, even outselling Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (see Carter 67). In a memorial published at the time of Wallace's death in 1905, a commentator attributed the popularity of Ben-Hur to the fact that it had gone "straight to the heart of solid puritans, who thank Heaven! are still the backbone of America" (The Nation 149). The climate in which Ben-Hur first appeared, however, was one in which there was still a strong vestigial objection to the novel genre on the part of the Protestant reading public (Reynolds 197ff; Tompkins 147-60). Although Ben-Hur therefore clearly played an important role in ending what Carl Van Doren has called the Protestant "village opposition" to the novel (113, 114), the question that arises in turn is how it was able do so. …