Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Aims and Pitfalls of "Historical Interpretation"

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Aims and Pitfalls of "Historical Interpretation"

Article excerpt

WHAT EXACTLY DO WE MEAN when we invoke the concept of "historical interpretation"? In nuts-and-bolts terms, what does it "do for us and how does it differ from other varieties of criticism? The phrase is frequently used dismissively, often in very abstract contexts. Associational confusions make establishing an exact meaning difficult. "Old Historicism" (an ill-defined entity) is almost universally derided as positivist and obsolete. "New Historicism" turns out to be a misnomer--largely nonhistorical and deriving principally from the critic's ideology. Neo-Marxists claim to be "historical," but their concerns are more with the political convictions of the interpreter than with history per se. I want, therefore, to explain as precisely as possible what I am trying to talk about. "Historicism" in the sense I use the term implies attempting to reconstruct past point of view as opposed to "presentism," in which past events or texts are interpreted in light of current beliefs. (1)

Addressing the problem of how to interpret the past and its documents, we need to start by making a key distinction between historical scholarship and historical interpretation. The former involves gathering facts about the contexts in which texts were written and in which they were disseminated and read. The latter is devoted to recovering the meaning apparently designed by the author or understood by readers in an earlier period. The one is scholarly and contextual; the other, though conducted with scholarly reference to the originary context, is more critical and text oriented. (2) They are closely connected, but their objectives are different. The reader should be aware that my primary concern here is with the interpretation of literary works, though many of the methodological issues have application in historical, political, and other sorts of writing from the past.

In the last quarter-century scholars have vigorously debated the virtues of "formalist" versus "historical" interpretation. This argument goes back to the 1940s (when New Critics were rebelling against the Old Historicism); it pits the claims of text against those of context. This is a false dichotomy, and few critics now attempt to avoid some degree of syncretism. A purely historical interpretation is usually of interest only to an antiquarian; contrariwise, forms and aesthetics are decidedly local in time and space, which makes formalist criticism subject to historical scrutiny. I wholeheartedly agree with James Breslin's call for "an historically informed formalist criticism." (3) We need also to consider a third viewpoint, that of ideological activists who believe that art and criticism should carry out transformative sociopolitical work. Operating from different premises, politically committed critics roundly condemn both formalist and historical interpretation. From such a premise derives much of the criticism published in the last four decades, whether neo-Marxist, Foucauldian, feminist, new historicist, or whatever.

My objectives here are threefold. First, to illustrate the sorts of things "historical interpretation" can do for us when applied to a variety of texts from different periods. Second, to demonstrate some misapplications and failures in this kind of interpretation, trying to see what has gone wrong. Third, by way of conclusion, to enunciate some truths and methodological principles that seem to me fundamental to good practice in historical criticism. (4)


Historical criticism is criticism that tries to read past works of literature in the way in which they were read when they were new.--J. R. de J. Jackson (5)

The argument in favor of exploring the possibilities of historical interpretation is very simple. All works have contexts: one can privilege them or try to minimize consideration of them, but pretending that they do not exist is unrealistic. Our readerly assumptions and strategies are significantly affected, even governed, by contextual expectations. …

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