New Historicism is a literary theory developed in the 1980s through the work of Stephen Greenblatt, which gained prominence and influence in the 1990s. In its early years, it was a school of thought mainly followed by Americans, but more recently it has spread to other parts of the world, especially England. The aim of people who describe themselves as New Historicists is to understand work through its historical context and also to understand the history of ideas, a new school of thought, through the culture and literature of the time. New Historicism focuses on different power relationships within society such as patronage and the way this is used to create the modern nation state and popular culture as a means to allow people to hold on to power. New Historicism claims to be a more neutral way of looking at history and more sensitive toward different cultures than traditional historical approaches.
New Historicism holds some key assumptions that are integral to understanding the New Historicist discourse. These are that all acts of expression are embedded within other interlinked material practices; that all acts which unmask, critique and oppose are liable to be picked apart and critiqued in the same manner; that both literary and nonliterary texts or communiqués circulate inseparably and, therefore, one type of text cannot be seen as more important than another medium; that no discourse can provide access to unchanging truths or can express human nature. New Historicists also believe that at a historical moment all schools of thought like law, philosophy, theology and art combine to create the overall culture which is being studied and that they should not be looked at or studied within a vacuum.
New Historicism is rooted in Marxism, but unlike true Marxism it sees power as being extended throughout society rather than just being part of a class. This philosophy is generally accredited to Michel Foucault, one of the other main thinkers of New Historicism, and his work on critical theory. However, unlike postmodernists, New Historicists tend to be willing to perform more historical textual analysis like looking at context and potential bias of the text rather than being a bit more skeptical of the value of literature in understanding history. New Historicists also tend to be more concerned with how widely the text was redistributed and how it helped impose the cultural practices of the time on society. New Historicism differs from traditional Historicism as it places a much larger emphasis on the ideology of the culture and the author's political disposition that consciously or subconsciously governed his or her work.
New Historicism is grounded in critical theory, which argues that ultimately all human actions can be boiled down to power, whether to gain more of it or because they are under the influence of someone else. Hence, New Historicist research tends to examine texts in order to locate the way in which examples of the culturally prevalent powers of the time are represented in these texts. For example, literature is normally written by people with power and, as power is used to marginalize the rest of the population, this literature must contain details of the main sources of power of that particular society at that point in history. New Historicists try to find the "sites of struggle" to see which groups in particular are fighting over power and how this struggle influenced the course of events.
New Historicism like most ideas has been criticized; most of this criticism comes from postmodernists as they resent the claim of New Historicists that society has not entered a period of postmodernism. Most of these postmodernist criticisms stem from the New Historicists' acknowledgement that all historical views are inherently biased due to these points of view being affected by their surroundings and cultural viewpoints, but unlike the postmodernists, New Historicists refuse to actually do anything about it other than acknowledge the fact. New Historicism is also criticized by Harold Bloom who says that New Historicists neglect the role of literature in analyzing history and do not look at literature for important clues to help understand historical events.