Reading the Past: Literature and History. (Book Review)

By Mierlo, Wim Van | Style, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Reading the Past: Literature and History. (Book Review)

Mierlo, Wim Van, Style

Tamsin Spargo, ed. Reading the Past: Literature and History. New York: Palgrave, 2000. xii + 200 pp. $65.00 cloth; $19.95 paper.

Reading the Past, capably edited by Tamsin Spargo, appears in Palgrave's handsome and handy new series of Readers in Cultural Criticism. The volume brings together twelve essays (some well known, others less so) as a sample overview of the work being done over the past few decades in historical and cultural studies, reflecting the "linguistic turn" that took place in these disciplines, and in literary studies, signaling the return to history. It offers precursors (Walter Benjamin) as well as new work published barely two years ago (Catherine Belsey) and one apparently new essay (Jurgen Pieters). But the wide array of topics and approaches does not hide the fact that the collection has a quite distinct agenda. As opposed to the "cultural turn" in history and literary studies, which more broadly refers to focal changes in the choice of subjects (away from kings and queens and great events, towards the history of women, lower classes, or culture from the bottom up), the "linguistic turn" is primarily concerned w ith the textuality of the past. The two evidently overlap, and, admittedly, many of the same authors included here Would also feature in a volume on the "cultural turn." But the choice does create a different perspective on the state of scholarship in the humanities, one that is still received with a degree of skepticism by the wider community of historians.

Nonetheless, this should not detract from the validity of Spargo's undertaking. Many of the essays she has collected stress the distance that separates the historian from the past or highlight that historiography is an act of reading or translating the past into the present. (The irreparability of the past is amusingly and allegorically represented in the opening essay, Leszek Kolakowski's "Emperor Kennedy Legend," which gives the account of an imaginary meeting in the future of the Academy of Sciences, where in turn anthropological, psychoanalytical, and Marxist interpretations of JFK are offered and their truth-value voted on by the members.) The emphasis on reading is not in itself problematic--Spargo recognizes this as a common element--but it is striking that, despite mutual disagreements among authors and even on occasion a deliberately polemical tone, there are hardly any dissenting voices in this volume.

In her introduction, Spargo offers a succinct and very readable synopsis of the issues at stake and the disciplinary developments that took place in English and history departments at British and American universities. The increasing awareness and recognition of the proximity between literary writing and history writing gets her attention as she outlines the abandonment of traditional, objectivist history in favor of new attitudes towards history and the notion that the historian's own subject-position bears on his/her interpretation of past events. Rather remarkably, that subject-position appears to be much less of an issue for the literary critic who revisits works of literature with a new historical sense as he/she is trying to shake off the extreme formalism of New Criticism and poststructuralism.

It is certainly to Spargo's credit that she has avoided any of the excessive postmodern approaches to history that radically see history as text tout court. Quite obviously, a distinction needs to be maintained between history, in the sense of events as they unfolded themselves in the past, and the writing about history. But the differences start to blur when we recognize that the past is only knowable, as Hayden White has argued, through language; the events of the past do not offer themselves transparently to us, but its verbal and nonverbal signs are there to be read and interpreted. Stephen Greenblatt's reading of More's self-fashioning and Holbein's painting The Ambassadors in this volume and Pieters's rejoinder, "Facing History, or the Anxiety of Reading," are good examples of making sense of the past's nonverbal signs; other essays deal primarily with verbal texts, such as Carolyn Steedman's analysis of the representation of children in the writings of social investigator Henry Mahew on the Victorian p oor, Robert Darnton's Bakhtinian reading of Nicholas Contat's memoirs of his apprenticeship in an eighteenth-century Paris print shop, or Michel Foucault's readings in French legal history and the history of the prison. …

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