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Historical Criticism

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on November 13, 2020 • ( 0 )

Historical theory and criticism embraces not only the theory and practice of literary historiographical representation but also other types of criticism that, often without acknowledgment, presuppose a historical ground or adopt historical methods in an ad hoc fashion. Very frequently, what is called literary criticism, particularly as it was institutionalized in the nineteenth century and even up to the late twentieth century, is based on historical principles.

Aristotle commented on the origins of tragedy, Quintilian reviewed the history of oratory, and bibliographies and collections of books studied together existed in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Yet a genuine literary or art history, finding continuity and change amid documents and data, was not possible until the growth of the historical sense in the Renaissance. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550), comprising over 150 biographies, towers above all Renaissance literary and art histories. It was no mere grouping of separate lives but an attempt to trace the progress of Italian art from Giotto to the age of Michelangelo, to establish the concept of a period (three of them for 1300-1550), and to distinguish one period from another. Despite Vasari’s example, the art history and literary history of the next two centuries were dominated by antiquarianism and chronologism.

The theory of modern historical criticism begins in the Enlightenment. Responding to the scientific revolution of the previous century, Giambattista Vico divided mathematics and physics from the humanities and what are now called the social sciences and stipulated by his verum factum principle that one can fully know only what one has made, namely, the products of language, civil institutions, and culture. In his New Science (1725) he argued that the closest knowledge of a thing lay in the study of its origins; outlined a concept of poetic logic by which one could grasp imaginatively the myths, customs, and fables of primitive cultures; and presented a theory of cultural development. Neither theology, philosophy, nor mathematics was the science of sciences: it was the “new science”—”history”—understood in Vichian terms. In his History of Ancient Art (1764) Johann Joachim Winckelmann studied “the origin, growth, change, and decline of classical art together with the different styles of various nations, times, and artists,” including Etruscan, Oriental, Greek, and Roman art. Though he surveyed “outward conditions,” he undermined his relativizing initiative in maintaining the neoclassical doctrine that Greek art is timeless and normative and in urging its imitation. Nevertheless, his definition of Greek art in terms of “noble simplicity and tranquil grandeur” distinguished the classical ideal from postclassical tendencies, thereby establishing one of the two polarities and prompting the need to define the other (quoted in Winckelmann, Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture , 1987, xvii, 33).

In England, the Homeric studies of Thomas Blackwell (1735) and Robert Wood (1769) sought to link the epic poet to the character of the times. Blackwell enumerated “a concource of natural causes” that “conspired to produce and cultivate that mighty genius”: climate, geography, phase of cultural and linguistic development, Homer’s “being born poor, and living a stroling indigent Bard” (quoted in Mayo 50). In his pioneering History of English Poetry (1774-81) Thomas Warton explored the changing fortunes of various genres from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century in terms of primitive and sophisticated art. Samuel Johnson joined the narrative of a life, a critical analysis of the works, and a study of the poet’s mind and character in his Lives of the Poets (1779- 81), virtually creating the genre of literary biography. He also pondered writing a “History of Criticism . .. from Aristotle to the present age” (Walter Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson, 1977, 532).

Although Johann Gottfried von Herder was not willing to abandon artistic universality or German nationalism, he was too much of a historical relativist to take the art of any one society as normative. He criticized Winckelmann for valuing Greek over Egyptian art when he did not take into account their vast cultural and environmental differences. Herder showed his appreciation for these difficulties in his treatment of the Arab influence on Provençal poetry. His historical method posited two basic assumptions: “that the literary standards of one nation cannot apply directly to the work of another” and “that in the same nation standards must vary from period to period” (Miller 7). In his Ideas on the Philosophy of History (1784-91) he drew analogies from organic nature and pressed for the investigation of physical, social, and moral contexts to depict the progressive development of national character. In his view, literature ( Volkspoesie ) is the product of an entire people striving to express itself, and though he himself believed that each nation contributed to the overarching ideal of universal art, his writings were subsequently appropriated to support national literary history. In response to Winckelmann, he located the beginnings of the modern artistic spirit in the Middle Ages and considered the Roman (a mixed genre of broad, variegated content, including philosophy) to be the quintessentially modern genre.

Both the theory and the practice of literary history expanded in the wake of the French Revolution and German idealist philosophy. G. W. F. Hegel defined Geist as the collective energies of mind and feeling that produce the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, and he conceived of the history of art in three movements illustrating the dialectical progression of Geist : oriental, in which matter over which the idea and its embodiment are in perfect equilibrium; and Romantic or modern, in which the idea, freed from subjugation, cannot be adequately expressed in material form. August von Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1809-11) developed Herder’s notion of the two categories of Western art, classical and postclassical (conditioned by Christianity and mainly “northern”) for which the word “Romantic” became the preferred term. His goal was to trace “the origin and spirit of the romantic in the history of art.” In his formulation, the classic represents formal unity, natural harmony, objectivity, distinctness, the finite, and “enjoyment”; the Romantic signifies incompleteness, subjectivity, “internal discord,” indistinctness, infinity, and “desire,” idealism and melancholy being the chief characteristics of Romantic poetry (25-27). The Romantic outlook on historical writing stressed the organic nature of change, process rather than mere product. Germaine de Staël adopted the distinction between classic and Romantic in her influential De L’Allemagne (1810, On Germany ).

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Michel Foucault/ New Criterion

Friedrich von Schlegel set these historical categories on firmer theoretical ground. His sociologically oriented Lectures on the History of Literature (1815) examine not only European languages but also Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit, thereby extending the range of comparative literary studies. Yet he advised against comparing poems of different ages and countries, preferring that they be compared with other works produced in their own time and country. He called for the study of the “national recollections” of a whole people, which are most fully revealed in literature, broadly defined and including poetry, fiction, philosophy, history, “eloquence and wit.” Literature contains “the epitome of all intellectual capabilities and progressive improvements of mankind.” For Schlegel, the modern spirit in literature reveals itself best in the novel combining the poetic and the prosaic; philosophy, criticism, and inspiration; and irony. Beyond the histories of individual nations, he applied his organicist principle to the effect that literature is “a great, completely coherent and evenly organized whole, comprehending in its unity many worlds of art and itself forming a peculiar work of art” (7-10). This is the Romantic ideal of totality, as in Hegel’s formulation that the true is the whole, and Schlegel heralded a “universal progressive poetry” (quoted in Wellek, Discriminations 29). “The national consciousness, expressing itself in works of narrative and illustration, is History .” The stage was set for the major achievements of nineteenth-century narrative literary history.

The unifying ideal of these works—the essence of nineteenth-century historicism—was that the key to reality and truth lay in the continuous unfolding of history. They were founded on a few key organizational premises: “an initial situation from which the change proceeds”; “a final situation in which the first situation eventuates and which contrasts with the first in kind, quality, or amount”; “a continuing matter which undergoes change”; and “a moving cause, or convergence of moving causes” (Crane 33). The subject matter might be an idea (the sublime), a technique (English prose rhythm), a tradition (that of “wit”), a school (the Pléiade), a reputation (Ossian), a genre or subgenre, the “mind” of a nation or race. The principal subject was treated like a hero in a plot (birth, struggle to prominence, defeat of an older generation); emplotments were of three basic types, “rise, decline, and rise and decline” (Perkins, Is Literary 39). The works as a whole were characterized by a strong teleological drive. Representative narrative histories of the national stamp are Georg Gottfried Gervinus’s History of the Poetic National Literature of the Germans (1835-42), Julian Schmidt’s History of German Literature since the Death of Lessing (1861), Francesco de Sanctis ‘s History of Italian Literature (1870-71), Wilhelm Scherer’s History of German Literature (1883), and Gustave Lanson’s Histoire de la littérature française (1894). Taking a “scientific view,” Georg Brandes considered literary criticism to be “the history of the soul,” and his supranational and comparatist Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature (1872-90) traces “the outlines of a psychology” of the period 1800-1850, its thesis being “the gradual fading away and disappearance of the ideas and feelings of the preceding century, and the return of the idea of progress” ( Main i:vii).

In the mid-nineteenth century literary historians began searching among the social and natural sciences for models and analogies, for instance, Comtean positivism, John Stuart Mill’s atomistic psychology, or Charles Darwin’s evolutionary biology. Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve borrowed scientific analogies of a general nature in his historical and biographical criticism. His subtle, probing works cannot be pigeonholed. “I analyze, I botanize, I am a naturalist of minds,” he said (quoted in Bate 490), and he counseled that “one cannot take too many methods or hints to know a man; he is another thing than pure spirit” (Bate 499). For Victorian literary history René Wellek proposes four main categories: the scientific and static, the scientific and dynamic, the idealistic and static, and the idealistic and dynamic ( Discriminations 153). Henry Hallam’s Introduction to the Literature of Europe (1837-39) is atomistic and cyclical, starting at 1500 and beginning again at 50-year intervals. In his History of English Literature (1863-64) Hippolyte Tain e set forth a deterministic explanation of literary works with three principal causes (race, moment, and milieu); these are the “externals,” which lead to a center, the “genuine man,” “that mass of faculties and feelings which are the inner man” ( History 1:7). His dictum “Vice and virtue are products, like vitriol and sugar” (1:11) is a chemical analogy. He chose England as if he were a scientist preparing an experiment: England had a long and continuous tradition that could be traced developmentally and up to the present, in vivo as well as in vitro. Other national literatures were rejected for one reason or another. Latin literature had too weak a start, Germany had a two-hundred-year interruption, Italy and Spain declined after the seventeenth century. A Frenchman might lack the requisite objectivity in writing the history of his own nation. The Darwinian influence can be seen in the work of Taine’s pupil Ferdinand Brunetiére. In L’Évolution des genres dans l’histoire de la littérature (1890) he treated a literary genre as if it were a genus of nature, noting its origin, rise, and fall and situating a work of art at its appropriate place on the curve.

Some literary historians produced works in several categories. Leslie Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876) adapts an idealist viewpoint to describe the rise of agnosticism, while his English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century ( 1904) is deterministic, sociological, and “scientific”: literature is the “noise of the wheels of history” (quoted in Wellek, Discriminations 155). An example of the idealistic and dynamic category is W. J. Courthope’s six-volume History of English Poetry (1895-1910), which finds “the unity of the subject precisely where the political historian looks for it, namely, in the life of the nation as a whole,” and which uses “the facts of political and social history as keys to the poet’s meaning” (i:xv). Courthope wanted to uncover the “almost imperceptible gradations” of linguistic and metrical advance: “By this means the transition of imagination from mediaeval to modern times will appear much less abrupt and mysterious than we have been accustomed to consider it” (i:xxii). George Saintsbury’s Short History of English Literature (1898), History of Criticism (1906), and History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) are at once erudite and impressionistic, and occasionally idiosyncratic in their judgments. Obviously many literary histories were eclectic in their methodology and fell between categories.

New Historicism

Among the shortcomings of nineteenth-century narrative histories were the imbalance between the space given to the individual work of art and the background materials required to “explain” it. Too little attention was given to analysis of the work itself and to questions of literary merit. Often enough, works were submerged by their contexts and causes, which were in a sense infinite (philological, psychological, social, moral, economic, political). David Masson’s seven-volume “life and times” biography of Milton (1881) was heavily weighted toward the times; in his review James Russell Lowell complained that Milton had been reduced to “a speck on the enormous canvas” (251). The problem of multiplicity of contexts and the consequences involved in choosing among them was addressed by Johann Gustav Droysen in Historik (1857-82), which anticipates Benedetto Croce. Droysen accepted the fact that a historian’s ideological biases, often unexamined and arbitrary, came into play and predetermined the investigation. He showed how the historian could use this knowledge to advantage and mapped the different rhetorics of historical representation.

Inevitably, large-scale narrative history sank beneath its own weight and fell from favor. Literary historians chose ever-smaller areas of investigation, though with a wider attention to the variety of causal contexts. As Louis Cazamian said in his and Emile Legouis’s History of English Literature (1924), the “field of literature” needed to be widened to comprehend “philosophy, theology, and the wider results of the sciences” (1971 ed., xxi). Whatever their shortcomings, many narrative literary histories were brilliantly conceived and immensely readable, and perhaps these are the reasons why the genre has not ceased to be written.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the weaknesses and failings of the whole historicist enterprise were exposed by Friedrich Nietzsche , Wilhelm Dilthey, and Croce. Although Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (1872) also falls in the category of narrative literary history, he attacked historical criticism in the second of his Untimely Meditations , “On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Nietzsche argued, not without irony, against history because the preoccupation with the past tended to relativize all knowledge, weigh down individual effort, and sap the vigor “for life.” The past must be “forgotten” in some sense if anything new was to be done.

Dilthey also objected to the positivist domination of history and formulated a theory of Geisteswissenschaften, or “human sciences,” comprising the social and humanistic sciences, which differed from the natural sciences in their interpretive approach. According to his method of Geistesgeschichte, material and cultural (i.e., natural) forces join in the creation of the unifying mind or spirit of a period. The critic must come into contact with the Erlebnis (“lived experience”) of a writer, a hermeneutical recapturing, or “re-experiencing,” of the past that requires not only intellect but imagination and empathy. The biographical essay becomes one of Dilthey’s preferred kinds of practical criticism: “Understanding the totality of an individual’s existence and describing its nature in its historical milieu is a high point of historical writing. . .. Here one appreciates the will of a person in the course of his life and destiny in his dignity as an end in itself” ( Introduction 37). Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung (1906) illustrates his method in studies of G. E. Lessing, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Novalis, and Friedrich Hölderlin.

Like Dilthey, though from a very different point of view, Benedetto Croce offered a critique of historicism that takes place within the historicist tradition itself. In Estética (1902) Croce, who began his career as a historian of the theater and memorials of Naples, attacked dry positivist historicism and sociological criticism for dissolving the essential quality of the literary work, its “intuition,” into myriad causes (psychology, society, race, other literary works). He objected strongly to the organization of literary history on the basis of genres, schools, rhetorical tropes, meters, sophisticated versus folk poetry, the sublime, and so on. These were “pseudoconcepts,” useful labels perhaps for a given purpose but essentially arbitrary designations standing between reader and text. Moreover, none of these “pseudo-concepts” could help decide a case between “poetry” and “nonpoetry”: “All the books dealing with classification and systems of the arts could be burned without any loss whatever.” Croce argued on behalf of the presentness and particularity of the “intuition”; what is past is made present and vital in the act of judgment and narration: “Every true history is contemporary history” ( Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic , 1902, trans. Douglas Ainslie, 1953, 114; History 11). His goal was to bring about a cultural renewal in which the traditional humanistic subjects, history and poetry, might once again play their central educative role and a new form of literary history would replace historicism. Croce’s critique was one of the first salvos in the idealist attack on science and positivism that continued well into the twentieth century. Aestheticism itself contributed to the disparagement of science and the revival of the idea of the genius, wholly exceptional, inexplicable, “above” an age.

In the twentieth century literary history lost the theoretical high ground in the academy. Modernism , New Criticism , Russian Formalism , nouvelle critique —all have an antihistoricist bias, posit the autonomy of the work of art, and focus on structural and formal qualities. At the same time, though the age of criticism had succeeded the age of historicism, literary history remained the most common activity within literary studies. Formalist and psychological approaches to a work of art are often found to lean on historical premises or to require a historically determined fact to build a case. As for narrative literary history, the errors and lessons of the nineteenth century were not in vain, and the achievements of modern historical scholarship are characterized by an awareness of the intellectual and rhetorical problems involved in their production.

Twentieth-century literary history offers a variety of models. One of the most common is a dialectical structure in which the main subject oscillates between two poles. In Cazamian’s history, long a standard work, phases of reason and intelligence (the classical) alternate with phases of imagination and feeling (Romantic). The dialectic of J. Livingston Lowes’s Convention and Revolt in Poetry (1919) is apparent from its title. The same writer’s Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination (1927) is an exhaustive source study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” In another model the literary historian depicts a “time of troubles” or “babble-like era of confusion—a time of transition from a purer past to a repurified future” (LaCapra 99). R. S. Crane and David Perkins each argue on behalf of “immanentist” theories that study the processes of change from a viewpoint within a tradition. Writers are compared and contrasted with predecessors and successors, and newness and difference are valued. Examples are Brunetifere, the Russian Formalists, W. Jackson Bate’s Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970), Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence (1973) and The Map of Misreading (1975), and Perkins’s History of Modern Poetry (2 vols., 1976-87), but Vasari’s Lives also has an immanentist theme. Some of the finest modern literary histories mix history, narrative, and criticism, selecting their contexts as particular works of art suggest them: F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), with its attempt to portray the Geist of transcendentalism; Douglas Bush’s English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660 (1945); and A Literary History of England, ed. Albert C. Baugh (1948). The period has also produced major literary biographies in Leon Edel on Henry James, Richard Ellmann on James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, and W. Jackson Bate on John Keats and Samuel Johnson.

In the era of postmodermism the theory of literary history has again received serious attention in Michel Foucault, Hayden White, and New Historicism . Postmodern literary histories flout the conventions of historical narrative and display the gaps, differences, discontinuities, crossing (without touching) patterns, not in the hope of capturing the essence of reality, but with the intention of showing that reality has no single essence. The avowedly “postmodern” Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), which has 66 writers, “acknowledges diversity, complexity, and contradiction by making them structural principles, and it forgoes closure as well as consensus.” “No longer is it possible, or desirable,” the editor claims, “to formulate an image of continuity” (xiii, xxi). The encyclopedic idea has replaced historical narration. New Historicism situates the text at the center of intense contextualization, a single episode being examined from multiple perspectives. This runs the risk of overcontextualization, loss of the larger picture, and failure to account for the dynamics of historical change.

In his skeptical Is Literary History Possible? (1992) Perkins reviews the theory and practice of literary history and comments on the “insurmountable contradictions in organizing, structuring, and presenting the subject” and “the always unsuccessful attempt of every literary history to explain the development of literature that it describes.” At the same time, he defends both the writing and the reading of literary history, maintaining that objectivity is not an all-or-nothing affair. Literary history must not “surrender the idea) of objective knowledge,” for without it “the otherness of the past would entirely deliquesce in endless subjective and ideological reappropriations” (ix, 185). His humanistic position, skeptical of system and classification, shows one way through the antihistoricism and skepticism of the present, while remaining aware of the pitfalls that have beset historical criticism in the past.

Bibliography Walter Jackson Bate, ed., Criticism: The Major Texts (1952, rev. ed., 1970, prefaces published separately as Prefaces to Criticism, 1959); Sacvan Bercovitch, ed., Reconstructing American Literary History (1986); Georg Brandes, Hovedstrpmninger: Det ipde aarhundredes litteratur (6 vols., 1872-90, Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature, trans. Diana White and Mary Morison, 1901-5); Douglas Bush, “Literary History and Literary Criticism,” Literary History and Literary Criticism (ed. Leon Edel et al., 1964); Peter Carafiol, The American Ideal: Literary History as a Worldly Activity (1991); Bainard Cowan and Joseph G. Kronick, eds., Theorizing American Literature: Hegel, the Sign, and History (1991); Ronald S. Crane, Critical and Historical Principles of Literary History (1971); Benedetto Croce, La Poesia (1936, 6th ed., 1963, Benedetto Croce’s Poetry and Literature: An Introduction to Its Criticism and History, trans. Giovanni Gullace, 1981), Teoria e storia della storiografia (1917, 2d ed., 1919, History: Its Theory and Practice, trans. Douglas Ainslie, 1921); Philip Damon, ed., Literary Criticism and Historical Understanding (1967); Wilhelm Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences: An Attempt to Lay a Foundation for the Study of Society and History (1883, trans. Ramon J. Betanzos, 1988), Poetry and Experience, Selected Works, vol. 5 (ed. Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi, 1985); Emory Elliott et al., eds., Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988); Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les choses (1966, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, trans. Alan Sheridan, 1970); Giovanni Getto, Storia delle storie letterarie (1942); John G. Grumley, History and Totality: Radical Historicism from Hegel to Foucault (1989); Giovanni Gullace, Taine and Brunetière on Criticism (1982); G. W. F. Hegel, The Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art (trans. Bernard Bosenquet, 1905); Peter Uwe Hohendahl, Building a National Literature: The Case of Germany, 1830- 1870 (1985, trans. Renate Baron Franciscono, 1989); J. R. de J. Jackson, Historical Criticism and Meaning of Texts (1989); Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (trans. Timothy Bahti, 1982); Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (1979, trans. Keith Tribe, 1985); Dominick LaCapra, History and Criticism (1985); Émile Legouis and Louis Cazamian, Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1924, History of English Literature, trans. Helen Douglas Irvine, 2 vois., 1926-27, rev. ed., i vol., 1930, rev. ed., 1971); James Russell Lowell, Among My Books (1904); Jerome J. McGann, The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (1985); Robert S. Mayo, Herderand the Beginnings of Comparative Literature (1969); G. Μ. Miller, The Historical Point of View in English Literary Criticism from 1570-1770 (1913); David Perkins, Is Literary History Possible? (1992); David Perkins, ed., Theoretical Issues in Literary History (1990); Paul Ricoeur, Temps et récit (3 vols., 1983-85, Time and Narrative, vois. 1-2, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, 1984-85, vol. 3, trans. Kathleen Blarney and David Pellauer, 1988); Richard Ruland, The Rediscovery of American Literature: Premises of Critical Taste, 1900-1940 (1967); August von Schlegel, Über dramatische Kunst und Litteratur (2 vois., 1809-11, A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, 1817, trans. John Black, rev. A. J. W. Morrison, 1846); Friedrich von Schlegel, Geschichte der alten und neuen Litteratur (1815, Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern, 1859); Hippolyte Taine, Histoire de ia littérature anglaise (4 vols., 1863-64, History of English Literature, trans. H. van Laun, 2 vois., 1872, rev. ed., 8 vois., 1897); H. Aram Veeser, ed., The New Historicism (1989); Giambattista Vico, The New Science (1725, 3d ed., 1744, trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, 1948, rev. ed., 1968); Robert Weimann, Structure and Society in Literary History: Studies in the History and Theory of Historical Criticism (1976); René Wellek, Discriminations: Further Concepts of Criticism (1970), A History of Modem Criticism, 1750-1950 (8 vois., 1955-93); Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (1987), Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973). Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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Modern Language, Philosophy and Criticism pp 11–25 Cite as

A Brief (but Timely) History of Literary Criticism

  • Wayne Deakin 2  
  • First Online: 24 June 2023

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This chapter provides an approximate history of criticism right up until its current form. This historical analysis ranges from the Classical age of the Greeks, right up until the Modern age. It discusses theories and concepts such as: nous, magnitude, mimesis, tragedy, sublimity, pragmatics, didacticism, exegesis, hermeneutics and formalism. The discussion ranges over thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Longinus, Quintilian, Bede, Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, Dryden, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Eliot, Wimsett and Richards.

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The “oral tradition” predates the tablet and early scribes in early Classical Culture, as well as other cultures such as Norse and Old English, where the first extant poem was a recorded version of the oral epic Beowulf ; with the MS dated at around the year 1000 CE.

Penelope Murray writes: “…in the words spoken by Aeschylus in Aristophanes’ play Frogs : ‘Children have a master to teach them, grown-ups have the poets.’ It is only against this background of the central importance of poetry in Greek society that we can begin to understand the ways in which ancient literary criticism developed. For Greek criticism is not primarily concerned with ‘literary’ or aesthetic matters, but rather with philosophical questions relating to the moral authority and ethical value of literature. The mainstream of ancient literary criticism takes it for granted that poetry, and literature in general, is a form of communication, and that literature and morality are intimately connected.” Murray & Dorsch (eds)., Classical Literary Criticism, (London: Penguin, 2000). p. 10.

For Plato, his theory of education is therefore also interestingly rationalist, in that the educator is supposed to appraise the students of these ideas of the noetic realm, already a priori held but forgotten after the trauma of childbirth. Even if one relinquishes the metaphysical implications of this original theory of education, a deflationary (non-metaphysical reading) of Platos’s theory sounds in some ways very similar to much of the neoliberal theories of discovery learning and child-centred educational theories of pedagogy, currently popular and (quite rightly I think) descried by many advocates of a more communitarian approach to modern education.

Shaftesbury’s seminal Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times was first published in 1711 and certainly bears the hallmarks of the neoclassic, in that its title reads like a pragmatist manifesto. However, the wonderful prose stylistic is of the ‘age of sensibility’ and comes in the recent wake of the revolution in manners partly inspired by Addison and Steele’s journals, The Tatler and The Spectator . Neither of which were to do with the newer emanations of the said publications but were very much to do with the newly gentrified fashion of manners and politeness . Both Shaftesbury and then later on also Alexander Gerard in his Essay on Genius (1756) advocated the idea of organic and natural genius. Jonathan Cuthbert (the Cambridge Platonist) had similar ideas and his work was taught in German at the Tubingen when Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin were students there, no doubt influencing in part their own neo-Kantian ideas on Organicism.

This quote was famously part of Wordsworth’s own Preface , which was not part of the original 1798 anonymously published edition of the poems. By the final 2 volume edition of the book (1804), Wordsworth had actually failed to include any of Coleridge’s poetic compositions.

The “state of nature,” sometimes later used synonymously with the so-called idea of “The Noble Savage”, untouched by the chains of civilisation, was predominantly celebrated by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his own book on educational theory: Emile : or on Education (1762); the concept in terms of a natural connection to nature was also explored in his last book, Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1776–78).

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Literary Theory

“Literary theory” is the body of ideas and methods we use in the practical reading of literature. By literary theory we refer not to the meaning of a work of literature but to the theories that reveal what literature can mean. Literary theory is a description of the underlying principles, one might say the tools, by which we attempt to understand literature. All literary interpretation draws on a basis in theory but can serve as a justification for very different kinds of critical activity. It is literary theory that formulates the relationship between author and work; literary theory develops the significance of race, class, and gender for literary study, both from the standpoint of the biography of the author and an analysis of their thematic presence within texts. Literary theory offers varying approaches for understanding the role of historical context in interpretation as well as the relevance of linguistic and unconscious elements of the text. Literary theorists trace the history and evolution of the different genres—narrative, dramatic, lyric—in addition to the more recent emergence of the novel and the short story, while also investigating the importance of formal elements of literary structure. Lastly, literary theory in recent years has sought to explain the degree to which the text is more the product of a culture than an individual author and in turn how those texts help to create the culture.

Brewton, V. (n.d.).  Literary Theory . Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

  • Feminist Literary Criticism

Feminist literary criticism (also known as feminist criticism) is the literary analysis that arises from the viewpoint of feminism, ​feminist theory, and/or feminist politics.

Napikoski, Linda. (2021, February 16). Feminist Literary Criticism. Retrieved from

Formalism Theory

“Formalism” is, as the name implies, an interpretive approach that emphasizes literary form and the study of literary devices within the text. The work of the Formalists had a general impact on later developments in “Structuralism” and other theories of narrative. “Formalism,” like “Structuralism,” sought to place the study of literature on a scientific basis through objective analysis of the motifs, devices, techniques, and other “functions” that comprise the literary work. The Formalists placed great importance on the literariness of texts, those qualities that distinguished the literary from other kinds of writing. Neither author nor context was essential for the Formalists; it was the narrative that spoke, the “hero-function,” for example, that had meaning. Form was the content. A plot device or narrative strategy was examined for how it functioned and compared to how it had functioned in other literary works. Of the Russian Formalist critics, Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky are probably the most well known.

  • Britannica - Formalism Literary Criticism
  • Formalism Literary Theory
  • Formalist Criticism – A Guide

Gender Studies and Queer Theory

Gender theory came to the forefront of the theoretical scene first as feminist theory but has subsequently come to include the investigation of all gender and sexual categories and identities. Feminist gender theory followed slightly behind the reemergence of political feminism in the United States and Western Europe during the 1960s. Political feminism of the so-called “second wave” had as its emphasis practical concerns with the rights of women in contemporary societies, women’s identity, and the representation of women in media and culture. These causes converged with early literary feminist practice, characterized by Elaine Showalter as “gynocriticism,” which emphasized the study and canonical inclusion of works by female authors as well as the depiction of women in male-authored canonical texts.

  • LumenLearning - Gender Studies
  • Gender Studies: Foundations and Key Concepts

What is historical criticism?

Historical criticism is the historical approach to literary criticism. It involves looking beyond the literature at the broader historical and cultural events occurring during the time the piece was written. An understanding of the world the author lived in (events, ideologies, culture, lifestyle etc.) allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the work.

Traditional Literary Criticism

Academic literary criticism prior to the rise of “New Criticism” in the United States tended to practice traditional literary history: tracking influence, establishing the canon of major writers in the literary periods, and clarifying historical context and allusions within the text. Literary biography was and still is an important interpretive method in and out of the academy; versions of moral criticism, not unlike the Leavis School in Britain, and aesthetic (e.g. genre studies) criticism were also generally influential literary practices. Perhaps the key unifying feature of traditional literary criticism was the consensus within the academy as to the both the literary canon (that is, the books all educated persons should read) and the aims and purposes of literature. What literature was, and why we read literature, and what we read, were questions that subsequent movements in literary theory were to raise.

Brewton, V. (n.d.). Literary Theory . Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

  • Britannica - Literary Criticism
  • LumenLearning - Literary Criticism
  • Literary Criticism Explained

Marxism and Critical Theory

Marxist literary theories tend to focus on the representation of class conflict as well as the reinforcement of class distinctions through the medium of literature. Marxist theorists use traditional techniques of literary analysis but subordinate aesthetic concerns to the final social and political meanings of literature. Marxist theorist often champion authors sympathetic to the working classes and authors whose work challenges economic equalities found in capitalist societies. In keeping with the totalizing spirit of Marxism, literary theories arising from the Marxist paradigm have not only sought new ways of understanding the relationship between economic production and literature, but all cultural production as well. Marxist analyses of society and history have had a profound effect on literary theory and practical criticism, most notably in the development of “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism.”

  • Marxist Literary Theory
  • Marxism and Literary Theory
  • The Basics of Marxist

New Criticism Theory

The “New Criticism,” so designated as to indicate a break with traditional methods, was a product of the American university in the 1930s and 40s. “New Criticism” stressed close reading of the text itself, much like the French pedagogical precept “explication du texte.” As a strategy of reading, “New Criticism” viewed the work of literature as an aesthetic object independent of historical context and as a unified whole that reflected the unified sensibility of the artist. T.S. Eliot, though not explicitly associated with the movement, expressed a similar critical-aesthetic philosophy in his essays on John Donne and the metaphysical poets, writers who Eliot believed experienced a complete integration of thought and feeling. New Critics like Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and W.K. Wimsatt placed a similar focus on the metaphysical poets and poetry in general, a genre well suited to New Critical practice. “New Criticism” aimed at bringing a greater intellectual rigor to literary studies, confining itself to careful scrutiny of the text alone and the formal structures of paradox, ambiguity, irony, and metaphor, among others. “New Criticism” was fired by the conviction that their readings of poetry would yield a humanizing influence on readers and thus counter the alienating tendencies of modern, industrial life. “New Criticism” in this regard bears an affinity to the Southern Agrarian movement whose manifesto,  I’ll Take My Stand , contained essays by two New Critics, Ransom and Warren. Perhaps the enduring legacy of “New Criticism” can be found in the college classroom, in which the verbal texture of the poem on the page remains a primary object of literary study.

  • New Criticism Theory & Examples
  • LumenLearning - New Criticism

New Historicism Theory

“New Historicism,” a term coined by Stephen Greenblatt, designates a body of theoretical and interpretive practices that began largely with the study of early modern literature in the United States. “New Historicism” in America had been somewhat anticipated by the theorists of “Cultural Materialism” in Britain, which, in the words of their leading advocate, Raymond Williams describes “the analysis of all forms of signification, including quite centrally writing, within the actual means and conditions of their production.” Both “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism” seek to understand literary texts historically and reject the formalizing influence of previous literary studies, including “New Criticism,” “Structuralism” and “Deconstruction,” all of which in varying ways privilege the literary text and place only secondary emphasis on historical and social context. According to “New Historicism,” the circulation of literary and non-literary texts produces relations of social power within a culture. New Historicist thought differs from traditional historicism in literary studies in several crucial ways. Rejecting traditional historicism’s premise of neutral inquiry, “New Historicism” accepts the necessity of making historical value judgments. According to “New Historicism,” we can only know the textual history of the past because it is “embedded,” a key term, in the textuality of the present and its concerns. Text and context are less clearly distinct in New Historicist practice. Traditional separations of literary and non-literary texts, “great” literature and popular literature, are also fundamentally challenged. For the “New Historicist,” all acts of expression are embedded in the material conditions of a culture. Texts are examined with an eye for how they reveal the economic and social realities, especially as they produce ideology and represent power or subversion. Like much of the emergent European social history of the 1980s, “New Historicism” takes particular interest in representations of marginal/marginalized groups and non-normative behaviors—witchcraft, cross-dressing, peasant revolts, and exorcisms—as exemplary of the need for power to represent subversive alternatives, the Other, to legitimize itself.

  • New Historicism: A Brief Note
  • New Historicism Theory: Overview and Examples

Thinking novels as an analogy of dreams seems an excellent natural example. Same as dreams, novels are fictitious inventions of the human mind, which are although reality based but by definition they are not true. Just like a novel, dreams are said to interpret some truth, coming from one’s personal experiences or subconscious mind

A Research Guid e . ( n.d . ) . A Guide to Psychoanalytic Criticis . criticism.htm l

  • Britannica - Freudian Criticism
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  • A Guide to Psychoanalytic Criticism

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Literary Criticism

Literary Criticism

A Concise Political History

Joseph North

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ISBN 9780674967731

Publication date: 05/08/2017

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Literary Criticism offers a concise overview of literary studies in the English-speaking world from the early twentieth century to the present. Joseph North steps back from the usual tangle of figures, schools, and movements in order to analyze the intellectual paradigms that underpinned them. The result is a radically new account of the discipline’s development, together with a trenchant argument about where its political future lies.

People in today’s literature departments often assume that their work is politically progressive, especially when compared with the work of early- and mid-twentieth-century critics. North’s view is less cheering. For when understood in relation to the longer arc of the discipline, the current historicist and contextualist mode in literary studies represents a step to the Right. Since the global turn to neoliberalism in the late 1970s, all the major movements within literary studies have been diagnostic rather than interventionist in character: scholars have developed sophisticated techniques for analyzing culture, but they have retreated from systematic attempts to transform it. In this respect, the political potential of current literary scholarship compares poorly with that of earlier critical modes, which, for all their faults, at least had a programmatic commitment to cultural change.

Yet neoliberalism is now in crisis—a crisis that presents opportunities as well as dangers. North argues that the creation of a genuinely interventionist criticism is one of the central tasks facing those on the Left of the discipline today.

[A] bold, lively, engagingly polemical account of academic literary criticism in the Anglo-American world. —Bruce Robbins, Los Angeles Review of Books
[North’s] effort to disentangle the progressive possibilities of aesthetic cultivation from the reactionary forms it has assumed may well help to rejuvenate the discipline. After all, it is entirely possible to expose students to complexity and nuance without reaffirming the old-school canon of dead white men or the reactionary politics that the canon was made to serve. North’s style is disarmingly lucid and self-assured; his reminds me of the work produced by an earlier kind of scholar, the sort who imagined a general audience. As devastating as it is meticulous, North’s analysis is a tour de force demonstration of what close reading can bring to light and why it would be a tragedy if the discipline ever gave it up. —Timothy Aubry, New Republic
[There is] a great deal to learn from this highly informed, articulate, bold and quietly passionate book. —Brendan Gillott, 3:AM
[North] is a courteous and charming narrator whose book is an absorbing addition to the history of literary studies, and future researchers will be indebted to him. —Gary Day, Times Higher Education
An exemplary venture in a leftist politics of culture… Literary Criticism is what its title claims for it, a book of quite general significance that should be read and considered by anyone, in or outside the academy, with a serious practical interest in the politics of literary culture today. —Francis Mulhern, New Left Review
Utterly absorbing, revelatory, and inspiring in equal measures…A challenge to received wisdom…An exhilarating, sweeping, and hopeful narrative of literary studies’ pasts and possible futures. Anyone who wants to do literary studies in the coming years must read it. —Tim Lanzendörfer, Amerikastudien/American Studies
This book is really a remarkable achievement: the best thing I have ever read about the history of criticism. North has read so much, thought so judiciously, and achieved a tone that is at once bold and modest, extraordinarily respectful of others’ achievements, while calmly showing that they have not fully understood what they are doing. North skillfully demonstrates that criticism’s best hope of bringing cultural change lies not with the historicist-contextualist critics who seek knowledge of cultures, but with the critics who seek the enhancement of the imaginative faculties of readers. This book gives us a different way of thinking about criticism. —Jonathan Culler, Cornell University
Joseph North offers a bold and counterintuitive perspective on the history of criticism: that the turn toward reading texts in cultural-historical contexts is not a sign of the radicalization of literary studies but rather the opposite. North argues for a return to criticism—defined as a concern with aesthetic education and the cultivation of subjectivity—in order to revitalize literary studies and reconnect it to social and political life. Literary Criticism sparkles with intelligence and is assured and incisive throughout. A real pleasure to read. —Rita Felski, University of Virginia
  • Joseph North is Assistant Professor of English at Yale University.

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Updated WALT WHITMAN literary criticism 5/27/18 "I think that Walt Whitman is a great philosopher of democracy. Indeed, he may be the greatest." - George Kateb

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literary history criticism

What Is Historical Criticism?

Historical criticism is a specific kind of literary analysis that looks at a text in its entire historic context. This kind of analysis is also often called higher criticism. In historic criticism, researchers often consider comparable texts from the same time period, utilizing other resources to come to a greater understanding of how a specific text interacted with its environment when it was written.

Lower criticism is often contrasted with historical criticism, or higher criticism. According to research experts, lower criticism looks at the meaning of text. By contrast, historical criticism looks more at the environmental factors that influenced the writing.

Historical criticism is a type of literary analysis.

One example of using historical types of criticism is in the analysis of that wide category of historic writing commonly referred to as “sacred texts.” This includes the analysis of the Bible, a book that informs much of Western civilization in various ways. The use of historical analysis or criticism applied to the Bible has generated a considerable amount of controversy in societies that value this book.

Historical criticism can be applied to religious texts, such as the Koran.

Experts point out that universities in Western nations have adopted the practice of using historical criticism to examine the many books of the Bible, which is essentially a compilation of many diverse texts written at different times. One of the main uses of this type of criticism applied to the Bible is the evaluation of the synoptic Gospels, four books that share a unique relationship in history. Another major element of biblical historical criticism relates to the Old Testament. Many academics have engaged in researching the different origins of the books that make up this part of the Bible in order to better understand not only the meanings, but the applied uses of these texts.

Historical criticism is often applied to ancient records.

In societies where the “lay person” often has a passionate relationship with the Bible, it has been controversial to examine the book through historical types of literary criticism . Even though, as religious experts explain, historical criticism is used in seminaries, it is not popular in non-academic environments, where many people choose to avoid higher analysis altogether. Some of the findings of historical criticism applied to the Bible may be ultimately rejected by the greater population of a society.

Historical criticism can be applied to religious texts, such as the Bible.

Researchers also apply historical analysis to other kinds of religiously classified historic writing. For example, the Qumran scrolls or the Dead Sea Scrolls might also receive this kind of analysis. Other sacred texts like the Koran may also be analyzed this way. Historical criticism can also apply to historic fiction , ancient records, and many other forms of writing.

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Discussion Comments

@burcinc-- The translation of the Qur'an I read has some notes of historical criticism underneath. I actually find it very useful. It's easier to understand how things developed when one knows the major historical events at the time.

I think historical criticism may also be the criticism of various historical sources to determine the most likely version.

I watched a show on TV the other day where a historian was talking about how a significant historical event has often been described very differently by different sources. Actually, many sources on history that were written during the time of the event were intentionally manipulated because people did not want to make themselves look bad.

Other times, people who wrote these things actually had little information themselves and had to theorize some things along the way. So when historians look at various existing sources on history, they have to criticize them to figure out what really happened and whether the information is completely truthful.

By definition, to criticize means to judge or find faults with something. If we see historical criticism in that way, it's easy to see why some people would be upset with the idea of the Bible being criticized. How can the word of God be criticized. But the other meaning of criticism is to analyze something. In this sense, the criticism of a religious narrative ought to be thought as interpretation of the text based on the historical incidents of the time.

This is not necessarily a bad thing because it sheds light on a lot of topics that may otherwise be difficult to understand or confusing for people. Of course, we should never take criticism too seriously. It's merely one person's opinion. If it helps us understand something, that's good, but it shouldn't be taken as the ultimate truth. It's just another interpretation.

If we think about it this way, we won't be so shocked with the idea of historical criticism of the Bible.

Post your comments

Historical criticism is a type of literary analysis.


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    The 1957 short history of literary criticism by W. K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks felt obliged to seek aesthetic, rather than distinctively literary, theory in the Middle Ages, and came away disappointed that 'no new theory of beauty, of fine art in general, or of poetry' is offered by St Thomas Aquinas or 'other theologians of the high ...

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