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About this book

New historicism and cultural materialism emerged in the early 1980s as prominent literary theories and came to represent a revival of interest in history and in historicising literature. Their proponents rejected both formalist criticism and earlier attempts to read literature in its historical context and defined new ways of thinking about literature in relation to history. This study explains the development of these theories and demonstrates both their uses and weaknesses as critical practices. The potential future direction for the theories is explored and the controversial debates about their validity in literary studies are discussed.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Literature in History

Introduction: Literature in History

The chief aim of this volume is to introduce students and the general reader to two theoretical ‘movements’ which have become prominent and influential practices in all aspects of the discipline of literary studies. Because both theories are very much active, and still contested, even controversial, it is important that this book does not present them as a body of knowledge to be applied to a text, any text, as a formal exercise. It is an important realisation of both new historicism and cultural materialism that its practitioners and its writings are subject to specific historical conditions, and became prominent in specific circumstances at specific times. We might ask, for example, why both emerged in the early 1980s, why both seemed to have come to prominence in Renaissance studies, why both have had large areas and genres of literature to which they have never been ‘applied’ in critical readings. There are particular types of literary texts in which reading these theories encounters great difficulties. There have also been significant changes in the types of readings produced and the directions in which these theories have been pushed by recent writings that might lead us to question whether or not they are coherent theories any more, if indeed they ever were. It is always worth examining, when one learns of a ‘movement’ or genre, if the body of texts and practitioners included in the category really have enough in common to warrant such a grouping; given the differences of approach and style of many new historicist and cultural materialist critics, the status of both theories as coherent groupings will be questioned in this volume.

John Brannigan

The Turn to History


1. Key Contexts and Theorists

Before embarking on an explanation and exploration of the issues, debates and the evolution and development of new historicism and cultural materialism, we need to set these theories in the context of wider and older debates taking place in the academy and in intellectual discourse. For the most part both new historicism and cultural materialism share common influences, although to different extents. Marxism is much more apparent as an influence in cultural materialism than it is in new historicism, whereas the influence of anthropology is more discernible in new historicism than in cultural materialism. In this chapter of the book I will examine the various factors and figures influencing new historicists and cultural materialists, but, because these influences differ in degrees between both theories, my immediate point of departure is the relationship between new historicism and cultural materialism.

John Brannigan

2. New Historicism: Representations of History and Power

Most critics and anthologists of the new historicism cite the year 1980 as the beginning of new historicism as a theory and critical practice. There is good evidence to support this — namely the publication of Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning, and of Louis Montrose’s essay ‘Eliza, Queene of Shepheardes’, both of which are seminal works in the elaboration of new historicist methods of analysis.1 Both works seem to announce the chief characteristics of new historicism as it would develop and grow in the years following 1980. Where Greenblatt writes in his introduction to Renaissance Self-Fashioning, ‘the written word is self-consciously embedded in specific communities, life situations, structures of power’ (Greenblatt 1980, 7), Montrose demonstrates this point in his examination of the role of the pastoral literary form in mediating power relations, and argues ‘that the symbolic mediation of social relationships was a central function of Elizabethan pastoral forms, and that social relationships are, intrinsically, relations of power’ (Montrose in Veeser 1994, 88). Both see literature as inseparable from other forms of representation, and that modes of power function ‘without regard for a sharp distinction between literature and social life’ (Greenblatt 1980, 3). Both critics cite anthropologists as prevalent influences on their work — Greenblatt citing Clifford Geertz and Montrose citing Abner Cohen — and follow the argument that culture fashions the subjectivity of human beings. Greenblatt’s project is a broad analysis of instances and modes of self-fashioning, not just individuals fashioning themselves but of how Renaissance culture fashioned itself.

John Brannigan

3. Cultural Poetics: After the New Historicism?

In 1988 Greenblatt published Shakespearean Negotiations, and in the first chapter declared that his work was ‘a poetics of culture’ (Greenblatt 1988, 5). This was followed with an essay in Veeser’s collection, The New Historicism (1989), which Greenblatt entitled ‘Towards a Poetics of Culture’. In 1990, in Learning to Curse, Greenblatt referred to the essays collected in that book as ‘Renaissance cultural poetics’ (Greenblatt 1990, 1). It seems, then, that in the late 1980s Greenblatt began to prefer the term ‘cultural poetics’ to describe his work rather than ‘new historicism’. Veeser indeed shares this view that Greenblatt began to prefer ‘cultural poetics’ (Veeser 1989, ix), as does Louis Montrose in Veeser’s collection (Veeser 1989, 17). Montrose endorses Greenblatt’s definition of ‘cultural poetics’ given in Shakespearean Negotiations as the ‘study of the collective making of distinct cultural practices and inquiry into the relations among these practices’ (Greenblatt 1988, 5). We will return to Greenblatt’s definitions of the concerns of cultural poetics later. In this chapter I have two main aims. The first is to analyse the critical practice of Greenblatt, Montrose, Tennenhouse and others (in short, those critics who had been associated with new historicism) from 1988 onwards.

John Brannigan

4. Cultural Materialism: Literature and Dissident Politics

On a very basic level, cultural materialism has been equated with new historicism because both practices interpret literary texts as historical and cultural artefacts. Cultural materialism, as Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield described it in Political Shakespeare in 1985, ‘studies the implication of literary texts in history’ (Dollimore and Sinfield 1985, viii), and it is therefore an historical or historicist approach to literature. As I argued in Chapter 1, cultural materialism owes much to British Marxism, particularly to the Welsh critic Raymond Williams, but it is also related to the ‘Sociology of Literature’ conferences held at Essex University from 1976 to 1984, and to the journal Literature andHistory, founded in 1975, and edited at Thames Polytechnic from 1975 to 1988. Both the Essex conferences and Literature and History were significant developments in formulating and fashioning new historical approaches to literature in Britain, and made way for cultural materialism primarily by emphasising the importance of history as a shaping force of literary texts, and the importance of literary texts in shaping history. The Essex conferences historicised the discipline of English literature, and questioned its various self-images, its theoretical commonplaces and its disciplinary boundaries, whereas Literatureand History extended Williams’s historical and materialist approaches to culture, ‘popular’ as well as ‘high’ culture.

John Brannigan

5. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism Today

New historicism and cultural materialism are engaged in the process of renewing our images of the past, of revisiting the past. They carry out this work to different ends: new historicism aims to show that each era or period has its own conceptual and ideological frameworks, that people of the past did not understand concepts like ‘the individual’, ‘God’, ‘reality’ or ‘gender’ in the same way that we do now; cultural materialism aims to show that our political and ideological systems manipulate images and texts of the past to serve their own interests, and that these images and texts can be interpreted from alternative and radically different perspectives, often constructed by placing those images or texts in their historical contexts. I want to argue in this chapter that both new historicism and cultural materialism are concerned from the beginning with the concept of ‘difference’, both historical and cultural difference, and that this concept becomes important in explaining how both critical practices have changed in recent years. In the 1980s both were interested in stressing the extent to which the past differs from contemporary uses of the past, the extent to which the past is alien or ‘other’ to our own modern epistemé, and, borrowing from Foucault and Geertz, new historicists and cultural materialists were at the same time aware of the structural similarities between this historical difference and the cultural differences being emphasised by postcolonial critics, feminists, gay theorists and race theorists.

John Brannigan

Applications and Readings


6. ‘On the Edge of a Black and Incomprehensible Frenzy’: A New Historicist Reading of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

One of the methods of beginning a new historicist analysis, preferred by Stephen Greenblatt, is to recount an anecdote which contains a microcosmic image of the power relations which the critic seeks to elaborate in relation to the main texts of discussion. The anecdote has acquired a special place in new historicist analysis because it enables the critic to ‘discover’ in minute pieces of text the larger structures and operations of power, and to show how power extends its operations from minute anecdotes to the more complex and intricate texts and material practices embedded in a particular society or culture.1 The anecdote chosen usually belongs to a genre of documents or practices more firmly grounded in the actual or historical — travel narratives, penal documents, historical testimonies, confessional narratives, etc. — than the fictional or dramatic texts which the critic will proceed to analyse. They serve to base the critical interpretations of literary texts, which will follow later in new historicist analyses, in the discourse of truth. In other words, they serve to remind us that there is more at stake in discussions of Shakespeare or Dickens than the reputation of a writer. New historicists are intimating, in using these historical anecdotes, that history is only that which is written, and that what is at stake in the interpretations of literary texts, in circulation with documents and texts of all kinds, is the nature of history and power.

John Brannigan

7. Producing the Subject: A New Historicist Reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-paper’

In the work of Stephen Greenblatt, Foucault occupies a curiously marginal position. In

Renaissance Self-Fashioning

Foucault is consigned almost wholly to footnotes. In

Shakespearean Negotiations

he is mentioned three times, two of which are references. In


to Curse

he warrants two mentions, both of which tell merely of his visits to Berkeley in the late 1970s. In

Marvelous Possessions

he has disappeared from view altogether. Yet, in other ways, Foucault is everywhere in Greenblatt’s work: the analysis of discourse, the role of discourse in determining subject positions, the relationship between power, knowledge and subversion, the wide dispersion of texts which confirm the existence of powerful discursive formations, the fascination with ‘marginal’ figures and situations — the insane, the heretic, the criminal, the colonial native. Foucault is pervasive as an influence on the work of new historicists, but his influence takes different forms. D. A. Miller, in

The Novel and the Police

, saw his work as an extension and application of Foucault’s writings, rather than the result of Foucault’s influence. In the first footnote of

The Novel and

the Police

, Miller explains:

[I]n announcing my project as ‘a Foucauldian reading of the Novel’, I mean to signal, besides an intellectual debt, an intellectual gamble for which that debt is the capital. For perhaps the most notable reticence in Foucault’s work concerns precisely the reading of literary texts and institutions, which, though often and suggestively cited in passing, are never given a role to play within the disciplinary processes under consideration. (Miller 1988, viii n.1)

John Brannigan

8. Cultural Materialism and Reading Dissidence in(to) the Poetry of Alfred Tennyson

This chapter is concerned not just with reading dissidence in Tennyson, as the title professes, or with cultural materialists reading dissidence in Tennyson, but more broadly with the status of the text in the process of reading, or what I will call, after Derrida, the process of ‘translation’. The concern is therefore how a text is interpreted within a theoretical or critical framework such as cultural materialism. In particular I want to focus on the act of translation or communication between theory and text, and the responsiveness and resistance of each to this process. In this case it is the political readings of cultural materialism which feature in the communication with Tennyson’s poetry, which in itself is an interesting juxtaposition of a critical theory engaged with reactionary discourses in contemporary politics and a writer held to be, in Joanna Richardson’s terms, the ‘pre-eminent Victorian’ (Richardson 1962). Cultural materialism’s interest in how writers from the past come to function within contemporary discourses as legitimating agents of the values and power strategies of the dominant culture finds an interesting and fit subject in Alfred Tennyson, whose writings become the ground of contest between the dominant culture and ‘dissident critics’. The strategy which critics such as Alan Sinfield, Jonathan Dollimore and Catherine Belsey tend to adopt is one of revealing how certain texts can be seen to expose the operations and masking of power of the dominant culture, or conform to its values and structures.

John Brannigan

9. ‘I Write It Out in a Verse’: Power, History and Colonialism in W. B. Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’

Neither new historicism nor cultural materialism have yet dealt with decolonisation from the perspective of the colonised. The problem for both critical practices is that decolonisation presents an epistemological dilemma, insofar as it usually entails a successful process of resistance to power. It may ultimately succeed only in replicating structures of power after independence, but initially decolonisation is a process of activating and articulating dissent and subversion. Edward Said sees Yeats as a poet involved in this process of bringing about the downfall of imperial domination in Ireland, and Said implies that poetry can have a crucial role in the business of politics. Yeats is not alone in delineating the ‘contours of an “imagined” or ideal Community’ (Said 1990, 86). His poetry is in circulation with other cultural representations, political documents and speeches, or social and political acts. Said’s view of Yeats is just one example of a number of interpretations which have brought a historical perspective to the study of Yeats’s poetry, and in this chapter I will demonstrate how we might read Yeats’s poetry from the vantage-point of a form of historical reading which does not replicate the faults of new historicist and cultural materialist practices.

John Brannigan



10. After History: Textuality and Historicity in the New Historicism

When Stephen Greenblatt announced the arrival of the new historicism in 1982, he defined it as a practice which was ‘set apart from both the dominant historical scholarship of the past and the formalist criticism that partially displaced this scholarship in the decades after World War Two’ (Greenblatt 1982, 5). New historicism represented (itself as) a significant shift away from the kind of literary studies wherein the literary text was conceived to be an ahistorical linguistic structure, or the literary text was measured against a crude historical background. Along with some Marxist and feminist critics, and cultural materialism in Britain, the new historicism came to be known as the turn to history in literary studies. In his presidential address to the Modern Language Association in 1986, Hillis Miller claimed that the turn to history was dominating literary studies:

As everybody knows, literary study in the past few years has undergone a sudden, almost universal turn away from theory in the sense of an orientation toward language as such and has made a corresponding turn toward history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender conditions, the social context, the material base in the sense of institutionalization, conditions of production, technology, distribution, and consumption of ‘cultural products’, among other products. This trend is so obvious everywhere as hardly to need description. How many symposia, conferences, scholarly convention sessions, courses, books and new journals recently have had the word

history, politics, society



in their titles? (Miller 1991, 313)

John Brannigan

11. The Importance of Not Concluding

Literature regularly invites us to believe in it as a narrative or representation of the past. It needs our belief, or at the very least, the suspension of our disbelief, in order to tell its stories of history, community, the individual, and everything else. When R. G. Collingwood wrote of the similarities between literature and history in his book, The Idea of History, the only difference he could find between them was that history was intended to be true (Collingwood 1961, 246). As literary criticism and theories have for several decades now eroded the stability of authorial intention as a guide to the meaning or interpretation of texts, and the notion of truth has always been unstable for philosophers, the differences between literature and history now seem to many literary critics and some historians to be less clear than ever. A major part of the effort to erode further the distinctions between literary and historical writings has been undertaken by new historicism and cultural materialism, and the degree of their success is perhaps easily measured by the prominence of historical issues and contexts now raised in the course of studying and writing about literature.

John Brannigan
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