New historicism is based on parallel readings of literary and non-literary texts of the same historical period. It emerged as a mode of literary criticism in North America in the late 1970s and 1980s with an early focus on Renaissance studies. It is less a theory and more a way of reading or textual practice according to the movement’s leading thinker, Stephen Greenblatt. Greenblatt famously outlined a new historicist mission to ‘speak with the dead’ in his work Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980). He and other critics like Louis Montrose, Jonathan Dollimore, Catherine Gallagher, and D. M. Miller looked for patterns of power and subversion evident within literature and interrelated historical texts. New historicists reacted against earlier theorists who isolated works of literature from their historical context for a pure concentration on the ‘words on the page’. New historicists argue that works of literature do not independently transcend their time, as the New Criticism claimed, but are instead always socially and politically implicated within their historical context. The movement therefore promoted a ‘return to history’ and shared a Marxist concern for the historical and ideological conditions that produce literature in relation to cultural mechanisms of social organization. New historicists suggest that all texts, including literature, are complicit in mediating historical, political, social and cultural anxieties whether these anxieties are explicitly discussed or not.
New historicists suggest that as history is always interpreted and written – in other words always textual and a form of narrative – it is not therefore a transparent process, but a practice bound up with the historian’s interpretative subjectivity. The historian’s own social and cultural context results in potential biases that new historicists argue will be reflected in writings that record history. Moreover, new historicists promote the idea that history is not closed or final, as traditional historians would claim, but is found in acts of interpretation that can negotiate new readings of the textual traces of the past.
New historicists give equal critical weight to analysing the ways in which literature and historical texts negotiate social and political power. The literary text is not prioritized in any new historicist essay. Critics might examine the life of the author and look at traditional historical sources like newspaper reports, letters or journal accounts or cast their net more widely to look at medical or penal records, advertisements or other more obscure documentary sources. Analysing this variety of texts alongside literature enables new historicists to find evidence of widespread power structures operating in society. They then identify potential patterns of subversion that expose networks of power operating across texts. A combined critical focus on literature and historical texts permits the identification of what Greenblatt terms ‘social energies’, which he suggests are encoded across different types of text. Practitioners of new historicism established a pattern for analysis that often begins by citing a single documentary anecdote. The anecdote might initially appear far removed from the concerns of the literary text in question, but by analysing connections across the diverse texts, critics are able to actively expose similar social concerns and power relations in evidence in both. New readings of history and literature allow critics to demonstrate the ways in which pervasive power structures operate in different types of text within a particular society at a particular time.
Power and Michel Foucault’s interest in the ways in which this operates in society has been the main theoretical influence on new historicism. The examination of diverse texts can uncover the extent to which power relations organize and promote accepted social thought and behaviours through discourse – language that signifies a conventional and authoritative way of thinking acceptable to society at a particular time. New historicists argue that dominant discourses organize society in ways that make any challenge to endorsed patterns of thinking appear deviant. Greenblatt suggests that even ideas of selfhood are formed as a result of the power-based relations that are embedded in social discourse. He calls this self-fashioning and explains that subjectivity becomes less an act of autonomous self-creation and more the shaping of self to comply with an authoritative social power. In new historicist terms, subjectivity itself becomes a type of performance, with identities produced or fashioned to conform to mechanisms of social discipline that serve dominant cultural needs.
New historicism is influenced by cultural anthropology. Critics practise literary analysis with a method of ‘thick description’, a term coined by Clifford Geertz in his book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). Geertz explains this practice with an example of two boys winking. In essence, he argues that the thinnest description of their behaviour – a factual account without any interpretation – will deem the boys’ action an involuntary twitch of the eye. On the other hand, a thick description will suggest that the wink is deliberate behaviour that could be sending a message or code understood by the two boys. New historicists would decode the message with closer examination and contextual analysis to produce a thick description that incorporates a commentary and interpretation of the act and its power relations.
New historicism is primarily concerned with the ways in which social power relations are embedded in language. Recognizing the textuality of history, critics agree that a range of texts, including literature, may generate subversive insights. However, they maintain that any potential for real subversion will be undercut and contained by the text itself. This significant principle of new historicist thinking emphasizes that ultimately there is no space in literature for effective resistance to authoritative social power. All texts will eventually contain and undermine their potential for subversion by submitting to and reinforcing the dominant social thinking of the day. Such customary pessimism for new historicist thinking has been the target of criticism, but practitioners nevertheless maintain that texts may point towards subversion, but they will surrender to the practice they expose. A new historicist approach to literary analysis will therefore illustrate the ways in which ideological practices always short-circuit any real challenge to prevailing power relations in society.