The more I find myself immersed in literary study, the more I am at risk of taking for granted why I do it. I study literature because it is my passion and because I want to make it my profession. Therefore, to reflect on the value of linking literary study to a study of history, the linking that has become a common practice in the course of my studies, I asked for the opinion of others. The “others” happened to be my 13-year-old son and his best friend. I asked them: if you have read the book, why would you be persuaded to learn about the author’s life and about the historical moment in which she created her work? It translated to the boys as: why bother to do all this extra reading? They were happy to help and their answers, short and sweet, gave me a lot to think on. To the insightful middle-school student, the main value of approaching literature with history in mind is to discover the many layers of meaning and to relate to the author, or, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it in his essay “The Circulation of Social Energy,” to answer to “the desire to speak with the dead” (1).
Why study history permeating—encircling, infusing, and constituting—the creation of a literary text? And what is history for that matter? The word history has “story” at the root, and therefore history is a collection of stories of past events, of social movements, politics, inventions, deeds, deaths, and conflicts. And all these are connected and moved by power relations, by customs and culture, which have a profound effect on shaping people’s minds and lives. So why learn all this? Perhaps because we are as much the makers as the products of our time and place. We—meaning the readers. We—meaning the writers. Greenblatt points out that an “originary moment” of creation, the one point when the author receives inspiration to create something new and set apart from outside influence, does not exist (7). There is nothing purely new in the world—everything is already there, waiting for a new spin—we are in the midst of an endless and manifold chain reaction. Therefore, studying history is like examining the great pile of puzzle pieces, objects, places, names, theories, motivations, etc., from which the authors and the readers of a particular period would have pulled to create their unique experience. Is it possible to examine all these puzzle pieces? Perhaps not all, but knowing that they inform in some way the author’s experience makes scholars and readers curious. How many layers of meaning are there, encoded in the language of the text? What is not there, and why? Studying history makes the reader aware of the many shades of meaning contained in a text.
Why study literature with the historical moment in mind? I think that the knowledge gained by the study of history is like a key or a map, or some other tool to understanding the language of the text. Words are containers of concepts, small but powerful carriers of meaning, charged with the energy of the moment of creation as much as of all the moments prior. As Greenblatt observes, these words have a potential of releasing, transporting, and picking up more energy through interaction with audiences; he calls it “social energy” and he explains that New Historicist practice aims to follow the movement of social energy which he calls “negotiations” or “exchanges” (7). Not only does the text contain the voice of the author, but also the echo of the voices he came in contact with and it collects, in turn, the voices of those who came in contact with the text itself. Therefore, in reading literature through a New Historicist lens, I can connect with the voice of the author and his or her contemporaries, as well as my contemporaries, and those in between—and this is as close to speaking with the dead as I can imagine.
How does this approach work in practice? Any encounter with literature starts with examining its bones, by which I mean the structure of the text, because a writer composes the words in patterns that serve his meaning. Let’s take Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1832 poem “The Lady of Shalott” as an example. The Lady of Shalott “hath no loyal knight” and is double-cursed; on the one hand she leads a lonely life, weaving tapestries of images of the outside world that she sees in the mirror, on the other hand, if she ventures outside her castle, she will die. Just by reading the text, I get the sense of physical entrapment and, as the story progresses and the Lady hears the sweet voice of Sir Lancelot, I add to it the longing to see more than the reflection of things.
New Historicist approach expands the pleasure of my reading because it addresses the next layers of meaning in the text. As I learn about the 1830s, I discover the ideology of separate spheres, which assigns women to domestic duties. This limits their mobility and interaction with the world; men are the ones who venture out and connect women with the public sphere. Since the Lady of Shalott “hath no loyal knight,” she has no right to look beyond the window. The mirror is there to protect her from the seduction of the world. The castle and the domestic sphere are tightly connected, separated from the male sphere, of which Lancelot is a symbol. According to this ideology, reputation is the only thing that matters, and once it is ruined, even by the smallest trespass of conventions, the woman cannot repair it, hence the broken mirror and the curse. The poem expands in its parallelisms to the culture of the Victorian era and rhetorical commentary on its flaws. It expands further when I consider the medieval and gothic elements; further still when I survey the many meanings of the objects, like the mirror, or the tapestry, or the thread. A world of influences opens up almost without limits.
Greenblatt says that “literature professors are salaried, middle-class shamans” attempting to have a conversation with the dead (1). There is one undeniable value to this—it seems to me they are having a good time. I would not mind joining them.
— Kasia Wolny, Assistant Art & Design Editor; Copy Editor
Editor’s Note: Below is an essay written by Asst. Art & Design Editor Katarzyna Wolny, which concerns the purpose of studying history in conjunction with literature. Wolny originally wrote the piece for her Shakespeare course with Dr. Mardy Philippian.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, U of California P, 1988. 1-20
Lord Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature Vol. 2B, 4th Ed., edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Longman, 2010, pp.1181-85.