The Canon—Close Encounters: The Value of the Practice of New Historicism

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).

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