Published September, 2001
University Of Chicago Press
For almost twenty years, new historicism has been a highly controversial and influential force in literary and cultural studies. In Practicing the New Historicism, two of its most distinguished practitioners reflect on its surprisingly disparate sources and far-reaching effects. In lucid and jargon-free prose, Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt focus on five central aspects of new historicism: recurrent use of anecdotes, preoccupation with the nature of representations, fascination with the history of the body, sharp focus on neglected details, and skeptical analysis of ideology. Arguing that new historicism has always been more a passionately engaged practice of questioning and analysis than an abstract theory, Gallagher and Greenblatt demonstrate this practice in a series of characteristically dazzling readings of works ranging from paintings by Joos van Gent and Paolo Uccello to Hamlet and Great Expectations. By juxtaposing analyses of Renaissance and nineteenth-century topics, the authors uncover a number of unexpected contrasts and connections between the two periods. Are aspects of the dispute over the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist detectable in British political economists' hostility to the potato? How does Pip's isolation in Great Expectations shed light on Hamlet's doubt? Offering not only an insider's view of new historicism, but also a lively dialogue between a Renaissance scholar and a Victorianist, Practicing the New Historicism is an illuminating and unpredictable performance by two of America's most respected literary scholars.
A tour de force of new literary criticism.In their introduction, Gallagher (Nobody’s Story, not reviewed) and Greenblatt (Marvelous Possessions, 1991) express the hope that “you will not be able to say what it all adds up to; if you could, we would have failed.” Alas, they succeed, and it’s doubtful that a better demonstration of the anarchy and solipsism of literary criticism today can be found. They mean to demonstrate how their varied approaches to all sorts of “texts” grow out of the rediscovery by scholars like them of the relevance of historical and cultural context to the interpretation of just about everything. But they do so in ways that their predecessors—the Victorian scholars who used history as an interpretive tool before the New Critics began to avoid it—would scarcely comprehend. Moreover, with misplaced modesty, they refuse to claim that their interpretations are any better than others—which, of course, is an imposed interpretive principle of its own. This being said, Gallagher and Greenblatt’s virtuoso readings of paintings, potatoes (yes, spuds), religious ritual, and novels—all “texts”—as well as essays on criticism and the significance of anecdotes, are likely to take their place as model examples of the qualities of the new critical school that they lead. Ironically, because everything they write suffers from what might be called the fallacy of excessive significance (i.e., finding in texts what may not be there), they reveal themselves to be as adept at close reading as the New Critics they shun. Historians (who know something about historicism) will find their teeth set on edge by the way Gallagher and Greenblatt do history. But that’s part of the fun and fascination of the book.A zesty work for those already initiated into the incestuous world of contemporary literary criticism—and for those who might like to see what all the fuss is about. (12 illustrations) -- Copyright © 2000 Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.