Identifying with Historicism

It was mentioned by Dr. Beth in class, weeks ago, that forms of literary analysis and criticism have flexibility; a person may be able to utilize many criticisms in her attempt to analyze and interpret a literary work. Some texts may be better interpreted through the lens of one critical perspective as opposed to another, and close-readers have the opportunity to pick and choose aspects of each form of criticism to suit their own perspectives. However, Dr. Beth also mentioned that there may be some perspectives in which a reader can find herself especially invested, of which she can, for the most part, identify with. Dr. Beth described this as a type of “Aha!” moment, when the critical thinker feels as if she can cry out, “Where have you been all my life?” The approach of historicism produced, for me, this moment.

The use of historicism in critical analysis, as defined, by Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, “examine[s] the relationship between a literary work and its historical milieu” (226). That is, when close reading a text and engaging historicism, a reader must keep in mind the historical context in which the piece was produced as well as that context’s influence on it. This type of reading suggests that, “the cultural and social factors… are revealed through the text” (Murfin and Ray 226).

As a personal lover of both the subjects of English and history, this is precisely the method in which I would always begin my assessment of a literary work. At the very beginning of this course, on that first day, my fellow students and I were given a small excerpt of what appeared to be a poem with no context accompanying it. Dr. Beth instructed us to return on the following class day with questions we may have liked to know the answers to in order to most thoroughly analyze the excerpt. The first question that came to mind was, “When was this written?” In my line of reasoning, I felt as though if I had known, at the very least, a date in which that excerpt had been written, I felt as if the floodgates to interpretation would have burst open for me. Naturally there are many other methods of literary analysis, but I have always held the belief that the historicist approach is the underlying foundation – the starting point – of and for this analysis, even before I knew that it had a name.

A blog post that I had published a few weeks ago was focused on Alice Walker’s tip-of-the-hat to Karl Marx and the essentiality of engaging the critical form of Marxism to Meridian. I read about this form in my perusal of Joe Moran’s Interdisciplinarity, and added it to the, then-unknown, archive of my own critical identification. Moran describes Marxism as defending the argument that, “historical processes shape the production of art, culture, and ideas” (112). This seemed instinctive to me, as if it needed no defense. However, I could defend it in my blog, by noting that both Meridian and Cane were clearly texts that required study parallel with the historical environments in which they were produced. It was only when I would skim through the Bedford and find myself reading and rereading the definition of “historicism” that I was able to have my “Aha!” Marxism acting as an extension of this method is what helped lead me most directly to it.

Most significantly, I came to the conclusion that the historicist perspective may very well be one of the only appropriate methods of criticism for this class in particular. Our study of exclusively African American literature demands historicism in its analysis, as so much inspiration for such literature comes from the struggles of that community in American history. While New Criticism, a method formulated by American southern white men, preaches that a work is autonomous of the environment in which it was produced, the historical context behind this development curiously puts it up in arms with the movement occurring in African American literature. As discussed in the web handout provided by Dr. Beth, called “New Critical Formalism,” it was revealed that these men utilized this form of analysis as an, “antidote to the political and social trends they saw around them…”

Jean Toomer penned Cane in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, which was the explosion of African American culture in the North. Alice Walker’s Meridian took place during the Civil Rights Movement and was written shortly after. Zulus was written in the late 20th century, but by a man who absorbed the African American world around him with profound astuteness and created art from it. There is no escaping the influence of a text’s historical environment on it, for I believe that it can even occur without the author’s intent. For, what are we but the products of our environments?

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