MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 62.3 (2001) 285-290
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Practicing New Historicism
Practicing New Historicism. By Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 234 pp.
Faced with the task of interpreting an "ochre-written flint," one of Robert Frost's narrators starts worrying:
The meaning of it is unknown,
Or else I fear entirely mine,
All modern, nothing ancient in't,
Unsatisfying to us each. 1
This worry--that our understanding applies to ourselves alone, not to what we putatively study--is endemic to any sort of historical excavation, old or new. So when Stephen Greenblatt proposed a new approach to the problem of access, "I began with a desire to speak with the dead," the living pricked up their ears. 2 In the years since, New Historicists have undertaken, in various intriguing new ways, not only to assay the representational techniques of writers past but also to reach after some deeper certainty about the world they inhabited. No two New Historicist solutions advanced by such scholars as Frances Ferguson, Steven Knapp, Thomas Laqueur, Walter Benn Michaels, and Michael Rogin (to choose only from the original Representations editorial board) have been identical, but all share a commitment to critiquing positivism and empiricism and to making literary close reading into a tool for broader cultural analysis.
Practicing New Historicism, a fascinating work, lays out a thought-provoking argument both for the novelty and for the abiding relevance of New Historicism. [End Page 285] The book is manifestly composed by two very different hands: two eighteenth- and nineteenth-century chapters and a theoretical one are by Gallagher; two Renaissance chapters and another theoretical one are by Greenblatt; the authors then "transform[ed] the first-person singular into the first-person plural" (18) throughout. However, those reading a New Historicist work for the first time will find the central claims, debates, and methodology lucidly expostulated in the introduction and two theoretical chapters ("The Touch of the Real" and "Counterhistory and the Anecdote"). Those already impressed by Gallagher and Greenblatt will find plenty of reasons to continue to admire and learn from them. Those who have quarrels with the methods of New Historicism--especially its willingness to make close readings of tiny cultural moments broaden out into wide-ranging claims about an epoch's thoughts and even its emotional register-- are unlikely to be converted, but they too will find some strong new arguments here.
In the book's exposition of New Historicism's core practices, intriguing tensions emerge. First, Gallagher and Greenblatt deny--predictably, but more explicitly and strenuously than might have been expected--that what they do constitutes a theoretical program. Citing their "commitment to particularity," they aspire to "route their theoretical and methodological generalizations through dense networks of particulars" and claim that "writing this book has convinced us that new historicism is not a repeatable methodology or a literary critical program" (19). Because they do not want "to see the long chains of close analysis go up in a puff of abstraction," they express the hope that "you will not be able to say what it all adds up to; if you could, we would have failed" (19).
That conditional contrary to fact is witty, but it is not just the reviewer's perennial desire to find a generalizable claim that makes me leery of that refusal to add up. There is a contradiction here: the most resolutely particularized piece of close reading enacts a methodology. Subtract abstraction and everything goes up in a puff. What can the "touch of the real" that Gallagher and Greenblatt call for be, if that real is not made comprehensible by the methodology they propose?
There is, especially in "The Touch of the Real," a meditation on the aftereffects of Erich Auerbach's seminal Mimesis, a lingering trace of the desire Frost warns against--that the real as-it-was may make itself manifest to the scholar: "We wanted to find in the past real bodies and living voices, and if we knew that we could not find these--the bodies having long...