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The Limits of Literary Historicism

Allen Dunn

Publication Year: 2012

          The Limits of Literary Historicism is a collection of essays arguing that historicism, which has come to dominate the professional study of literature in recent decades, has become ossified. By drawing attention to the limits of historicism—its blind spots, overreach, and reluctance to acknowledge its commitments—this provocative new book seeks a clearer understanding of what historicism can and cannot teach us about literary narrative.
            Editors Allen Dunn and Thomas F. Haddox have gathered contributions from leading scholars that challenge the dominance of contemporary historicism. These pieces critique historicism as it is generally practiced, propose alternative historicist models that transcend mere formula, and suggest alternatives to historicism altogether. The volume begins with the editors’ extended introduction, “The Enigma of Critical Distance; or, Why Historicists Need Convictions,” and then is divided into three sections: “The Limits of Historicism,” “Engagements with History,” and “Alternatives to History.”
            Defying convention, The Limits of Literary Historicism shakes up established modes to move beyond the claustrophobic analyses of contemporary historicism and to ask larger questions that envision more fulfilling and more responsible possibilities in the practice of literary scholarship.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-viii

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pp. ix-x

To begin at the beginning, we would like to thank the members of the Critical Theory Reading Group at the University of Tennessee for their insight, enthusiasm, intellectual integrity, and fellowship. This volume was conceived amidst the Group’s vigorous exchange of ideas and conspicuously bears the influence of its discussions. ...

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Introduction: The Enigma of Critical Distance; or, Why Historicists Need Convictions

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pp. xi-xxvi

At the conclusion of Reading 1922, his analysis of the high tide of international Modernism, Michael North suggests that the twentieth century in both its modernist and postmodernist phases is characterized by a “recognition of irreducible diversity,” a recognition, that is, of the variation and the relativity of human cultures and values. ...

Part 1: The Limits of Historicism

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The Historicization of Literary Studies

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pp. 3-8

A few years ago I, along with a few colleagues from my department, went to dinner with a candidate for a junior position in eighteenth-century British literature. In the course of the conversation, the job candidate declared that it was impossible to get published without archival work. ...

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The Children of New Historicism: Literary Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Will to Publish

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pp. 9-28

We—members of the current generation of graduate students—can without any distortion of fact be labeled children of New Historicism. Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning was first published in 1980, four years before either of us were born. Granted, we may be some of the younger academics out there, ...

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Faithful Historicism and Philosophical Semi-Retirement

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pp. 29-54

Many scholars today feel that historicist literary criticism has gone into philosophical semi-retirement. Some decry the fact that unlike “old historicism” that often focused on political history or the history of ideas in order to provide a context for literary reading, second- and third-generation “new” historicism tends to be sweeping in its claims, ...

Part 2: Engagements with History

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Fiction as History: Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition as Source Material

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pp. 57-76

The muse of history was one of a sisterhood of artistic inspirations, whose mission it was to lead mortals toward beauty and truth. Second in the birthing order, she was younger only to the chief muse, Calliope, who guided poets in the writing of the epics of ancient Greece. ...

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Bayard Taylor and the Limits of Orientalism

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pp. 77-104

Let me begin not with a poem but a picture, and a brightly colored one, too. It swiftly transports us to a scene somewhere in the Middle East. We see a bearded man with a turban relaxing in a roof garden. The stone floor is cracked, an indication of how old the house is. ...

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The Prehistory of Posthistoricism

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pp. 105-124

“What is the relationship of present audiences to past works?” According to Brook Thomas, this is the fundamental question with which “any serious historicist criticism” must struggle (206).1 On the face of it, this question likely seems uncontroversial—and, in fact, it is in one sense the very question this essay addresses. ...

Part 3: Alternatives to History

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Modernism and the Aesthetics of Cultural Studies

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pp. 127-144

In his introduction to the 2005 volume The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies, Michael Bérubé professes “incredulity” at a 1998 quote by Marjorie Perloff in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which she pits aesthetics and cultural studies against each other (2–3). ...

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Why Modernist Claims for Autonomy Matter

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pp. 145-170

I think there are four aspects necessary to address fully if one is going to give a historical account of Modernism honoring the intentions of the artists and writers. One need not end with this account—all sorts of criticisms and contextualizing are possible. ...

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pp. 171-174

Charles M. Altieri teaches in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent books are The Particulars of Rapture (2002) and The Art of Modernist American Poetry (2005). ...


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pp. 175-180

E-ISBN-13: 9781572338319
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572338203

Publication Year: 2012