- Editor’s Note
Because this issue of American Literary History is our 100th, it seems appropriate to devote it to the general question of the status of history in our field. In fact, one of our contributors, Jennifer Fleissner, even challenges that the journal has not studied the term history in our title with the vigor with which we have explored American and literary. Since so much of the most incisive, venturesome work in American literary studies during ALH’s early years was done under the banner of New Historicism, it seemed inevitable that the journal would be identified with that movement’s conception of history, though that was never our intention.
So much seemed up for grabs in 1989 that it was a little like the present insofar as entry-level as well as newly established scholars were all looking for paradigms with which to align themselves. There followed a dizzying decade or so of vibrant historicist critique. Now, 25 years later, along with the exciting subjects and approaches that have emerged in the intervening years, we find ourselves debating some less felicitous consequences of New Historicism’s dominion: the areas it illuminated less successfully, the critical urgencies it could not by itself address. In a sense, the present critical moment is the hour of propounding new premises and negotiating new positions. Where scholars now go, however, can never again be a criticism bereft of history. Just as the New Criticism provided us with a value for close reading, if only that we might ultimately disparage claims of textual autonomy, so too are we now ineluctably historical in the way that once the rhetorical analysis of language was internalized as critical reading, it could never be undone, even if it could be subverted or upended.
That’s not to say that nothing will ever change again, only that new methodologies will sooner or later be tested historically, their foundations historicized, historical implications textualized, and that, I think, is salutary. There are so many intriguing, invigorating new possibilities: posthumanism, affect theory, new aestheticism, surface, and distant reading, to name but a few of the very propitious critical approaches whose rise are already under way. Their burgeoning [End Page 695] suggests Americanists’ yearning for new critical epistemologies, and perhaps one will ultimately consolidate interest. Perhaps one or another will thrive as a pedagogy, in the way New Criticism did so brilliantly and in the way New Historicism also succeeded at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
The felt need for a replacement might suggest something else about the current state of historicism: an exhaustion with history, similar perhaps to the fatigue with explication that made the graduate classrooms of the late 1960s and early 1970s so poised to be enlivened by the “Structuralist controversy” and identity politics. For our time, we can wonder whether the critique born of historical consciousness has come to seem insufficient to meet the present burdens facing academic study. Always historicizing no longer seems so compelling a rationale.
Inevitably, scholars are asked and also ask themselves: why do literary history now? Although I can imagine many people replying that we shouldn’t, that the time for history is past, as nostalgic a pastime as studying literature itself, the question might be framed otherwise: what’s taken so long? Why has no other methodology yet arisen to convert so many to a new valuation of literature, as New Historicism, in the 1980s, transformed a generation of postformalists into students of history?
Behind these questions is the anxiety over whether and how we can create new historical paradigms. For there is still a great deal of literary history yet to be written. I can think of a dozen projects in virtually every era, especially our own, where we still don’t know nearly enough. So much of our literary-history writing still struggles with monumental publishing events or the careers of especially resonant writers, a roster that has changed decisively in some respects over the last quarter century yet remains very much recognizable. Maybe books and articles about the brain, memory, emotions, indigeneity, relics, foodways, and the idea of a commons, among many others, do not administer...