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Historical Criticism vs. New Historical Criticism vs.

death of the author

• Historical Criticism
Historical criticism strives to examine literary works within their historical context.
In analyzing a text, historicists consider cultural, political and social forces that influenced
and are revealed through the text.

Text in Context
- Historicists stress that literary works are produced by, reflect, and in some cases,
alter the social, political, and cultural forces that were operative during the time the
works were written.
Mark Twain was a writer who both reflected the prejudices of his time through the
dialogue of the characters, and challenged the attitude of an 1800’s America that in
many ways accepted (or even promoted) racist attitudes. Historicist attempt to
understand a work like Huck Finn in the context of late 1800’s America.

Ongoing Influence
Historicists also consider the impact a work has had on readers in eras after the
one in which it was written to see how the perceived meaning evolved over time. For
example, Huck Finn continues to be re-evaluated each subsequent generation.

New Historicism
Like Historical Criticism, New Historicism also considers history when studying
texts. However, unlike Historicists, New Historicists believe that a work both refers to
and is referred to by things outside of itself. They are less inclined to believe that a
literary text has a single, identifiable historical context.

A New Historicist would recognize that Huck Finn was written during a time when
attitudes about race were quite different than current attitudes. However, they would also
point out that there were plenty of people who also were working to change attitudes
about race in America. Twain would have been aware of the broader context in America,
not just the attitudes of people from one area.

New Historicists and Truth

New Historicists also question whether the truth about what really happened in the
past can ever be purely and objectively known.
They considered more than literary texts to understand the historical context – they
focused on “real” historical documents such as financial records and catalogs. (In other
words, Primary Sources rather than Secondary Sources)
New Historicists and Truth
Consider, for example, how difficult it would be to present the “truth” about the war
in Iraq. Currently, it is impossible to get a single unified perspective on this current event.
This is a problem that this critical school is interested in.

Death of the author

Questions a Historicist or New Historicist Might Ask

1. What actual historical events did a writer refer to, and how was the event altered
in the fictional account?
2. When was, the work published and what was the public’s response at the time?
3. What social attitudes related to the action in the work were prevalent during the
time it was written?
4. What other types of historical documents, cultural artifacts, or social institutions
might be analyzed in conjunction with the literary work?
5. To what extent can we study the past as it is reflected in the literary work?