Historical theory and criticism embraces not only the theory and practice of literary historiographical representation but also other types of criticism that, often without acknowledgment, presuppose a historical ground or adopt historical methods in an ad hoc fashion. Very frequently, what is called literary criticism, particularly as it was institutionalized in the nineteenth century and even up to the late twentieth century, is based on historical principles.
Aristotle commented on the origins of tragedy, Quintilian reviewed the history of oratory, and bibliographies and collections of books studied together existed in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Yet a genuine literary or art history, finding continuity and change amid documents and data, was not possible until the growth of the historical sense in the Renaissance. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550), comprising over 150 biographies, towers above all Renaissance literary and art histories. It was no mere grouping of separate lives but an attempt to trace the progress of Italian art from Giotto to the age of Michelangelo, to establish the concept of a period (three of them for 1300-1550), and to distinguish one period from another. Despite Vasari’s example, the art history and literary history of the next two centuries were dominated by antiquarianism and chronologism.
The theory of modern historical criticism begins in the Enlightenment. Responding to the scientific revolution of the previous century, Giambattista Vico divided mathematics and physics from the humanities and what are now called the social sciences and stipulated by his verum factum principle that one can fully know only what one has made, namely, the products of language, civil institutions, and culture. In his New Science (1725) he argued that the closest knowledge of a thing lay in the study of its origins; outlined a concept of poetic logic by which one could grasp imaginatively the myths, customs, and fables of primitive cultures; and presented a theory of cultural development. Neither theology, philosophy, nor mathematics was the science of sciences: it was the “new science”—”history”—understood in Vichian terms. In his History of Ancient Art (1764) Johann Joachim Winckelmann studied “the origin, growth, change, and decline of classical art together with the different styles of various nations, times, and artists,” including Etruscan, Oriental, Greek, and Roman art. Though he surveyed “outward conditions,” he undermined his relativizing initiative in maintaining the neoclassical doctrine that Greek art is timeless and normative and in urging its imitation. Nevertheless, his definition of Greek art in terms of “noble simplicity and tranquil grandeur” distinguished the classical ideal from postclassical tendencies, thereby establishing one of the two polarities and prompting the need to define the other (quoted in Winckelmann, Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, 1987, xvii, 33).
In England, the Homeric studies of Thomas Blackwell (1735) and Robert Wood (1769) sought to link the epic poet to the character of the times. Blackwell enumerated “a concource of natural causes” that “conspired to produce and cultivate that mighty genius”: climate, geography, phase of cultural and linguistic development, Homer’s “being born poor, and living a stroling indigent Bard” (quoted in Mayo 50). In his pioneering History of English Poetry (1774-81) Thomas Warton explored the changing fortunes of various genres from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century in terms of primitive and sophisticated art. Samuel Johnson joined the narrative of a life, a critical analysis of the works, and a study of the poet’s mind and character in his Lives of the Poets (1779- 81), virtually creating the genre of literary biography. He also pondered writing a “History of Criticism . .. from Aristotle to the present age” (Walter Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson, 1977, 532).
Although Johann Gottfried von Herder was not willing to abandon artistic universality or German nationalism, he was too much of a historical relativist to take the art of any one society as normative. He criticized Winckelmann for valuing Greek over Egyptian art when he did not take into account their vast cultural and environmental differences. Herder showed his appreciation for these difficulties in his treatment of the Arab influence on Provençal poetry. His historical method posited two basic assumptions: “that the literary standards of one nation cannot apply directly to the work of another” and “that in the same nation standards must vary from period to period” (Miller 7). In his Ideas on the Philosophy of History (1784-91) he drew analogies from organic nature and pressed for the investigation of physical, social, and moral contexts to depict the progressive development of national character. In his view, literature (Volkspoesie) is the product of an entire people striving to express itself, and though he himself believed that each nation contributed to the overarching ideal of universal art, his writings were subsequently appropriated to support national literary history. In response to Winckelmann, he located the beginnings of the modern artistic spirit in the Middle Ages and considered the Roman (a mixed genre of broad, variegated content, including philosophy) to be the quintessentially modern genre.
Both the theory and the practice of literary history expanded in the wake of the French Revolution and German idealist philosophy. G. W. F. Hegel defined Geist as the collective energies of mind and feeling that produce the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, and he conceived of the history of art in three movements illustrating the dialectical progression of Geist: oriental, in which matter over which the idea and its embodiment are in perfect equilibrium; and Romantic or modern, in which the idea, freed from subjugation, cannot be adequately expressed in material form. August von Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1809-11) developed Herder’s notion of the two categories of Western art, classical and postclassical (conditioned by Christianity and mainly “northern”) for which the word “Romantic” became the preferred term. His goal was to trace “the origin and spirit of the romantic in the history of art.” In his formulation, the classic represents formal unity, natural harmony, objectivity, distinctness, the finite, and “enjoyment”; the Romantic signifies incompleteness, subjectivity, “internal discord,” indistinctness, infinity, and “desire,” idealism and melancholy being the chief characteristics of Romantic poetry (25-27). The Romantic outlook on historical writing stressed the organic nature of change, process rather than mere product. Germaine de Staël adopted the distinction between classic and Romantic in her influential De L’Allemagne (1810, On Germany).
Friedrich von Schlegel set these historical categories on firmer theoretical ground. His sociologically oriented Lectures on the History of Literature (1815) examine not only European languages but also Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit, thereby extending the range of comparative literary studies. Yet he advised against comparing poems of different ages and countries, preferring that they be compared with other works produced in their own time and country. He called for the study of the “national recollections” of a whole people, which are most fully revealed in literature, broadly defined and including poetry, fiction, philosophy, history, “eloquence and wit.” Literature contains “the epitome of all intellectual capabilities and progressive improvements of mankind.” For Schlegel, the modern spirit in literature reveals itself best in the novel combining the poetic and the prosaic; philosophy, criticism, and inspiration; and irony. Beyond the histories of individual nations, he applied his organicist principle to the effect that literature is “a great, completely coherent and evenly organized whole, comprehending in its unity many worlds of art and itself forming a peculiar work of art” (7-10). This is the Romantic ideal of totality, as in Hegel’s formulation that the true is the whole, and Schlegel heralded a “universal progressive poetry” (quoted in Wellek, Discriminations 29). “The national consciousness, expressing itself in works of narrative and illustration, is History.” The stage was set for the major achievements of nineteenth-century narrative literary history.
The unifying ideal of these works—the essence of nineteenth-century historicism—was that the key to reality and truth lay in the continuous unfolding of history. They were founded on a few key organizational premises: “an initial situation from which the change proceeds”; “a final situation in which the first situation eventuates and which contrasts with the first in kind, quality, or amount”; “a continuing matter which undergoes change”; and “a moving cause, or convergence of moving causes” (Crane 33). The subject matter might be an idea (the sublime), a technique (English prose rhythm), a tradition (that of “wit”), a school (the Pléiade), a reputation (Ossian), a genre or subgenre, the “mind” of a nation or race. The principal subject was treated like a hero in a plot (birth, struggle to prominence, defeat of an older generation); emplotments were of three basic types, “rise, decline, and rise and decline” (Perkins, Is Literary 39). The works as a whole were characterized by a strong teleological drive. Representative narrative histories of the national stamp are Georg Gottfried Gervinus’s History of the Poetic National Literature of the Germans (1835-42), Julian Schmidt’s History of German Literature since the Death of Lessing (1861), Francesco de Sanctis‘s History of Italian Literature (1870-71), Wilhelm Scherer’s History of German Literature (1883), and Gustave Lanson’s Histoire de la littérature française (1894). Taking a “scientific view,” Georg Brandes considered literary criticism to be “the history of the soul,” and his supranational and comparatist Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature (1872-90) traces “the outlines of a psychology” of the period 1800-1850, its thesis being “the gradual fading away and disappearance of the ideas and feelings of the preceding century, and the return of the idea of progress” (Main i:vii).
In the mid-nineteenth century literary historians began searching among the social and natural sciences for models and analogies, for instance, Comtean positivism, John Stuart Mill’s atomistic psychology, or Charles Darwin’s evolutionary biology. Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve borrowed scientific analogies of a general nature in his historical and biographical criticism. His subtle, probing works cannot be pigeonholed. “I analyze, I botanize, I am a naturalist of minds,” he said (quoted in Bate 490), and he counseled that “one cannot take too many methods or hints to know a man; he is another thing than pure spirit” (Bate 499). For Victorian literary history RENÉ w e l l e k proposes four main categories: the scientific and static, the scientific and dynamic, the idealistic and static, and the idealistic and dynamic (Discriminations 153). Henry Hallam’s Introduction to the Literature of Europe (1837-39) is atomistic and cyclical, starting at 1500 and beginning again at 50-year intervals. In his History of English Literature (1863-64) Hippolyte Tain e set forth a deterministic explanation of literary works with three principal causes (race, moment, and milieu); these are the “externals,” which lead to a center, the “genuine man,” “that mass of faculties and feelings which are the inner man” (History 1:7). His dictum “Vice and virtue are products, like vitriol and sugar” (1:11) is a chemical analogy. He chose England as if he were a scientist preparing an experiment: England had a long and continuous tradition that could be traced developmentally and up to the present, in vivo as well as in vitro. Other national literatures were rejected for one reason or another. Latin literature had too weak a start, Germany had a two-hundred-year interruption, Italy and Spain declined after the seventeenth century. A Frenchman might lack the requisite objectivity in writing the history of his own nation. The Darwinian influence can be seen in the work of Taine’s pupil Ferdinand Brunetiére. In L’Évolution des genres dans l’histoire de la littérature (1890) he treated a literary genre as if it were a genus of nature, noting its origin, rise, and fall and situating a work of art at its appropriate place on the curve.
Some literary historians produced works in several categories. Leslie Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876) adapts an idealist viewpoint to describe the rise of agnosticism, while his English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century (1904) is deterministic, sociological, and “scientific”: literature is the “noise of the wheels of history” (quoted in Wellek, Discriminations 155). An example of the idealistic and dynamic category is W. J. Courthope’s six-volume History of English Poetry (1895-1910), which finds “the unity of the subject precisely where the political historian looks for it, namely, in the life of the nation as a whole,” and which uses “the facts of political and social history as keys to the poet’s meaning” (i:xv). Courthope wanted to uncover the “almost imperceptible gradations” of linguistic and metrical advance: “By this means the transition of imagination from mediaeval to modern times will appear much less abrupt and mysterious than we have been accustomed to consider it” (i:xxii). George Saintsbury’s Short History of English Literature (1898), History of Criticism (1906), and History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) are at once erudite and impressionistic, and occasionally idiosyncratic in their judgments. Obviously many literary histories were eclectic in their methodology and fell between categories.
Among the shortcomings of nineteenth-century narrative histories were the imbalance between the space given to the individual work of art and the background materials required to “explain” it. Too little attention was given to analysis of the work itself and to questions of literary merit. Often enough, works were submerged by their contexts and causes, which were in a sense infinite (philological, psychological, social, moral, economic, political). David Masson’s seven-volume “life and times” biography of Milton (1881) was heavily weighted toward the times; in his review James Russell Lowell complained that Milton had been reduced to “a speck on the enormous canvas” (251). The problem of multiplicity of contexts and the consequences involved in choosing among them was addressed by Johann Gustav Droysen in Historik (1857-82), which anticipates Benedetto Croce. Droysen accepted the fact that a historian’s ideological biases, often unexamined and arbitrary, came into play and predetermined the investigation. He showed how the historian could use this knowledge to advantage and mapped the different rhetorics of historical representation.
Inevitably, large-scale narrative history sank beneath its own weight and fell from favor. Literary historians chose ever-smaller areas of investigation, though with a wider attention to the variety of causal contexts. As Louis Cazamian said in his and Emile Legouis’s History of English Literature (1924), the “field of literature” needed to be widened to comprehend “philosophy, theology, and the wider results of the sciences” (1971 ed., xxi). Whatever their shortcomings, many narrative literary histories were brilliantly conceived and immensely readable, and perhaps these are the reasons why the genre has not ceased to be written.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the weaknesses and failings of the whole historicist enterprise were exposed by Friedrich Nietzsche , Wilhelm Dilthey, and Croce. Although Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (1872) also falls in the category of narrative literary history, he attacked historical criticism in the second of his Untimely Meditations, “On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Nietzsche argued, not without irony, against history because the preoccupation with the past tended to relativize all knowledge, weigh down individual effort, and sap the vigor “for life.” The past must be “forgotten” in some sense if anything new was to be done.
Dilthey also objected to the positivist domination of history and formulated a theory of Geisteswissenschaften, or “human sciences,” comprising the social and humanistic sciences, which differed from the natural sciences in their interpretive approach. According to his method of Geistesgeschichte, material and cultural (i.e., natural) forces join in the creation of the unifying mind or spirit of a period. The critic must come into contact with the Erlebnis (“lived experience”) of a writer, a hermeneutical recapturing, or “re-experiencing,” of the past that requires not only intellect but imagination and empathy. The biographical essay becomes one of Dilthey’s preferred kinds of practical criticism: “Understanding the totality of an individual’s existence and describing its nature in its historical milieu is a high point of historical writing. . .. Here one appreciates the will of a person in the course of his life and destiny in his dignity as an end in itself” (Introduction 37). Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung (1906) illustrates his method in studies of G. E. Lessing, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Novalis, and Friedrich Hölderlin.
Like Dilthey, though from a very different point of view, Benedetto Croce offered a critique of historicism that takes place within the historicist tradition itself. In Estética (1902) Croce, who began his career as a historian of the theater and memorials of Naples, attacked dry positivist historicism and sociological criticism for dissolving the essential quality of the literary work, its “intuition,” into myriad causes (psychology, society, race, other literary works). He objected strongly to the organization of literary history on the basis of genres, schools, rhetorical tropes, meters, sophisticated versus folk poetry, the sublime, and so on. These were “pseudoconcepts,” useful labels perhaps for a given purpose but essentially arbitrary designations standing between reader and text. Moreover, none of these “pseudo-concepts” could help decide a case between “poetry” and “nonpoetry”: “All the books dealing with classification and systems of the arts could be burned without any loss whatever.” Croce argued on behalf of the presentness and particularity of the “intuition”; what is past is made present and vital in the act of judgment and narration: “Every true history is contemporary history” (Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic, 1902, trans. Douglas Ainslie, 1953, 114; History 11). His goal was to bring about a cultural renewal in which the traditional humanistic subjects, history and poetry, might once again play their central educative role and a new form of literary history would replace historicism. Croce’s critique was one of the first salvos in the idealist attack on science and positivism that continued well into the twentieth century. Aestheticism itself contributed to the disparagement of science and the revival of the idea of the genius, wholly exceptional, inexplicable, “above” an age.
In the twentieth century literary history lost the theoretical high ground in the academy. Modernism, New Criticism, Russian Formalism, nouvelle critique—all have an antihistoricist bias, posit the autonomy of the work of art, and focus on structural and formal qualities. At the same time, though the age of criticism had succeeded the age of historicism, literary history remained the most common activity within literary studies. Formalist and psychological approaches to a work of art are often found to lean on historical premises or to require a historically determined fact to build a case. As for narrative literary history, the errors and lessons of the nineteenth century were not in vain, and the achievements of modern historical scholarship are characterized by an awareness of the intellectual and rhetorical problems involved in their production.
Twentieth-century literary history offers a variety of models. One of the most common is a dialectical structure in which the main subject oscillates between two poles. In Cazamian’s history, long a standard work, phases of reason and intelligence (the classical) alternate with phases of imagination and feeling (Romantic). The dialectic of J. Livingston Lowes’s Convention and Revolt in Poetry (1919) is apparent from its title. The same writer’s Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination (1927) is an exhaustive source study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” In another model the literary historian depicts a “time of troubles” or “babble-like era of confusion—a time of transition from a purer past to a repurified future” (LaCapra 99). R. S. Crane and David Perkins each argue on behalf of “immanentist” theories that study the processes of change from a viewpoint within a tradition. Writers are compared and contrasted with predecessors and successors, and newness and difference are valued. Examples are Brunetifere, the Russian Formalists, W. Jackson Bate’s Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970), Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence (1973) and The Map of Misreading (1975), and Perkins’s History of Modern Poetry (2 vols., 1976-87), but Vasari’s Lives also has an immanentist theme. Some of the finest modern literary histories mix history, narrative, and criticism, selecting their contexts as particular works of art suggest them: F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), with its attempt to portray the Geist of transcendentalism; Douglas Bush’s English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660 (1945); and A Literary History of England, ed. Albert C. Baugh (1948). The period has also produced major literary biographies in Leon Edel on Henry James, Richard Ellmann on James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, and W. Jackson Bate on John Keats and Samuel Johnson.
In the era of postmodermism the theory of literary history has again received serious attention in Michel Foucault, Hayden White, and New Historicism. Postmodern literary histories flout the conventions of historical narrative and display the gaps, differences, discontinuities, crossing (without touching) patterns, not in the hope of capturing the essence of reality, but with the intention of showing that reality has no single essence. The avowedly “postmodern” Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988), which has 66 writers, “acknowledges diversity, complexity, and contradiction by making them structural principles, and it forgoes closure as well as consensus.” “No longer is it possible, or desirable,” the editor claims, “to formulate an image of continuity” (xiii, xxi). The encyclopedic idea has replaced historical narration. New Historicism situates the text at the center of intense contextualization, a single episode being examined from multiple perspectives. This runs the risk of overcontextualization, loss of the larger picture, and failure to account for the dynamics of historical change.
In his skeptical Is Literary History Possible? (1992) Perkins reviews the theory and practice of literary history and comments on the “insurmountable contradictions in organizing, structuring, and presenting the subject” and “the always unsuccessful attempt of every literary history to explain the development of literature that it describes.” At the same time, he defends both the writing and the reading of literary history, maintaining that objectivity is not an all-or-nothing affair. Literary history must not “surrender the idea) of objective knowledge,” for without it “the otherness of the past would entirely deliquesce in endless subjective and ideological reappropriations” (ix, 185). His humanistic position, skeptical of system and classification, shows one way through the antihistoricism and skepticism of the present, while remaining aware of the pitfalls that have beset historical criticism in the past.
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Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.