Historians and Critics

Wed Jan 25, 2006

I spend some time in my dissertation with the political and diplomatic history of interwar England and was pleased to have a[n] historian on my committee, who pointed out some overgeneralizations I was tending to make about the nature of the British right in the mid-twenties, among other things. So imagine my dismay when I learned, via Jenny Davidson’s comment, that, according to Sarah Maza’s “Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicism and Cultural History […]” (Modern Intellectual History 1.2 [2004]: 249-265) at least, “Historians often approach literary criticism with a hostility, or at least skepticism, that gets in the way of trying to understand what literary critics are really doing. In conversation, if rarely in print, historians routinely dismiss literary criticism as self-indulgent, trendy, arbitrary and jargon-ridden” (251).

Well.

Another quote from the article relevant to the Moretti discussion:

If for literary critics like Greenblatt the anecdote seems like a step forward, a liberation from the weight of “totalizing grand narratives”, for most historians petite histoire feels like a step backward. Just as literary critics understandably reject middlebrow gushing over Great Literature as “bourgeois aesthetics”, so historians are legitimately wary of a form, the anecdote, that threatens to reduce history to a People magazine of the past. Gallagher and Greenblatt seem oblivious of the longer range of disciplinary development in history; they reject grand narratives as extensions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalist, socialist or whiggish programs, obfuscating the fact that such mid-twentieth century innovations as histoire totale and quantified social history, large in scale as they were, originated from a desire to make history more democratic and more inclusive. (262)

Masa goes on to note that historians are not generally interested in introducing complexity to the texts they study, as they are trying to establish broader patterns. Her counterpoint to this about literary critics is only true if they are dealing with texts that have a long history of critical comment, not to the great unread. You can’t introduce unanticipated complexities to a book no one’s ever written anything about. (The point also applies to books that have been written about, but dismissed as curiosities or oddities of one form or another, I think.) But is there literary progress? Do formal innovations or “higher” historical vantagepoints expand the ability of literature to represent the world-picture? Is there a coherent relative measure of individuality of the literary work? Can you formally measure its degree of innovation by its distinctness in non-reactionary ways to that which surrounds it?