New Historicism

When I was in college, at the end of the last century, the prevailing school of literary interpretation was called “New Historicism.” The foundational assumption of this approach was that artworks were primarily of value insofar as they could offer us insight into the context and conditions of their historical production. The point of literary scholarship was to “unmask” these conditions—to show, for instance, how Mark Twain had unwittingly reinscribed the racist assumptions of his time, even as he attempted to expose them. It went without saying, on this theory, that literature was a conduit neither of timeless truths nor of trustworthy passions. Indeed our professors made it clear that, the more powerful of an imaginative experience a work delivered, the more important it was to learn to view it with skepticism and detachment. At best, and with the correct theoretical tools, what had been valorized as the height of literary culture in the past might offer us an unintended insight into what really mattered: politics, history, the shadow life of power.

Jon Baskin, On the Hatred of Literature, The Point