chapter  2
32 Pages

History

Main works discussed: Bruce Chatwin, Utz; Shakespeare, I Henry IV; Toni Morrison, Beloved

It has become the norm that to study literature is to study history. The vast majority of English degree syllabuses are organized historically. Jobs in academia are advertised according to period. The various contextualisms that have emerged since the 1980s indicate where the energies of literary critics have mainly been invested. At one point, it seemed almost impossible to be a literary critic without having something to say about the relative merits and demerits of new historicism as contrasted with cultural materialism, or about the debate between those who believe that the past can and should be studied on its own terms and the presentist notion that we cannot help but study history in the light of our own historically specific preoccupations. To declare a lack of interest in these debates would have been, and in some quarters might still be, tantamount to professional heresy. There have of course been dissident voices. Edward Pechter was one

among the first wave of critics to start to question the displacement of literature by history. In ‘The New Historicism and its Discontents’, Pechter criticized new historicism in particular for ‘draining [Renaissance] plays of much of their potential to involve an audience’, for underemphasizing ‘passages whose affective power seems unusually great’ and for ‘reducing the power of the text’ so as to increase ‘the observer’s power’ (Pechter 1987: 299). The 24-year interval between that article and his recent book, Shakespeare Studies Today: Romanticism Lost (2011), has witnessed various turns or returns: to ethics, aesthetics, affect, humanism or some combination of these. Pechter, however, doubts that any meaningful return of the aesthetic is currently occurring in Shakespeare

studies, or is likely to. The attempt by various recovering materialists to reconcile ‘literary study with the sociology of literature’ results, argues Pechter, ‘not in a coherent synthesis’, but a messy ‘overabundance of interests’ (Pechter 2011: 41), woefully lacking in the desire to ground or reground literary studies in aesthetics. This chapter is not wildly heretical. Its subject is history. But it is

heretical in its central premise that to access history through the medium of literature or as a literary historian constitutes a distinctive way – a distinctively human way – of engaging with history. This is heretical for the reason that to speak in essentialist terms of the human and of human universals has up until fairly recently been taboo. Literary historians are nevertheless more likely to be interested in, say, the history of sexuality than sandpaper because sexuality comes closer to the kinds of perennial human preoccupation with which literary texts tend to deal. The distinction that literature lends to our engagement with history may be grasped by examining the way that literary texts themselves represent history. This is the rationale for my choice of texts in the second half of this chapter where the focus will be on three literary representations of three altogether different histories: Bruce Chatwin’s Utz, set in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, Shakespeare’s English history play, I Henry IV, and Beloved, Toni Morrison’s widely studied novel about the conditions of slaves in nineteenth-century America. First, though, and to advance further the claim that this chapter is not

out-and-out heresy, I will straightaway begin with some history, and specifically some history about history and its relationship to literature. The relationship between literature and history, on the one hand, and literature and philosophy, on the other, has been the subject of ongoing examination and debate since classical times, with literature sometimes playing second fiddle to the perceived greater truth-value, or relevance, of its neighbouring disciplines, but sometimes elevated above them. It is instructive here to compare two moments: one, the late sixteenth century in England, a moment at or near the beginning of the formation of a vernacular literary canon, when the cause of literature is sometimes advanced so as to play the role of ‘master-discourse’ in the philosophy/ literature/history triad; and the other, already briefly invoked (the last 30-40 years), when ideas about both canonicity and literariness have tended to be historicized because History is King. For the first, we can revisit Philip Sidney’s A Defence of Poetry ([1595]

1966). Sidney elevates poetry along Aristotelian lines on the basis that the value of poetry lies in its difference from the dry-as-dust abstractions of philosophy, on the one hand, and the equally dry-as-dust, fact-based empiricism of history, on the other. The philosopher according to

Sidney proceeds by ‘thorny arguments’ and is amusingly said by Sidney to be ‘so hard of utterance and so misty to be conceived, that one that hath no other guide but him shall wade in him till he be old before he shall find sufficient cause to be honest’ (Sidney [1595] 1966: 31-32). Meanwhile, ‘the historian’ is ‘laden with old mouse-eaten records’ (ibid.: 30) and ‘so tied to the particular truth of things and not to the general reason of things, that his example draweth no necessary consequence’ (ibid.: 32). The aim of all three disciplines is the humanistic one of providing an ethical education, but poetry excels at this because its ‘true lively knowledge’ (ibid.: 32) brings both philosophical abstractions and the facts of history to life, while finding in particulars general lessons and patterns that remain hidden in the micro-narratives of the historian. In history, there is too much detail. In philosophy there is not enough. And both, in Sidney’s mischievous caricature of them, are dull and over-specialized, lacking in broad appeal. Poetry’s means of pleasurable animation, as discussed in Chapter 1, is emotion, and poets are especially adept at stirring the emotions because they are also rhetoricians, trained in the art of persuasion, the art of using language emotively. Poeticized history, then, is the representation of history ‘with feeling’, which in the case of Shakespeare’s I Henry IV also means ‘with body’, and it is by means of this affectively involving representation of history that patterns and exemplars, of a moral kind, may also be discovered. The other moment is ours. It is a moment when, as outlined above,

the study of literature has largely become the study of history. Having positioned the formalisms and universalisms perceived to have held sway from around the mid-twentieth century up until the 1970s as its principal antagonists, historicism in turn became, as Carla Mazzio and Douglas Trevor put it in 2000, ‘the default mode of critical practice’ (Mazzio and Trevor 2000: 1). I use the past tense to signal once again the various challenges that have been put to historicism through the various ‘turns’ or ‘returns’ that have been announced during the period of historicism’s ascendency. Nevertheless, historicism arguably continues to be the ‘default mode’ of critical practice, and with good reason, as, to reiterate, no practising literary critic would be heretical enough to say that a sense of history and context are irrelevant to the proper understanding of literary texts. However, there are as previously suggested conspicuously different ways of doing history, markedly different ‘genres’ of history: economic history, social history, family history, oral history, the history of ideas, history mediated through autobiography, through state records, through local archives, to name but a few. These historicisms can themselves be historicized so as to be understood as particular, historically specific approaches to the study of history. This applies to the

historicisms practised in literary studies. Despite the fact that these have taken different forms (cultural materialism, new historicism, materialist feminism, the new economic criticism, presentism), some of them at times in fierce contention with one another, there is a commonality of approach and historically informed methodology among them, as follows:

1 A preoccupation, in the wake of the linguistic revolution of the 1970s and literary criticism’s embrace of structuralism and poststructuralism, with representation. This has had two consequences, the first being that history has come to be accessed mainly through discourses understood to be ideologically inflected, culturally specific and mutable. The discourses that literary historicists take as their objects of historical analysis are and have been many and varied (discourses of gender, sexuality, class, race, power, food, the body, the emotions, religious discourse, scientific discourse, and so forth). The second consequence is that the writing of history itself is also understood in terms of the all-pervasive category of representation, meaning that our access to the past is mediated through (again) ideologically inflected and culturally specific discourses.