THE HYSTERICAL HISTORICAL

4 Nov

 

Miner holding We love Maggie placard

 

 

New Historical Criticism

 

History, as Winston Churchill told us despite authoring a massive work on World War II, is written by the victors, therefore historical criticism can be a subjective reflection on what might have occurred. Unless one is well acquainted with the time period in question then one is reliant on source material and contemporary literature to sustain an argument or support a theory. Unfortunately what is paraded in front of us through popular media is mostly embellished and nuanced for entertainment purposes and can barely be deemed history at all. Therefore if one wishes to become a proponent of this form of criticism then one must be extremely well read indeed. If this isn’t the case then the criticism itself becomes revisionist and unfortunately more myth than history.

The beauty of literature is that there’s always an element of truth and this is what the historical critic seeks, the proverbial strand of straw in the stack of needles. A healthy skepticism is required in order to assimilate bias from reality. What was on writer’s mind, what were their political leanings and what exposure did they have of daily life? In order to have a healthy view of history one must view it from many different aspects for,  If one only reads tales of Kings and Queens, then what does one know of the lives of the underclass? Likewise if one works from the viewpoint of the common man what possible understanding could one have of courtly affairs? Simply put, what’s been marginalized or gone undocumented within the pages of a work of literature so that other material and ideas, dare I say agendas, can be promoted?

It would be fair to say that a lot of literature isn’t in fact representative of its time period and that it merely represents an isolated, opinionated view and so must be read with a rather large barrel of salt. Examples of this might be the literature and poetry of the Romantics, wealthy opium-eaters who enjoyed life to the full and would only have experienced the under belly of society from a distinctly privileged vantage point. Coleridge and Wordsworth wanted to return to the esthetics of nature but what similarities can one find between a flock of daffodils in nineteenth century Britain and the urchins of Dickensian London? How does one compare and contrast the filth and grime of a London garret with the clean fresh moorland of the Lake District. Tricky to say the least!

Although an interesting and difficult premise, to view contemporary history through the misted lens of gleaned literary wisdom, there’s always a time-capsule element. The author was writing from a particular viewpoint, at a particular time and so by reading topical publications one should be able to assimilate and assess truths and notions. No matter how one views new historical criticism it’s worthwhile climbing into the mind of the author, if not the characters, and attempting to view the story from their point of view. The key word for the discernment of historical value is objectivity. Quite simply don’t believe the hype and definitely don’t believe everything you read.

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