AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Practicing New Historicism. By Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 234 pp.
Faced with the task of interpreting an "ochre-written flint," one of Robert Frost's narrators starts worrying:
The meaning of it is unknown,
Or else I fear entirely mine,
All modern, nothing ancient in't,
Unsatisfying to us each. 
This worry--that our understanding applies to ourselves alone, not to what we putatively study--is endemic to any sort of historical excavation, old or new. So when Stephen Greenblatt proposed a new approach to the problem of access, "I began with a desire to speak with the dead," the living pricked up their ears.  In the years since, New Historicists have undertaken, in various intriguing new ways, not only to assay the representational techniques of writers past but also to reach after some deeper certainty about the world they inhabited. No two New Historicist solutions advanced by such scholars as Frances Ferguson, Steven Knapp, Thomas Laqueur, Walter Benn Michaels, and Michael Rogin (to choose only from the original Representations editorial board) have been identical, but all share a commitment to critiquing positivism and empiricism and to making literary close reading into a tool for broader cultural analysis.
Practicing New Historicism, a fascinating work, lays out a thought-provoking argument both for the novelty and for the abiding relevance of New Historicism. The book is manifestly composed by two very different hands: two eighteenth- and nineteenth-century chapters and a theoretical one are by Gallagher; two Renaissance chapters and another theoretical one are by Greenblatt; the authors then "transform[ed] the first-person singular into the first-person plural" (18) throughout. However, those reading a New Historicist work for the first time will find the central claims, debates, and methodology lucidly expostulated in the introduction and two theoretical chapters ("The Touch of the Real" and "Counterhistory and the Anecdote"). Those already impressed by Gallagher and Greenblatt will find plenty of reasons to continue to admire and learn from them. Those who have quarrels with the methods of New Historicism--especially its willingness to make close readings of tiny cultura1 moments …