When we speak of New Historical and Cultural Criticism we speak of a dynamic web of discourses within the culture of the producing event and the culture of the interpreting event. And to be sure we understand the terminology of this literary critical theory New Historicists define discourses as “a social language created by particular cultural conditions at a particular time and place, and it expresses a particular way of understanding human experience” (285). New Historical Criticism believes “all events…are shaped by and shape the culture in which they emerge,” or are mutually constitutive (Tyson 284). In broad terms we speak of the dynamic interplay of history and the interpretation of historical events and literature as it relates to power and ideology, specifically the circulation or social exchanges of the various discourses within a culture.
The key concepts of New Historical Critics can be summarized as follows: (1) “history is a matter of interpretation, not facts. Thus all historical accounts are narratives;” (2) “[h]istory is neither linear nor progressive;” (3) “[p]ower is never wholly confined to a single person or a single level of society. Rather power circulates in a culture through exchanges of material goods, exchanges of human beings, and, most important…exchanges of ideas through the various discourses a culture produces;” (4) “[t]here is no monolithic (single, unified, universal) spirit of an age, and there is no adequate totalizing explanation of history;” (5) [p]ersonal identity- like historical events, texts, and artifacts- is shaped by and shapes the culture in which it emerges…our individual identity consists of the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves;” and (6) “historical analysis is unavoidably subjective” (290).
New Historical Criticism differs from Traditional Historical Criticism in that the latter believes history is linear and has a definable causal relationship between events, and that through objective analysis we can discern facts that reveal the world view within any given culture, and that history is continually progressing and improving with time. New Historical Critics deny those claims and maintain that history is a web of discourses and interpretations of complex, dynamic events and can be manipulated by those in power and inherently subjective, and that “literary texts [are] cultural artifacts that can tell us something about the interplay of discourses, the web of social meanings, operating in the time and place in which those texts were written” (286–287). New Historical Critics also seek to deny master narratives, those that exclude a plurality of voices and ignore the voices of marginalized and oppressed peoples. This approach also employs “thick description” which “focuses on the personal side of history” and is “not a search for facts but a search for meanings” (288).
Cultural Criticism shares so much of the beliefs of New Historical Criticism that it is often difficult to distinguish the two critical literary theories one from another. Both are interdisciplinary and antidisciplinary, in that “both argue that human experience, which is the stuff of human history and culture, cannot be adequately understood by means of academic disciplines that carve it up into such artificially separated categories as sociology, psychology, literature, and so forth” (295). The primary differences between the two are that Cultural Criticism focuses more on politics in general and supports oppressed and marginalized peoples, events, and historical “moments” by drawing on varied political theories such as Marxism, Feminism, and Postcolonial/African American Criticism. Another difference between New Historical Criticism and Cultural Criticism is that that latter focuses more heavily on popular culture and believes “there is no meaningful distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of culture” and that both play a role as “cultural productions in the circulation of power” (296). For the Cultural Critic both the ‘high brow’ opera and the ‘low brow’ monster truck rally serve a role in the dynamic interplay and circulation of power within our modern culture; neither is inherently superior to the other.
The Cultural Critic believes “culture is a process, not a product; it is a lived experience, not a fixed definition. More precisely, a culture is a collection of interactive cultures, each of which is growing and changing, each of which is constituted at any given moment in time by the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, occupation, and similar factors that contribute to the experience of its members” (296). Cultural Critics analyze popular culture in all of its varied forms. In literature they often look closely at the similarities and differences between the work and its adapted screen play or movie. It’s the Cultural Critics duty to “determine the ways in which the popular versions transform the ideological content of the novel” (298). And together with the New Historical Critic both believe “great literary works are timeless, autonomous (self-sufficient) art objects that exist in a realm beyond history” and are but “a thread in the dynamic web of social meaning” (291).
As a great literary work The Great Gatsby’s meaning needs to be interpreted in context of the history and culture in which it was written and the culture in which we live today because our interpretation is biased and subjective as part of our cultural conditioning and ideologies. Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby at a time when people really believed a person could raise their born station in life and achieve limitless success. It was an era full of men achieving the rags to riches lifestyle; the idea of the ‘self-made man’ was proven possible by “millionaires like John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Philip Armour, and James J. Hill” (301). Circulating throughout society were numerous works that described how with determination, hard work, and perseverance anybody could become rich and successful because “character, rather than education or business acumen, was considered the foundation of the self-made man” (308). The ascendance of Jay Gatsby from his poor childhood as James Gatz to the rich and powerful protagonist of the novel mirrored the contemporary discourses of the era. But despite his accomplishments Gatsby tries to deny his past, to abolish his true identity in the wake of his new persona as Jay Gatsby, and in this way the novel strives to “escape history and transcend the historical realities of time, place, and human limitation” (301). Understanding the complex meanings within The Great Gatsby requires a broad understanding of its historical and cultural context, which is the aim of these critical literary theories.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Originally published at www.happinessfootprint.com on April 16, 2012.