Happy Birthday Ben! Happy Birthday Matt! Happy Birthday Stephen Greenblatt?
What a coincidence! Last night I was maundering on about needing somebody to stand up (to have stood up) for an alternative to arid, involutional postmodern theory… somebody to do (to have done) what I’m both too lazy and intellectually timid to do, when this morning on the radio Garrison Keillor says,
It’s the birthday of one of the most influential literary critics alive today, Stephen Greenblatt, born in Boston (1943). His grandparents were Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, and growing up in the suburbs, he was always aware of the history of his family. He said, “My maternal grandparents escaped from the Russian authorities by hiding in the bottom of a hay wagon; in this country they had a small hardware shop. My paternal grandfather was a rag-picker, complete with horse and wagon. My father chose not to take up the reins but went to law school instead.”
It was a high school English teacher who taught Greenblatt to love literature and especially Shakespeare. Greenblatt went on to study literature at a time when most literary critics believed that to study a work of literature you should only examine the work of literature itself. You should only care about the words on the page. But Greenblatt came up with a style of criticism called New Historicism, which was the idea that in order to examine a work of literature, or any work of art, the critic should examine everything that was going on in the world of the artist at the time the work of art was created.
For most of his career, Greenblatt was famous only among academics. But he put his theory to work in a book for a general audience. And that was Will in the World, a book about Shakespeare. It came out in 2004, and it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Stephen Greenblatt said, “I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago.”
The Wikipedia says:
New historicism has, like most studies, suffered from criticism, most particular from the clashing views of postmodernists. Our society today is seen as being post-modern and that view has been rejected by new historicism and has somewhat ignited the ‘culture wars’ (Seaton, 2000). The main points of this argument are that new historicism, unlike post-modernism, acknowledges the fact that almost all historic views, accounts, and facts they use contain bias. As Carl Rapp states: ‘they often appear to be saying, “We are the only ones who are willing to admit that all knowledge is contaminated, including even our own”‘(Myers 1989).