Kind and Yielding
If it’s worth coining a term for the sort of work that a few other scholars and I are doing, we might call it “Narrative Historicism.” Narrative Historicism is like any other historicism in that it assumes a text’s significance is not immanent but rather radiates outward from the author to the author’s family, influences, preoccupations, and further outward to friends and allies, editors and publishers, and still further outward to cultural habits and biases, to legal, political, and economic institutions. Historicists think all of these ghosts are hovering nearby whenever a reader picks up a book.
Historicism imposes order upon chaos. It finds patterns in the boggling immensity of the past. What fascinates the historicist is how a book ripples out across the wide surface of a culture, how literary intentions end up serving unforeseen interests, how meanings get warped, how people may grow rich or suffer, how what was an expression of freedom now becomes a trap, how what was virtuous now becomes immoral.
Narrative Historicism uses storytelling as its method of imposing order. It inverts the standard critical structure. Rather than embedding stories in an argument, it embeds arguments in a story. The narrative asserts relevance, identifies influence, and qualifies importance. It draws out nuances of personality, of moments in time, of settings and disputes and gestures. Criticism is not distant. Literary history accumulates from a litany of intimacies, from the small, day-to-day experiences of men and women of letters. Recreating those experiences is as crucial as forming arguments about them. In fact, it doubles as an argument about them. Narrative details serve critical purposes. The size and style of James Joyce’s notebooks are important. It matters not just that Ezra Pound was one of Joyce’s early allies but that he was the sort of child who would ask Santa Claus for a battle-ax and a globe. It matters not just that Sylvia Beach dared to publish Ulysses but that she was so supremely kind and yielding, almost to a fault.
We can, of course, apply these methods to literary criticism itself. How it is produced, funded, and disseminated shapes its content. Writing on a laptop differs from writing on a typewriter or with a pen and paper. The difference between a trade press and an academic press matters. It matters that literary critics almost always work under the auspices of universities. It matters that criticism receives the support of fellowships, grants, and awards.