(From the Archives) Critical Self-Fashioning: An Interview with Stephen J. Greenblatt

Today’s “From the Archives” post, an excerpt of an interview with Stephen J. Greenblatt, comes from Issue 71/72 (Summer 2009).  This interview took place on 8 December 2008 in Stephen Greenblatt’s office in Widener Library at Harvard University. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, the editor of the minnesota review at the time, and transcribed by Gavin Jensen, then an MA student in the Literary and Cultural Studies Program at Carnegie Mellon University. In this excerpt, Greenblatt contextualizes the new historicism school of literary theory. 

Williams: You’re known especially for the new historicism, which by my surmise is the dominant mode, even if in a dispersed way, of contemporary literary criticism. Many of the younger people I see coming up do new historicist projects, like “The Eighteenth-Century Novel and English Gardens” or “The Eighteenth-Century Novel and Vacation Culture at Bath.” Can you give a capsule definition of what you think the new historicism is?

Greenblatt:There isn’t a capsule definition—but it had a historical trajectory and purpose. That is to say, my own training and that of my generation was dominated by a model that was largely decontextualized and intensely formal. The genius loci of Yale when I was there was William Wimsatt, and he thought that you should judge poetry the way you judge, as he wrote somewhere, a pudding or a machine. Obviously, if you are judging a pudding you might be interested in what its ingredients are or how it tastes. If you’re judging a machine, you might be interested in its structure, why it functions the way it functions, what happens when it breaks down. But in either case you’re not interested, or at least not predominantly, in anything about the cook, the mechanic, the inventor, or even the consumer, strictly speaking. You are interested in the object insofar as you can detach it from the surroundings. That is the way I was trained and I’m the product of that. But at a certain moment this approach seemed, the way everything eventually gets to seem, intolerable or grossly distorted, and so I and other people began to do something else. What the other thing was slightly resisted and still resists definition. If I simply say that it’s about recontextualizing works, or resetting them in their cultural and historical moment, or treating them as objects of anthropological analysis—if I say any of those things, I slightly distort the origin and the impulse.

The first example you gave, “Eighteenth-Century Literature and Gardens,” is actually what Maynard Mack [a Yale professor] was doing in the 1960s. It wasn’t called new historicism; it was an historical approach to literature of the kind that Maynard Mack, and many other scholars of his generation did, where you learned about Pope’s grotto at Twickenham, about Capability Brown, and so forth. Whatever happened with us happened not because we were suddenly awakened to the fact that there were gardens in the eighteenth century, but because we were reading Althusser and trying to figure out an alternative to the formal study in which we were being trained.

For more of Jeffrey J. Williams’ interview with Stephen J. Greenblatt, visit our archive for Issue 71-72. You do not need a subscription to read this or any article from that issue.

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