We have just seen how Paige’s research and writing process led to a New Historical paper centered on Melville’s “Benito Cereno” and the American notion of Manifest Destiny. We also looked at Stefanie’s analysis of Emily Dickinson and the Civil War. In both cases, the writers’ processes were complex ones—developed as they got further and further into their projects. This complexity of research and writing is natural—all writers engage in this process. The difficulty of “doing” historical criticism, however, seems to be that you must have a base knowledge that most students in an introductory literature class don’t yet have. But let us assure you that students can write an involving New Historical paper if they are diligent about conducting research, which will eventually lead to a working topic that will lead to a critical claim.
While Paige’s and Stefanie’s researching and writing processes were recursive ones (see Chapter 1 for a review of recursive processes), we can chart a strategy that will help you as you undertake a writing project that uses New Historical theory. A general key is that you need to approach such an assignment by surrounding your topic; that is, you need to examine your author and work from a variety of perspectives, which includes a parallel reading of multiple texts that leads to a thick description of your subject. Be guided by the following general steps to get you started on an exciting New Historical paper:
- Situate the author and his or her work in its specific historical time period. What were some of the key concerns of the day? A valuable way to do this is to examine the other historical and cultural texts that appeared around the time of the work’s publication: newspapers of the day, to get a feel for the key issues of the day, are a great starting point. Also examine the other social documents of the time period: religious and political pamphlets, economic discussions, and so forth. In addition, you’ll want to look at any biographies or autobiographies of your author, which will often engage in historical issues. This kind of research has been made much easier with the advent of digital archives, which will help you find primary sources related to your topic.
- Focus on the author and his or her intentions. Examine the letters, the journals, and the interviews of the author to glean information. Authorial intention is a complex issue, but it is important to see what the writer was hoping to accomplish, regardless of whether he or she was successful.
- Examine the work’s reception. How did the critics receive the work? Positively? Negatively? A mixture? Often a work’s reception will transform over time, which is called reception theory (see Chapter 6, which focuses on reader-response theory for a definition of this concept). You have learned about canon formation in this text, and it is valuable to explore how a work’s reception has transformed over time, not only the reception by academic scholars but the reception by popular readers too.
- Connect the work you are analyzing to the other major works of literature that were written during this time. Do these works suggest some larger concerns that your writer is exploring? Make certain that your research is transnational—that is, don’t be limited by geography or nation. One example of such a timeline can be found at http://www.socsdteachers.org/tzenglish/literature_timeline.htm.“Literature Timeline,” Dept. of English, Tappan Zee High School, http://www.socsdteachers.org/tzenglish/literature_timeline.htm.
- Consider the implications of the literary work on today’s culture and anticipate the effects it might have on the future. Why is reading and discussing your author and work important today? Why might your author and work be important to the future?
Once you have conducted your initial research using the following steps, you’ll be in a position to start making more concrete working claims about your project. Keep in mind that writing a paper on literature using New Historicism allows you to speculate more than when applying other literary theories. We don’t know for certain, for example, if Melville was aware that in “Benito Cereno” he was critiquing the notion of Manifest Destiny. But Paige makes a persuasive argument that opens up the story to further discussion.