Critical Literature: Biographical Literary Criticism and Historicism

While some early theories of literary criticism felt that the only thing needed to understand a piece of literature was the text itself or conventions of literature, others felt that there were other contexts that could be used to explain the meaning of a text or why authors made certain choices with what they wrote. These are the roots of biographical criticism and historicism, two older techniques for literary critical theory that have served as a basis for many of the modern theories employed today, particularly the field that is called New Historicism

While traditional criticism only employed use of the text itself and archetypal criticism only sough to draw comparisons with literary archetypes, biographical criticism and historicism were the first theories that tried to find answers from sources other than literature. Biographical criticism thought the background, life, and experiences of an author were just as important to look at to try to find meaning and context in a story. Historicism was the first to consider the use of historical events and politics and how they may have shaped the way a writer wrote or the beliefs a writer was trying to communicate. Together, both of these theories have somewhat been incorporated into more modern theories as well as laid the groundwork for a more broad analysis of literature.

Historical Background

There are elements of biographical criticism, historical criticism, and the combined study of historicism dating as far back as ancient Greece when the first attempts at literary criticism were made. At the time of Hellenistic Greece, it was understood that whatever a writer produced was usually the result of the writer's own experiences and therefore texts could give insight into the lives of those who wrote them as well as into the larger world. Of course, like much of literary criticism itself, this way of thinking fell out with the Middle Ages were the focus was often more about preserving literature than analyzing it.

"Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam with Renaissance Pilaster" by Hans Holbein

During the Renaissance, many also made the connection between a writer’s background and the material they produced as well as the historical context needed to better fully understand historical texts. Dutch scholar Erasmus and Benedict Spinoza were among the first to apply historical context to an understanding of literature by looking at the Bible through the lens of history rather than traditional religious devotion. The men thought that perhaps the distinct messages of each book of the Bible could be better understood if it was known what time that book was written in and what events were being written about. In that way, scholars studying the text years after it was written could find meaning closer to that portrayed by the original author and therefor closer to God's intended meaning.

The first truly in depth study of background and how it connected to an artist's work was explored by Samuel Jonson in his Lives of the Poets, published between 1779 and 1781. This was during the Enlightenment when thinkers were trying to find more logical answers rather than turning to folklore, superstition or religion. In the Lives of the Poets, Johnson explored how the lives of poets including John Milton, the Earl of Rochester, John Dryden, William Congreve, Richard Savage, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and others had shaped their works and how, in turn, their works had shaped their lives.

A print of Samuel Johnson, based on a portrait by Joshua Reynolds; originally published in 1787, it was later used in the 1806 edition of the Lives of the Poets

Initially, Jonson had intended only to write a brief line or two about the origins and characteristics of each poet followed by copies of their works with critical analysis. However, the more he began delving into the backgrounds of Britain's eminent poets, the more he felt the stories of their lives had bearing on their literary work. In the end, the text included a narrative of the poet’s life, a summary of the person's character, and then a critical assessment of the main poems the writer had produced. Of course, Jonson didn’t escape criticism himself for the way in which he portrayed his fellow writers. He left out poet Charles Churchill whom he didn’t like and some of the stories produced in the text were considered prejudiced, even at the time they were published. Jonson’s decision to focus on poets who had already died as well as only male poetry also drew criticism - even in the 1700s.

Around this same time, the term “higher criticism” was becoming popular with thinkers across Europe who were trying a more academic approach to literature, particularly the Bible. German scholars in the late 1700s and 1700s began looking for Middle Eastern accounts from biblical times that confirmed portions of the bible as well as more accurate translations within the context of history and the evolution of language. These ideas eventually traveled through the Rationalist movement, influencing thinkers like John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and French rationalists. George Eliot’s translation of The Life of Jesus as well as the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge were among the English texts looking to apply modern rational thinking to religious texts.

Cover of "Punch" that depicts the controversy over evolution as a "tempest in a teapot" for the Anglican church.

It was The Essence of Christianity published in English in 1854 by German Ludwig Feuerbach that turned this rational approach to theology into a scandal. A book now considered a humanist classic, the books attempt to discuss the relation between creator and creation. It would also influence the publication of Essays and Reviews by a collection of liberal Anglican clergymen that caused a five-year theological scandal that largely overshadowed the recent publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Essays and Reviews worked to connect biblical prehistory with advancements being made in the fields of geology and biology. It was the belief that religious interpretation could change from generation to generation and an argument to incorporate modern theories like evolution into Christian thinking that caused so much controversy. Two of the ministers who worked on the project were even indicted for heresy.

At the same time humanists were trying to use historical and scientific evidence to reconcile Christianity and science, other thinkers were combining biography and historical criticism into a less controversial approach known as historicism. This method of thinking was that an author’s personal life story as well as the culture they grew up in and the political events that happened during their life were just as important to consider as a text itself when reading. These critics showed that the incorporation of historical or autobiographical events into even fictional stories could show a deeper meaning and understanding of both the text and the author.

Both biographical and historicism seemed to fall out of favor once they had begun to gain traction around the turn of the century with the emergence of two new styles of thinking on the matter. Formalism wanted to delve deeper into the text and look at aspects like sentence structure and word choice as well as the overall construction of a work. This theory again shifted away from outside sources and focused back on relying on only the text itself.

The New Critics, who emerged in the 1920s, completely disapproved of the idea of biographical criticism. They coined the term “biographical fallacy” believing that relying solely on an author’s biography or historical context neglected the aesthetic and imaginative aspects of literature. They also felt that it was easy for critics to pick and choose what types of biography or history they wanted to include to match a text shape up with their own theories and thoughts rather than consider viewpoints that might be contradictory to their own. As a result, the critic found what they were wanting to see in a text but not necessarily what the author intended. Despite this, elements of biographical criticism and historicism still remain in facets of other types of criticism today.

Biographical Criticism

Biographical criticism at its basis argues that events in an author's life - both before and after they have written a work - can show insight into their literary works. For example, knowing an author suffered from a specific malady, was raised in a specific type of religious household, or belonged to a certain political party can often cause readers to think about things they have written in new ways. Sometimes, facts of biography have become inextricable from authors, such as the fact that Ernest Hemingway committed suicide or that Jane Austen never married. The fact that an author was having an affair at the time they wrote a work about someone having an affair or a writer who lost a child at a young age writing a character who loses a child at a young age can be connected in an insightful way.

Those who subscribe to biographical criticism make a clear distinction between biography and biographical criticism itself. They feel that a person’s biography doesn’t completely define their work but rather can give subtle insights and clues into textual meanings. Biography is a branch of history that focuses on interpreting the facts of a person’s life, often relying on sources such as letters, diaries, and if possible interviews with people who knew the person or interviews with the person themselves.

By contrast, a biographical critic isn’t concerned with trying to recreate a person’s life but rather seeing how knowledge of the author’s life can provide insight into their works. This may include examining drafts of a literary work to see how it was changed by both the author and editors or looking at what was happening in an author’s life around the time a text was written.

Biographical criticism also warns that it is possible for people to misinterpret or incorrectly report facts about their own lives and the lives of others. In other cases, facts about a person’s biography or literary status can easily overwhelm their body of work and make it hard to separate the art from the artist. The goal of a biographical artist is to see how biographical data amplifies the meaning of the text, but not to use biographical data to overwhelm the text. This type of criticism can also be seen as more suited to texts in which critics know the author is describing an autobiographical event or if it is on a subject the author was particularly vocal about in other ways. Biographical critics must realize that not every detail about an author’s life will show up in their work and vice versa.

Things biographical critics look for usually include easily verifiable aspects of a person's biography rather than things that may or may not have happened. These critics may look to see if any places where the author lived or grew up are incorporated into the work, if any characters share similarities with close friends or family members, if incidents in a work are based on incidents that are known to have happened to the author, and similar aspects. Biographical criticism also works to do the opposite as well, to find parts of the text that are completely dissimilar from the author or that clearly distinguish the lives and experiences of characters from the lives and experiences of the author.

Historical Criticism and Historicism

While biographical criticism focuses on biographical aspects of the life of the author, historical criticism or historicism focuses on the historical, cultural, social, and intellectual context in which an author lived and worked. Unlike most forms of criticism, which aim to interpret works for modern readers and modern understanding, historical criticism aims to explore how a work would have been interpreted in its historical context or what meaning those contemporary to the author might have derived from a work.

Language changes over time, and historical events, society, and culture can all influence why, how, and what an author writers. Shakespearean plays use many words that have a different context or connotation today, so understanding the culture and language of Elizabethan England is essential to understanding much of his work. Likewise, places change over time so a description of London during the Victorian era may not mesh with current residents of the area in a work being described. Historical criticism can also look at how history and changes in culture have changed the meanings of a work overtime.

Not every piece of literature is part of a major historical movement, but especially texts written further back in history than is known in the common experience can benefit from having some accompanying historical analysis. For example, some careers depicted in novels like stagecoach driver or farrier are not part of our modern context but may be essential to understanding a story. A lot of works of literature are products of their time as well, so it can be useful to know about when a book was set to understand why characters may make the choices they do or what options would have realistically been available to them at the time.

Historical criticism is of particular use to literature written in ancient times, especially since so many changes in the way we look at the world, how languages are spoken and written, and the information an author might have been exposed to versus the information we are exposed to today can make it nearly impossible to understand both the writing itself and the context in which it was written. History can also put a work in a greater context, such as knowing a poem was written by a German Jew in 1935 or knowing it was written by a black woman before the abolition of slavery. Time and place can be influential in understanding why certain things were written.

An illustrated scene from Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels." Many of his works were satires of cultural, social, and political movements of the period in which he lived.

Additionally, historical criticism is very important when dealing with literature that was written about a certain event or concerning a certain time period. It is much easier to understand a satire if one understands what event, person, belief system, or concept an author was satirizing. For example, one might better understand Gulliver’s Travels by knowing Jonathan Swift was parodying the style of travel tale popular at the time or understand 1984 better knowing it was largely written between 1944 and 1948 during the period the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were emerging as global superpowers as the Third Reich was seeing the beginning of its fall.

Historicism combines both the historical aspect of historical criticism and the biographical aspect of biographical criticism into one singular field of study. The belief is that both the events in a writer’s personal life as well as the outside historical events and sociocultural context a writer lived in can shape both the writer and their works. Both consider aspects such as when a work was written, when it was published, and how it was received. They also look into the social attitudes and cultural practices as the time, what was happening politically, and what events an author may have witnessed or experienced for themselves. Historical criticism also looks not just at how historical events may have influenced a literary work but also at how a literary work may have influenced history, politics, or culture.

A novel about a small town that hides a big scandal, "Peyton Place" was extremely controversial when it was released because of its depiction of vice and sexuality in a small town. The book was dubbed "literary sewage" by some critics for portraying what was considered "big city immorality" in a small town setting, despite the fact that author Grace Metalious drew much of the story from her experiences with small town life.

For example, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species both revolutionized science and created an enduring debate that seems to put science on one side of the argument and religion on the other. Grace Metalious’ 1959 novel Peyton Place defined women’s approaches to sexuality and caused a scandal because of its portrayal of social inequality, class privilege, and topics like incest, abortion, and adultery. Her depiction of sex and violence in a small town was considered revolutionary during the 1950s when small towns were seen as the nation's moral compass and free of the "sin" of big cities. Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 non-fiction advice book Sex and the Single Girl advocated women become financially independent from the men in their lives as well as experiment with sex before marriage, two things that were considered outrageous at the time but also contributed to the rise of the Sexual Revolution.

Just like with biographical criticism, the main criticism of historical criticism and historicism is that both rely on reading too much into an author’s background or historical context. The reason why many works of literature stand the test of time is because they have just as much to say in a modern context as they do in the historical context in which they were written. Additionally, historical facts and sociocultural norms should be used to supplement understanding of a text rather than completely define understanding of a text.

Traditional Historicism vs. New Historicism

While the New Critics did not look upon biographical or historical criticism as having any value toward literary criticism as a whole, both of these theories survived in subtle and less subtle ways in many modern critical theories that have evolved. The strongest connection is between the traditional views of historicism and historical criticism with the theory that is now known as New Historicism.

Developed in the 1980s, this theory was also influenced by the 1950s field of history of ideas which in turn was also influenced by historicism and historical criticism.

New Historicism works to seek literary value in documents that played a role in historical discourse in addition to canonical literature. Examples include using the works of Shakespeare to better understand the culture of Renaissance England. This criticism also how various cultures and historical periods have interpreted the same pieces of literature, such as how the counterculture of the 1960s interpreted the Victorian Alice in Wonderland.

New Historicism also sometimes incorporates works that may not be seemed as “traditional literature,” such as ads, newspaper articles, pamphlets, and other documents that can help provide a broader context. In this way, it considers the modern literary critical question of “what is a text?” Additionally, New Historicism looks at how we interpret historical texts based on our preconceived notions of a historical period not necessarily what is historically accurate. It can also involve how historical periods and notions about those periods interconnected with each other. For example, authors may look at works of Greek and Roman writers versus those written during the Age of Enlightenment or NeoClassical period when writers were attempting to ape the ancients.

The modern New Historicism is part literature, part history, and part sociology or anthropology, attempting to sift out meanings and ideas from past cultures, places, people, and concepts, many of which have no representatives left to provide direct interpretation. Even those who have left behind their own accounts and meanings are still considered open to interpretation based on the fact that culture, history, language, and society have changed since those times. This theory holds that society and culture can be an important link to understanding literature both as it was meant to be in the past and how we may interpret it in the present. It also shows us how different texts from the same period of time tell us about the culture and society of that time and place, helping us create a better understanding of historical periods.

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