Interrogating the Project of Military History

April 28 - Prof. Samet's game, as nearly as I can figure, is an exercise in the new historicism.  That was Maurice Stevens' best guess (see Entry 4) when I outlined the book to him yesterday.  He offered some further assistance by loaning me a book he uses when teaching literary criticism to his students:  Texts and Contexts:  Writing About Literature with Critical Theory, by Steven Lynn (2nd ed., Longman, 1998; it has since appeared in a 3rd ed., Pearson Longman, 2000).  Since I got on the PoMo jag, and especially since tackling this review, I have skimmed a number of books on literary criticism.  Of them, this one is by far the most accessible.

Lynn, a professor of English at the University of South Carolina, introduces the reader to six "critical worlds," each with its own rules of the game:  the new criticism (which concentrates on aesthetics and tries to expose a given work's underlying unity through close attention to figures of speech point of view, recurrent ideas or events--incidentally,  like the "new" military history, is now several decades old); reader-response criticism (which is akin to what I did when reacting to Malek Alloula in Entries 12 and 13); deconstruction (zero in on the contradictions and silences within a body of work); psychological criticism (what does this blog inadvertently reveal about my relationship with my father?); feminist criticism (so where are the women in your blog, Mister Man?); and biographical, historical, and new historical criticism (which is what I think Prof. Samet is doing).

Biographical criticism, as the name implies, looks closely at the author's life for clues concerning the meaning of a given work.  Historical criticism looks at the times in which the work was produced--scrutinizing Elizabethan England, for instance, for clues concerning a Shakespearean play.  The new historical criticism, also known as the new historicism, uses the same technique but applies it to works not consciously intended to be literature:  history books, for one thing; primary historical sources, for another.  It arose because scholars practicing biographical and historical criticism began to wonder about the premises on which the enterprise was based, to wit:

1. that history is knowable.

2.  that literature mirrors or at least by indirection reflects historical reality, and

3.  that historians and critics can see the facts of history objectively.

(The list is quoted by Lynn but drawn from Jean Howard, "The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies,"  English Literature Review 16 (Winter 1986):  13-43.)

Lynn writes:

The starting point for this work is the simple observation:  "history" is textual.  We read about it; we experience it in words, which are used to explain the physical evidence.  We don't have access directly to the past; we have a "story" about it.

The Battle of Antietam, for instance, is now a textual phenomenon.  It does not exist.  Our tendency to separate history and literature--seeing one as fact, the other as fiction; one as the background to the other--is collapsed by this insight.  So we cannot directly observe history, nor be scientific or objective about its facts or remains, because history must be interpreted; our reading of it is as subjective as our reading of any other texts.

(Lynn, Texts and Contexts, 115)

As so often happens, I am not as completely ignorant of this subject as I would have guessed.  Rather, my exposure to it has not been systematic.  Years ago I read Hayden White's Metahistory and The Content of the Form, as well as several essays on the "linguistic turn" by Dominick LaCapra and, for that matter, at least one good book-length diatribe against the whole thing by Gertrude Himmelfarb.  But it was like watching a film in Spanish--I could follow the general development of ideas, but much was still lost on me.  Too bad I lacked the moral courage to ask for tutelage by someone who really knew the subject.

Incidentally, for historians looking for a good introduction, try Robert F. Birkhofer, Beyond the Great Story:  History as Text and Discourse (Harvard, 1995).  And check out Saul Cornell's unique "text/countertext" review of the book:

Saul Cornell, “Moving Beyond the Great Story: Post Modern Possibilities, Postmodern Problems,” American Quarterly  50, no. 2, (June, 1998):349-357.

. . . Willing Obedience thus appears to be a cross between historical criticism (as when it considers Thoreau and Melville) and the new historicism (as when it looks at the writings of Washington and Adams and the memoirs of Grant and Sherman).

But why should we as historians want to read a book that tries to get at the subject of political consent (or any other subject) by means of the new historicism?  Prof. Samet doesn't tell us.  Still, her book is reminiscent of Ronald Takaki's Iron Cages:  Race and Culture in 19th-Century America (Oxford, 1979), which I read years ago when first coming to grips with the historiography on white racism.  Like Willing Obedience, Iron Cages makes its case through a close reading of a few key works by Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, George Armstrong Custer, Mark Twain, and Alfred Thayer Mahan.  Unlike Willing Obedience,  Takaki gives his reasons for taking such an approach.  I'll talk about them in my next entry.

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