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Book Review: Practicing New Historicism, by Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt


Book reviewers read many things, some quite strange. Yesterday, for instance, I was forwarded a press release for the "must-read non-fiction children's book of the season" about bald eagles. Today, I read a new historicist's perspective on "The Potato in the Materialist Imagination". Fascinating stuff.

In case you can't tell, that last sentence was not sarcastic. I read a literary analysis about the potato and thoroughly enjoyed it. This roughly thirty-page essay is one of six (seven, counting the introduction) in Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt's exceptional volume Practicing New Historicism. Although I would not normally review a text of this nature, I am compelled to make an exception for this witty and virtuosic, yet accessible, tome.

So much of literary criticism seems reserved for literature scholars. Past readings of the genre sent me to that unhappy part of my brain typically reserved for my dinner party phobia-- as though I walked into a middle of a conversation, knew no one, and understood very few of the references. Sure, I can toss around a casual deconstructivist theory or two, but what am I really adding to the party? Nothing.

Practicing New Historicism isn't like that. The authors want you to understand their perspective on literary criticism. Perhaps most importantly, the authors state that "new historicism is not a repeatable methodology or a literary critical program" and is not meant to be esoteric. The book breaks down the guiding tenets of the theory:

  1. Authors write within the social, political, cultural, and economic zeitgeist of their time. The implication is that famous authors of the western canon should no longer be considered "isolated geniuses;" rather, they should be regarded as having been influenced by lesser known authors of the period. This "re-discovery" often leads to a focus on female authors and a reexamination of how works became "classics" or did not.

"It is clear that the term 'literature' functions in part as an honorific; new historicists did not so much doubt the splendors of the monuments as suspect the exclusiveness of the honor role." Gallagher and Greenblatt

  1. Culture should be treated as "text," dramatically widening what is typically brought into a literary analysis. But if everything is representative of something, this begs questions about what is significant and to what extent.

  2. Anecdotes play a central role in illustrating counterhistory, a "history against history," or an alternative view of the established historical record. Rather than looking at a broad historical event, a new historicist may choose to analyze a singular perspective or micro-event, especially if it illustrates a countervailing opinion or to provide greater context.

"New historicists deliberately departed from the literary-historical practice of creating embrasures for holding text inside of established accounts of change and continuity; we used anecdotes instead to chip away at the familiar edifices and make plastered-over cracks appear." Gallagher and Greenblatt

  1. The human body plays a role in many new historicist analyses, typically focusing on themes of life and death, illness, male vs. female, and so on.

Which brings us back to the potato. "The Potato in the Materialist Imagination" provides an interesting perspective on the British potato debate, arguing that, "The potato...became an icon of the auotochthonous body for certain late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century writers."

The English landowners who advocated giving potatoes to the poor, in lieu of wheat bread, wanted to do so to keep wages down. In a series of speeches and writings, the potato became significant as "only food," an ugly tuber from the ground. Contrast this with bread, for example, which symbolizes the body of Christ in the Eucharist.

If bread represented Christ, what did the potato represent? The English viewed the Irish "potato eaters" with disdain, describing them as coming from dirty holes in the earth like the tuber itself. As one impassioned writer at the time claimed, "The people never could have been brought to this pass without the ever-damned potatoes!" Through a series of such excerpts, Gallagher and Greenblatt illustrate that in the minds of the English, the Irish people had become the potato. The English wanted no part in what they considered "garbage" from the ground, lest they, too, become like the potato.

If you have searched for an accessible literary theory text or introduction to new historicism, specifically, Practicing New Historicism offers an witty introduction to this field of inquiry. The illustrative essays provide interesting examples of the theory in context. I recommend it to anyone interested in literary criticism or the potato.

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