Toolbox Manifesto

There isn’t, in my opinion, any type of literary analysis that is more or less deserving of study. Each form of literary analysis, if you’ll excuse the metaphor, comes together to form a toolbox of sorts, a kit designed to tackle any story or scholarly article. However, like the literal toolbox, there are some tools that see more use than others. While things such as Race Analysis and Post Colonialism have their time and place their use is mostly relegated to specific types of works. They are relegated to the ‘specialized’ category, tools that have their uses but are nowhere near as universal. And while New Criticism, created under the careful watch of Wimsatt and Beardsley, is by no means without its use, it is still far from a universal tool.

While part of me does agree with the theory that a piece of text should be viewed on merits of itself alone, there is still a part of me that wonders if, in doing so, we miss out on the importance of a text. Author intentions, backgrounds and the like are useful, of course, and can help lend itself to towards a better appreciation of the book. But Greenblatt’s New Historicism is by far the most practical and universal of tools that can be used in the analysis of a text.

Texts have many different uses. They convey information, help us dig deeper into another’s mind or just entertain. Yet texts can also act like sedimentary formations of text, with each ‘layer’ containing information on a time period. Things such as styles of writing, prevalent trends and emotional undercurrents can be dug up through the New Historical reading. While this only gives cursory support towards the analysis of the text itself, such work can often help to show the changing tempos and moods of our history.

Each tool that this class has given us has a use, that I know. And, after taking this course, I can understand why it is required for me to continue with my English Major. The importance of each form of critical approach is clear, yet my preference will remain with New Historicism for the breadth of understanding that it offers.

My Literary Manifesto

I have long been interested in possible connections between literary works and their historical and cultural contexts. Although New Criticism proved to be an efficient (and often essential) way to analyze and understand a text, I found myself wondering how Wimsatt and Beardsley espoused such a scientific and mechanized form of literary criticism. For me at least, the formalist critics left something to be desired. However, as we neared the end of the course, I was excited (and relieved) to read more about new historicism and other forms of cultural studies. In blurring the lines between literature and history, Greenblatt and others revealed the possibility of deconstructing assumptions about historical and cultural context. While keeping this in mind, a reader can more clearly understand the ways in which historical and cultural circumstances can affect what is written in a “fictional” sense, and vice versa.

While reading “Learning How to Curse,” I was reminded of the writings of Michel Foucault. In a general sense, Foucault often urges his reader to challenge assumptions about the nature of various ideologies, and to examine the ways in which ideologies function. Similar to Foucault’s ideas, New Historicism relies upon the notion that a purposefully interdisciplinary approach to literature, social sciences, and history can lead to some of the most interesting, and most startling discoveries.

In reading these texts, in addition to those suggesting a similarly deconstructivist approach, I came to realize my own interest in the way that literature can function in revealing unexpected ideologies and significant meaning in various genres and media of written work. I am excited to continue literary studies while examining and analyzing the context of the time during which the work was created.


My Manifesto on Literary Analysis

The question of how one should read/contextualize literature has filled countless books, but I’ll try to sum it up in 300-500 words. Throughout English 220, I felt that New Criticism offered a far too narrow view of a literary work. While it is potentially the most universal method, I found it to be the least valid. The idea of excluding all information that is not specifically in the written text and thusly coming to a single universal conclusion seems to me to actually be inherently flawed. I found that the reader’s interpretation suffers when he is unable to understand the context of the text.

When looking over all the methods we have used this semester, I found myself being drawn to New Historicism as the most credible method of understanding literature. The concept of reading literature as a historical text and interpreting it based on the events surrounding the works carries more validity than any other method. The most obvious choice of the books we have read to support New Historicism is “Mrs. Dalloway”. I have tried to imagine how I would have interpreted this novel if I read it without knowing about WWI, its effects on British culture, the decline of Imperialism, sexual and gender repression, and countless other underlying themes that one only uncovers by studying the historical context. While this is obviously an impossible task, I have come to the conclusion that I would not have such appreciation for the book if I could not place it in historical context. I would still have grasped several themes but the most encompassing and universal method is to read literature as a historical text, in my opinion. Not only this, but I find that this method works both ways as well. One of the best ways to understand history is to read the literature of the time. I believe that relating written text to the culture and history of the period it was publish in is the most effective way to understand literature and that is why New Historicism, in my opinion, is the most credible method for literary analysis that we have studied.

Brett Weidman’s Literary Manifesto: A Reflection on Criticism

During my time in English 220 I was stunned by the sheer number of possible ways of analyzing any given text. Though they are all extremely valid ways of examining what a text actually means and can all be used effectively there are some critical techniques that really resonated with me, most notably New Criticism and New Historicism. I find it ironic that these are the two techniques that I found myself gravitating to the most because they are functionally and ideologically opposite of one another.

What struck me as so useful about New Criticism is the lack of required “materials” to analyze a given text, all you need is the text itself, everything else is useless and it would be irresponsible to use them in an analysis. It’s refreshing to view the text as the paramount self-contained authority on itself rather than looking at some complex web of interwoven influence. New Criticism cuts away a lot of “fluff” and I feel that it really gets down to what a text really means. You don’t have to worry about the effects of other works or the authors intention has on the text, you only have to worry about the meaning you find within the words themselves. It is a straightforward, yet deeply analytical, method that I believe is one of the best ways to critique and examine a literary work.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I think that New Historicism is also extremely useful as a method of looking at a text. Greenblatt made a great point when he questioned whether we could truly draw the line between “literature” and “non-literature” because nothing is ever written in a vacuum, there are always outside factors that contribute to the way a work is written, or add new depths of meaning to a work. I believe that New Historical criticism adds both depth and breadth of meaning to a text by making it truly the part of a larger system rather than an entity floating in literary “space”.

I guess that the true point of learning and analyzing all of these different methods is using them to examine texts, and I definitely plan on doing that not only in an academic setting but when reading for enjoyment. Since beginning this course my reading skill have technically improved a great deal and I think it’s an important thing when reading any work to look for a deeper meaning rather than just what is blatantly in the text. One of my dream jobs is to also be a book reviewer, if not professionally, then at least on a blog or on another media, and this class has really enabled me to do a comprehensive and professional review of a work of either prose or poetry which is a skill that I now value greatly.

My Manifesto

I believe that literature should be read selfishly, contextualized through personal and applied connections to modern and historical culture, and analyzed in a group.  Throughout this course, the unsurpassable divisions and blatant differences between some of the critical methods have been interesting to look at.  However, through our efforts as a class to work through the two major texts, Mrs. Dalloway and Othello, I have found it fascinating how our new awareness and personal preference when it comes to this new group of unique critical approaches has been able to work together to dig out so much more meaning than just one approach would be able to.  We are able to hand-pick a method that we believe to be the most worthwhile and all write different papers about a single text from an infinite amount of perspectives.  I believe that literature is about becoming conscious, not just of details in the text and the author’s intent, but of the way these details isolate and clarify, or even create, something in the modern and historical culture.  This ability a text has, as a collection of language and plot tools, to both exemplify and create in the context of modern culture and historical culture leads me to believe that the critical approach of New Historicism is the one that we have studied that I agree with the most.

New Historicism seems worthy of a following to me because Greenblatt, the founder, and the approach as a movement acknowledges other critical approaches in its definition (by defining New Historicism as a break away from its predecessors’ gradual move to looking simply at the text for meaning.)  New Historicism allowed the idea of text to move from a verbal icon to a cultural artifact.  I find that if one is reading a text, the relationship between form and function and the internal meaning will pop up inevitably, and New Historicism is much more worthwhile as an approach because it moves a step further. The concept embedded in New Historicism that makes it stand out the most to me is the relationship between the historicity of texts and the textuality of history.  History creates texts and texts create history; we study literature to learn about our history, but with texts like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would history even turn out the way it did if the text didn’t exist?  New Historicism acknowledges other critical approaches along with this unbreakable connection between history, culture, and text, which I find most conducive with the way I believe literature should be read, contextualized, and analyzed.  New Historicism has taught me that critical approaches can stem from a reverence or a disdain from a previous approach, which I will definitely use in my future pursuit of literary methods.  This class has taught me the logicality and usefulness of the range of critical approaches around for utilization today, and I plan on increasing my own personal connection to text through utilizing a multiplicity of approaches.

Quantitative Analysis

Quantitative Analysis is a scientific approach to understanding literature by treating the words in the text as data. As opposed to close reading, like we’ve been doing all year, Franco Moretti advocates “distant reading”.  He argues that since no one person can truly understand and identify patterns between vast amounts of literature, readers should employ various computer programs. These programs analyze and compare various texts and are able to decipher categories such as genre through patterns that a reader would never be able to do, such as the prevalence of specific words.

As an example of distant reading, I selected Robert Frost’s first book of poems, “A Boy’s Will”, published in 1913. I chose Frost not only because there are so many great examples of his work but also because of his method of recycling words throughout the course of his poetry and the variety of uses and definitions attributed to them. On the website Wordle, which evaluates various writings and artistically portrays the repetition of words in the works, I imputed the entire book of Frost’s poems.

As you can see, the word that is used the most is “one”. I then searched the word “one” on Google Ngrams, a website that displays the popularity of words in the collective works of Google Books, spanning from 1500-2000. The word “one” was a bit of a roller coaster up until 1800 but then steadily became more popular until peaking about the time that this book was published.

The pitfall of “distant reading” is that not only is the reader limited by the amount of literature/data they are using but there can be inaccuracy when relying on it to identify literature. The next most commonly used word in our Wordle is “love”, a very popular word in the English language so you would expect it to be consistently popular in Ngrams, but take a look:

We see that not only did the word not really start to be used in our catalog of Google Books until about 1570, but has really fallen out of favor since the 1700’s. While the word “love” was certainly used during Frost’s time, we would be inclined to say that this book was most likely published between 1580 and 1680, we could even go so far as to narrow the years down to 1671-1674, when the word peaked in popularity. So while I believe that the idea of “distant reading” is very interesting and should certainly be explored as a possible method, but I believe that readers may not yet be able to use this tool effectively in the course of trying to understand a work of literature.

Race Theory and the Poetry of Robert Frost

While Frost’s poetry is not brimming with explicit representation of race or commentary on race, racial implications are present in several of his poems.  Frost wrote most of his poetry in the early 20th century, a time when identity politics was a major topic of discussion and study.  The Dictionary of Critical Theory defines identity politics as “a demand for the right to be different, and for that difference to be recognized as legitimate” and says it is based on “the contentions that collectivities and individuals defined by criteria of ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual have interests that are not or cannot be promoted or defended by broader agencies such as class or a constitutional state.”  Frost’s “Mending Wall,” which we read in class, deals directly with these ideas and can be found at this link:

It is a poem centered around the ideas of borders between people, and the inherent differences between the narrator and his neighbor.  The symbolism of the fence, and the two distinct plots of land it creates, is that of the separation of identity groups.  When put in to the context of the early 20th century, this separation of identity groups most likely revolves around race.  The early 20th century was a time of racial turmoil for the United States – heinous acts such as lynchings and the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan were juxtaposed with one positive racial milestone: the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance.  Society was on its way to tolerance, but was very far from the finish line.  Relating to this, describing a section of the border between the narrator and his neighbor that does not need the fence, Frost writes, “There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across.  And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him” (23-26.)  In these lines, Frost is exemplifying the 1920’s idea that racial difference is a legitimate difference, but that different identity groups may be able to live in “peace” (“peace” here would be a sort of separate but equal ideal that we have been working to get away from today) without harsh borders because of their inherent differences.

One of Frost’s most famous poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which we read in class, is a poem one would never initially expect to have much to do with race. It can be found at this link:

However, when juxtaposed with a poem by Thylias Moss entitled “Interpretation of a Poem by Frost,” both poems can be analyzed with an approach focused on racial theory.  The text of Moss’ poem can be found under this link:

In terms of my own reading of Moss’s poem, my mind immediately went to the W.E.B. Du Bois chapter we read in class, and double-consciousness.  When Moss discusses the promises the child has to keep, such as “the promise that she bear Jim no bastards,” she is outlining this idea of double consciousness – the idea that this child must be aware of how other people are viewing her, along with the tasks at hand in her life and her own self-image.  The snow is the oppression that whites impose on blacks, and when the child shakes off the snow she is attempting to shake off that oppression.  But despite this effort, the poem ends with the sentiment that the child has miles to go before racial lines are successfully crossed.  In Frost’s poem, the snow is a potential threat to the man but is falling in a forest that belongs to a member of his own village, which is very different than the meaning of the snow in Moss’s poem.  Both poems follow a similar pattern, a weary traveler encounters a metaphoric snow in a metaphoric woods that does not belong to them and realizes he or she has miles and promises to go and keep before they can sleep or die.  However, Moss (an African-American)’s poem is racially charged, while Frosts (a white American)’s poem presents a universal journey-of-life struggle.  This brings up the question of whether or not the race of an author should matter – and if Moss’s poem is what Frost’s would look like if Frost were an African-American.  Could Frost’s poem and its universality work for both a majority and a minority audience, or does Moss’s poem bring something to the table that Frost’s cant?  I believe it does bring something more to the table…as it presents a struggle much more personal to a certain audience, and therefore much more meaningful.

Even though the Warren reading we discussed in class disagrees with this idea, black literature does still exist.  Moss, in the modern age, can write a meaningful poem about African-American struggle….made even more meaningful today than it could’ve back in the early 20th century by today’s modern critical racial theory and comparison to Frost.