Historical Criticism

We will be looking at Historical
Criticism. Historical criticism explores the historical, social, political, and
cultural time of a literary work. Historical critics believe that these
points influence literature, and must be explored in order to understand the
writer’s meaning. For example, a person writing as he or she crosses the United
States in a covered wagon will tell a very different story than a person
talking about the Vietnam War or Super Bowl 49. Historical criticism
explores both the time period within the story and the time period of the writing.
The writer’s purpose is best understood when we understand the meanings and
words used in a certain time period; this includes what the words meant in the
story, and what the words meant when the writer lived. How the audience responds
to the literary work is also important in historical criticism. For
example, in “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen, a “man of no profession” meant a
“gentleman, a man of wealth. When the book was written, “profession” meant any job or
work for pay; therefore, a man of no profession meant that the person did not
have a job at all and was wealthy enough that he did not have to work. Today, not
having a job is more likely to mean “someone unemployed,” or a “bum.” Knowing about the laws of the time would also be important. An example of this would be the fact that because women in “Sense and Sensibility” could not own property, the
women were impoverished, even though their father died a very wealthy man.
Here are some strategies for conducting historical criticism: first, research the
author’s time. Then, relate the information you find about the time or
the conditions to the literary work. Also, examine the literary work and look for
references to specific conditions or events. Look at the political history, the
literary period, the economic history, the cultural climate, and the social
environment. Here are some examples: Did the author live in a democracy, or was
there a king? Were science fiction novels popular? Were computers invented? Did
people live in houses? tents? castles? Was the literary work written during a time of prosperity, or does it talk about what prosperity should look like? Do kids play outside and walk to school? Do cellphones, Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon exist, or
does “Amazon” mean “a female warrior?” If you read “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
by Martin Luther King, Jr., you need to understand the references to people such
as Rosa Parks, and situations, like the boycotting of buses and businesses. You
need to know what was going on in that time period, and different people’s
attitudes toward freedom, how to best gain freedom, and the relationship of
people to each other and society at the time. You can often tell an author’s
attitude about something by the words he or she chooses. Does the literary work
talk about going to school, or the right to go to school, for example? Thank you for watching this presentation
on Historical Criticism.

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