Most of us raised to think about history in the traditional way would read an account of a Revolutionary War battle written by an American historian in 1944. The questions asked by traditional historians and by new historicists are quite different, and that’s because these two approaches to history are based on very different views of what history is and how we can know it. For most traditional historians, history is a series of events that have a linear, causal relationship: event A caused event B, event B caused event C, and so on. Furthermore, they believe we are perfectly capable, through objective analysis, of uncovering the facts about historical events, and those facts can sometimes reveal the spirit of the age, that is, the world view held by the culture to which those facts refer. Indeed, some of the most popular traditional historical accounts have offered a key concept that would explain the worldview of a given historical population, such as the Renaissance notion of the Great Chain of Being which has been used to argue that the guiding spirit of Elizabethan culture was a belief in the importance of order in all domains of human life.1 You can see this aspect of the traditional approach in history classes that study past events in terms of the spirit of an age, such as the Age of Reason or the Age of Enlightenment, and you can see it in literature classes that study literary works in terms of historical periods, such as the neoclassical, romantic, or modernist periods. Finally, traditional historians generally believe that history is progressive, that the human species is improving over the course of time, advancing in its moral, cultural, and technological accomplishments. New historicists, in contrast, don’t believe we have clear access to any but the most basic facts of history. But our understanding of what such facts mean, of how they fit within the complex web of competing ideologies and conflicting social, political, and cultural agendas of the time and place in which they occurred is, for new historicists, strictly a matter of interpretation, not fact. Even when traditional historians believe they are sticking to the facts, the way they contextualize those facts (including which facts are deemed important enough to report and which are left out) determines what story those facts will tell. From this perspective, there is no such thing as a presentation of facts; there is only interpretation. Furthermore, new historicists argue that reliable interpretations are, for a number of reasons, difficult to produce. The first and most important reason for this difficulty, new historicists believe, is the impossibility of objective analysis. Like all human beings, historians live in a particular time and place, and their views of both current and past events are influenced in innumerable conscious and unconscious ways by their own experience within their own culture. Historians may believe they’re being objective, but their own views of what is right and wrong, what is civilized and uncivilized, what is important and unimportant, and the like, will strongly influence the ways in which they interpret events. Another reason for the difficulty in producing reliable interpretations of history is its complexity. For new historicists, history cannot be understood simply as a linear progression of events. At any given point in history, any given culture may be progressing in some areas and regressing in others. And any two historians may disagree about what constitutes progress and what doesn’t, for these terms are matters of definition. That is, history isn’t an orderly parade into a continually improving future, as many traditional historians have believed. It’s more like an improvised dance consisting of an infinite variety of steps, following any new route at any given moment, and having no particular goal or destination. Individuals and groups of people may have goals, but human history does not....
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