Historical and Biographical Literary Criticism

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Literary Theory/Critical Thinking
Historical and Biographical Literary Criticism

Lisa Schade Eckert, in How Does it Mean? Engaging Reluctant Readers Through Literary Theory, writes, “When the reader can accurately assume the author’s perspective, in a sense reenacting the author’s stance throughout the text, then the reader can come closest to discovering the authorial voice, and, consequently, the basic messages inherent in the work” (84).

Historical or contextual information seems particularly relevant when there has been a significant cultural shift in the time between conception of a piece of literature and its consumption by a viewer, reader, listener, etc. Often it is necessary for the reader to judge a work of art, not only based upon their impressions of the cultural statements being made in the work informed by their own social and cultural history, but of the statements being made within the context of the period in which the piece was created.

For example, we may judge Shakespeare’s presentation and treatment of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew as particularly harsh, even abusive, by today’s standards; or we may view it as somewhat enlightened, even genteel, when judged in light of typical treatment of women in Elizabethan England.

A similar case could be made for The Merchant of Venice. While many contemporary scholars and critics could argue that the work is an unenlightened, cold-hearted, satirical anti-Semitic treatment of a stock comedic character grounded in stereotype (especially when judged by contemporary sensitivities), many argue that, given common English sentiment toward and understanding of Jews in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the depth with which Shakespeare crafted the character would have been uncommonly conscientious. On the surface, the unenlightened audience member could laugh at the parody of the greedy Jew, but beneath the superficial, the more enlightened audience member could be quite taken aback by the character. “hath not a Jew eyes…”

This is at the heart of Biographical criticism. But thorough understanding of the forces at work outside the author—indeed those that have made that person who he or she is—are important in fully understanding a literary work. In historical or biographical literary criticism, a reader (or critic) will consider social, economic, military, scientific, intellectual, literary and other factors that helped shape and/or will help the reader better understand the text. Moreover, the literary work is a reflection of the author’s life, and their literary work should be studied in conjunction with the author’s life for full meaning and appreciation. This does not mean, however, correlating events in works of fiction with biographical events. Care must be taken when doing so, yet psychological and social factors often weigh heavily in critical consideration of texts.

What follows is as a description of the various genres of contextual criticism along with practical steps to take when researching a cultural milieu in order to better understand a work of literature. In addition to this, I have provided activities and a list of relevant terms so that students may better understand the concept of historical and biographical criticism.

Historical Criticism

During the nineteenth century, the growing faith in science influenced both literature and the interpretation of literature. Historical criticism became a popular approach. Historical criticism emphasizes the social and cultural environment that surrounds a work. Influenced by the philosophical outlook of an era, literature can be grouped into periods or movements that demonstrate common methods of composition and subject matter. Historical criticism is responsible for terms like neoclassicism, romanticism, modernism and is generally the method used to categorize literature in anthologies.

Historical criticism has several goals including the study of a particular culture and the evolution of literary tradition. Historical criticism attempts to understand literary references in the context of the environment in which they were written since both language and taboos change overtime.
Steps to take when considering the historical context:

-Determine historical period of the work.

-Consider major events, values, beliefs, etc. of the period.

-Consider how work fits with, or stands apart from, mainstream values or beliefs of the time.

-Consider other texts (both serious and popular) of the time that might give reader insight into the time period.

Social Criticism

Social Criticism is also very similar to historical criticism in that it recognizes the influence of environment on literature. Social criticism became very popular during the Great Depression as many critics attempted to apply Marxist solutions to the overwhelming issues of poverty and class distinction.

Social criticism is still a valid form of literary interpretation, however. Literature not only serves as a reflection of the social issues of its time, but it may attempt to reform them as well. Social criticism seeks to define the social situations represented in a work as well as the author's attitude towards them.
Biographical Criticism

Closely related to historical criticism, biographical criticism studies how an individual author's life and thoughts influence a work. This approach is particularly useful when a work is ahead of its time or seems to breach two historical periods. Biographical criticism is not the attempt to draw parallels between the author's life and his fiction, but rather a study of the author's intention and audience.

Biographical criticism seeks to illuminate the deeper meaning of themes, conflicts, characters, settings and literary allusions based on the author's own concerns and conflicts. One drawback to this approach is the reliance of source material that may not be accurate or complete. How reliable is the biography? How objective is the autobiography?
Steps to take when considering biographical context:

-Investigate the author’s life using biographies, autobiographies, letters, etc.

-Consider how information may be relevant to further understanding of the author’s work.

-Consider how the beliefs and values of the author may or may not reflect the values of his or her time.

However, New Critics refer to the historical / biographical critic's belief that the meaning or value of a work may be determined by the author's intention as "the intentional fallacy." They believe that this approach tends to reduce art to the level of biography and make it relative (to the times) rather than universal.

-Skylar Burris, Ancient Paths literary magazine www.literatureclassics.com/ancientpaths/litcrit.html#historical)

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