Ms. Sandford historical-biographical

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Historical Criticism looks for evidence about the economic, social, and political events going on at the time a literary work was produced to explain the content of its literary works. In other words, if one is to fully appreciate and understand a text, one must first consider its historical context. In doing so, readers will be able to make important connections between content and context.


Biographical Criticism examines the author’s biography to show the relationship between their life and their literature. This approach allows readers to better understand the elements within a work, as well as relate to the authorial intention and audience.


As the name suggests, the Historical-Biographical Approach combines the two methods for interpreting texts. It “views a literary work chiefly, if not exclusively, as a reflection of the author’s life and times or the life and times of the characters in the work” (Guerin, 22). Historical and Biographical criticism are closely related. They are an intertwining of the two distinct but complimentary approaches.


Samuel Johnson was the first biographical critic who helped establish a significant part of the historical-biographical approach. In his work, Lives of Poets (1779), he provides a truthful account of authors’ lives and their literary achievements; this work ultimately gave rise to the biographical approach and popularized it in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Douglas Bush was a literary critic and a literary historian that has helped to define the approach. From his point of view, the purpose of historical and biographical criticism is to “understand that literature belongs to the past.” He argues that “every work must be understood on its own terms as the product of a particular mind in a particular setting. The very ‘pastness’ of a work is part of its meaning and must be realized to the best of our power” (Guerin, 23).


In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Young Goodman Brown, he refers to three dark events from the Puritan history: The Salem Witch Trials, the Puritan intolerance of the Quakers, and King Phillip’s War. Although Hawthorne was ashamed to admit it, his Puritan ancestors were directly involved in these events and his story, Young Goodman Brown, directly reflects the influence that his association with these events had on Hawthorne himself.

  • During the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1692) people in colonial Massachusetts who were thought to be witches were put on trial for their sins then, if found guilty as most were, they were burned alive. Accusations were often based on jealousy, revenge and loose speculations about involvement with witchcraft. It was an evil act of brutality and Hawthorne’s ancestors were actively involved in carrying out the process (his great-grandfather was one of the judges). Hawthorne felt guilty about his family’s involvement in the Salem Witch Trials, so he added a “w” to his last name in order to separate himself from the evil acts of his ancestors. It is believed that Hawthorne’s reference to the Salem Witch Trials in his story Young Goodman Brown was an ironic attempt to dispel rumors about his controversial family history.

  • Puritans and Quakers were two prominent religions groups in the second half of the seventeenth that settled in America to build their own colonies to practice their religions. However, the Puritans began forbidding the Quakers from settling in their towns and ultimately this intolerance led to imprisonment and hangings of many Quakers. Hawthorne’s Puritan grandfather, William Hathorne, settled in Boston in the 1630s and was involved in the persecution of the Quakers. In Young Goodman Brown, the devil refers to seeing Goodman’s grandfather whipping a Quaker in the streets.

  • King Philip’s War took place from 1675 to 1676. It was essentially a massacre of Indians by Puritan colonists, like Hawthorne’s grandfather William Hathorne. In Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, the devil refers to handing Goodman’s father a flaming torch to set an Indian village on fire; this is an undeniable connection to Hawthorne’s shameful family history.

Through critically examining the historical and biographical context of Young Goodman Brown, readers are able to experience a deeper understanding of the text and Hawthorne’s works as a whole.


Guerin, Wilfred L., et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature: Sixth Edition. Oxford University Press: New York, New York, 2011. Print

“Introduction to Modern Literary Theory.” Homepage – Dr. Kristi Siegel, Associate Professor, N.p.

Oct 28. 2012, <>

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