ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 19

 - The New Historicism


In this lecture, Professor Paul Fry examines the work of two seminal New Historicists, Stephen Greenblatt and Jerome McGann. The origins of New Historicism in Early Modern literary studies are explored, and New Historicism’s common strategies, preferred evidence, and literary sites are explored. Greenblatt’s reliance on Foucault is juxtaposed with McGann’s use of Bakhtin. The lecture concludes with an extensive consideration of the project of editing of Keats’s poetry in light of New Historicist concerns.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 19 - The New Historicism

Chapter 1. Origins of New Historicism [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: So today we turn to a mode of doing literary criticism which was extraordinarily widespread beginning in the late seventies and into the eighties, called the New Historicism. It was definable in ways that I’ll turn to in a minute and, as I say, prevalent to a remarkable degree everywhere. It began probably at the University of California at Berkeley under the auspices, in part, of Stephen Greenblatt, whose brief essay you’ve read for today. Greenblatt and others founded a journal, still one of the most important and influential journals in the field of literary study, calledRepresentations–always has been and still is an organ for New Historicist thought. It’s a movement which began primarily preoccupied with the Early Modern period, the so-called “Renaissance.” The New Historicism is, in effect, responsible for the replacement of the term “Renaissance” with the term “Early Modern.”

Its influence, however, quickly did extend to other fields, some fields perhaps more than others. It would be, I think, probably worth a lecture that I’m not going to give to explain why certain fields somehow or another seem to lend themselves more readily to New Historicist approaches than others. I think it’s fair to say that in addition to the early modern period, the three fields that have been most influenced by the New Historicism are the eighteenth century, British Romanticism, and Americanist studies from the late colonial through the republican period. That age–the emergence of print culture, the emergence of the public sphere as a medium of influence, and the distribution of knowledge in the United States–has been very fruitfully studied from New Historicist points of view. So those are the fields that are most directly influenced by this approach. When we discuss Jerome McGann’s essay, you’ll see how it influences Romantic studies.

Now the New Historicism was–and this probably accounts for its remarkable popularity and influence in the period roughly from the late seventies through the early nineties–was a response to an increasing sense of ethical failure in the isolation of the text as it was allegedly practiced in certain forms of literary study. Beginning with the New Criticism through the period of deconstruction, and the recondite discourse of Lacan and others in psychoanalysis, there was a feeling widespread among scholars, especially younger scholars, that somehow or another, especially in response to pressing concerns–post-Vietnam, concerns with globalization, concerns with the distribution of power and global capital–all of these concerns inspired what one can only call a guilt complex in academic literary scholarship and led to a “return to history.” It was felt that a kind of ethical tipping point had been arrived at and that the modes of analysis that had been flourishing needed to be superseded by modes of analysis in which history and the political implications of what one was doing became prominent and central.

I have to say that in debates of this kind there’s always a considerable amount of hot air, perhaps on both sides. In many ways it’s not the case that the so-called isolated approaches really were isolated. Deconstruction in its second generation wrote perpetually about history and undertook to orient the techniques of deconstruction to an understanding of history, just to give one example. The New Historicism, on the other hand, evinced a preoccupation with issues of form and textual integrity that certainly followed from the disciplines, the approaches, that preceded them. Also to a large degree–and this is, of course, true of a good many other approaches that we’re about to investigate, approaches based in questions of identity also–to a large degree, appropriated the language of the generation of the deconstructionists and, to a certain extent, certain underlying structuralist ideas having to do with the binary relationship between self and other, and binary relationships among social entities, as opposed to linguistic entities; but still, as I say, essentially inheriting the structure of thought of preceding approaches. So, as I say, it was in a polemical atmosphere and at a moment of widespread self-doubt in the academic literary profession that the New Historicism came into its own–a response, as I say, to the isolation of the text by certain techniques and approaches to it.

Chapter 2. The New Historicist Method and Foucault [00:06:16]

Now very quickly: the method of New Historical analysis fell into a pattern, a very engaging one, one that’s wonderfully exemplified by the brief introduction of Greenblatt that I have asked you to read: a pattern of beginning with an anecdote, often rather far afield, at least apparently rather far afield, from the literary issues that are eventually turned to in the argument of a given essay. For example: a dusty miller was walking down the road, thinking about nothing in particular, when he encountered a bailiff, then certain legal issues arise, and somehow or another the next thing you know we’re talking about King Lear. This rather marvelous, oblique way into literary topics was owing to the brilliance in handling it of Greenblatt, in particular, and Louis Montrose and some of his colleagues. This technique became a kind of a hallmark of the New Historicism.

In the long run, of course, it was easy enough to parody it. It has been subjected to parody and, in a certain sense, has been modified and chastened by the prevalence of parody; but it nevertheless, I think, shows you something about the way New Historicist thinking works. The New Historicism is interested, following Foucault–and Foucault is the primary influence on the New Historicism. I won’t say as much about this today as I might feel obliged to say if I weren’t soon be going to return to Foucault in the context of gender studies, when we take up Foucault and Judith Butler together–but I will say briefly that Foucault’s writing, especially his later writing, is about the pervasiveness, the circulation through social orders, of what he calls “power.” Now power is not just–or, in many cases in Foucault, not even primarily– the power of vested authorities, the power of violence, or the power of tyranny from above. Power in Foucault–though it can be those things and frequently is–is much more pervasively and also insidiously the way in which knowledge circulates in a culture: that is to say, the way in which what we think, what we think that it is appropriate to think–acceptable thinking–is distributed by largely unseen forces in a social network or a social system. Power, in other words, in Foucault is in a certain sense knowledge, or to put it another way, it is the explanation of how certain forms of knowledge come to exist–knowledge, by the way, not necessarily of something that’s true. Certain forms of knowledge come to exist in certain places.

So all of this is central to the work of Foucault and is carried over by the New Historicists; hence the interest for them of the anecdotes. Start as far afield as you can imaginably start from what you will finally be talking about, which is probably some textual or thematic issue in Shakespeare or in the Elizabethan masque or whatever the case may be. Start as far afield as you possibly can from that, precisely in order to show the pervasiveness of a certain kind of thinking, the pervasiveness of a certain social constraint or limitation on freedom. If you can show how pervasive it is, you reinforce and justify the Foucauldian idea that power is, as I’ve said, an insidious and ubiquitous mode of circulating knowledge. All of this is implicit, sometimes explicit, in New Historicist approaches to what they do.

Chapter 3. The Reciprocal Relationship Between History and Discourse [00:10:56]

So as I said, Foucault is the crucial antecedent and of course, when it’s a question of Foucault, literature as we want to conceive of it–perhaps generically or as a particular kind of utterance as opposed to other kinds–does tend to collapse back into the broader or more general notion of discourse, because it’s by means of discourse that power circulates knowledge. Once again, despite the fact that New Historicism wants to return us to the real world, it nevertheless acknowledges that that return is language bound. It is by means of language that the real world shapes itself. That’s why for the New Historicist–and by this means, I’ll turn in a moment to the marvelous anecdote with which Greenblatt begins the brief essay that I’ve asked you to read–that’s why the New Historicist lays such intense emphasis on the idea that the relationship between discourse–call it literature if you like, you might as well–and history is reciprocal.

Yes, history conditions what literature can say in a given epoch. History is an important way of understanding the valency of certain kinds of utterance at certain times. In other words, history is–as it’s traditionally thought to be by the Old Historicism, and I’ll get to that in a minute–history is a background to discourse or literature. But by the same token there is an agency, that is to say a capacity, to circulate power in discourse in turn. Call it “literature”: “I am Richard II, know you not that?” says Queen Elizabeth when at the time of the threatened Essex Uprising she gets wind of the fact that Shakespeare’s Richard II is being performed, as she believes, in the public streets and in private houses. In other words, wherever there is sedition, wherever there are people who want to overthrow her and replace her with the Earl of Essex, the pretender to the throne, Richard II is being performed. Well, now this is terrifying to Queen Elizabeth because she knows–she’s a supporter of the theater–she knows that Richard II is about a king who has many virtues but a certain weakness, a political weakness and also a weakness of temperament–the kind of weakness that makes him sit upon the ground and tell sad tales about the death of kings, that kind of weakness, who is then usurped by Bolingbroke who became Henry IV, introducing a whole new dynasty and focus of the royal family in England. Queen Elizabeth says, “They’re staging this play because they’re trying to compare me with Richard II in preparation for deposing me, and who knows what else they might do to me?” This is a matter of great concern.

In other words, literature–Fredric Jameson says “history hurts”–literature hurts, too. [laughs] Literature, in other words, has a discursive agency that affects history every bit as much as history affects literature: literature “out there,” and theater–especially if it escapes the confines of the playhouse because, as Greenblatt argues, the playhouse has a certain mediatory effect which defuses the possibilities of sedition. One views literary representation in the playhouse with a certain objectivity, perhaps, that is absent altogether when interested parties take up the same text and stage it precisely for the purpose of fomenting rebellion. Literature, especially when escaped from its conventional confines, becomes a very, very dangerous or positive influence, depending on your point of view on the course of history.

So the relationship between history and discourse is reciprocal. Greenblatt wants to argue with a tremendous amount of stress and, I think, effectiveness that the New Historicism differs from the Old Historicism. This is on page 1443 in the right-hand column. John Dover Wilson, a traditional Shakespeare scholar and a very important one, is the spokesperson in Greenblatt’s scenario for the Old Historicism. The view I’m about to quote is that of John Dover Wilson, a kind of consensus about the relationship between literature and history:

Modern historical scholarship [meaning Old Historicism] has assured Elizabeth [laughs] that she had [this is the right-hand column about two thirds of the way down] [laughs] nothing to worry about: Richard II is not at all subversive but rather a hymn to Tudor order. The play, far from encouraging thoughts of rebellion, regards the deposition of the legitimate king as a “sacrilegious” act that drags the country down into “the abyss of chaos”; “that Shakespeare and his audience regarded Bolingbroke as a usurper,” declares J. Dover Wilson, “is incontestable.” But in 1601 neither Queen Elizabeth nor the Earl of Essex were so sure…

Greenblatt wins. It’s a wonderful example. It’s the genius of Greenblatt to choose examples that are so telling and so incontrovertible. We know Queen Elizabeth was scared [laughs] on this occasion, which makes it quite simply the case that John Dover Wilson was wrong to suppose that Richard II was no threat to her. It’s not at all the point that a broad, ideological view of Richard II was any different from what Wilson said; that was perfectly true. Bolingbroke wasconsidered a usurper. It was considered tragic that Richard II was deposed; but that doesn’t mean that the text can’t be taken over, commandeered and made subversive.

Wilson doesn’t acknowledge this because his view of the relationship between history and literature is only that history influences literature, not that the influence can be reciprocal. You see, that’s how it is that the New Historicism wants to define itself over and against the Old Historicism. If there is a political or ideological consensus about the legitimacy of monarchy, the divine right of kings, the legitimacy of succession under the sanction of the Church of England and all the rest of it–all of which is anachronistic when you’re thinking about these history plays–if there is this broad consensus, that’s itthat’s what the play means according to the Old Historicism, even though plainly you can take the plot of the play and completely invert those values, which is what the Essex faction does in staging it in those places where Queen Elizabeth suspects that it’s being staged.

Chapter 4. The Historian and Subjectivity [00:19:24]

Okay. Now another way in which the Old Historicism and the New Historicism differ–correctly, I think– according to Greenblatt is that in the Old Historicism there is no question–I’m looking at page 1444, the right-hand column about a third of the way down–of the role of the historian’s own subjectivity. “It is not thought,” says Greenblatt, “to be the product of the historian’s interpretation…” History is just what is. One views it objectively and that’s that.

Now notice here that we’re back with Gadamer. Remember that this was Gadamer’s accusation of historicism, the belief of historicism–what Greenblatt calls the Old Historicism–that we can bracket out our own historical horizon and that we can eliminate all of our own historical prejudices in order to understand the past objectively in and for itself. This is not the case, said Gadamer, remember. Gadamer said that interpretation must necessarily involve the merger of horizons, the horizon of the other and my own horizon as an interpreter. I cannot bracket out my own subjectivity.

Okay. If that’s the case, then Gadamer anticipates Greenblatt in saying that the naïveté of the Old Historicism is its supposition that it has no vested interest in what it’s talking about–that is to say, its supposition that it wants history to accord in one way or another with its own preconceptions, but isn’t aware of it. The anecdote–again, wonderfully placed in the polemical argument–that after all, John Dover Wilson delivered himself of these opinions about Richard II before a group of scholars in Germany in 1939 is, after all, rather interesting. Hitler is about to be the Bolingbroke of Germany. John Dover Wilson wants his audience to say, “Hey, wait a minute. Stick with vested authority. [laughs] You have a weak democracy, but it is a democracy. Don’t let it get away from you.” And so he is speaking, the horse already having escaped from the barn, in this reassuring way about German politics as a means of sort of reinforcing his own view of the politics of Elizabethan England.

But this, Greenblatt supposes, is something about which he has very little self-consciousness. That is to say, his own interest, as of course it should be on this occasion, is in the preservation of vested authority, and his own interest then folds back into his understanding of Elizabethan ideology in such a way that it can conform to that interest. He has, in other words, as we say today, a hidden agenda and is very little aware of it, unlike the New Historicist who, following Gadamer in this respect, is fully cognizant of the subjective investment that leads to a choice of interest in materials, a way of thinking about those materials, and a means of bringing them to life for us today and into focus. In other words, it’s okay for Greenblatt, as it was for Gadamer–much to the horror of E. D. Hirsch–to find the significance of a text, as opposed to the meaning of a text. The significance of the text is that it has certain kinds of power invested in it. Those kinds of power are still of interest to us today, still of relevance to what’s going on in our own world. All of this is taken up openly as a matter of self-consciousness by the New Historicists in ways that, according to Greenblatt and his colleagues, were not available consciously in the older Historicism.

Now the world as the New Historicism sees it–and after I’ve said this, I’ll turn to McGann–is essentially a dynamic interplay of power, networks of power, and subversion: that is to say, modes of challenging those networks even within the authoritative texts that generate positions of power. The Elizabethan masque, for example, which stages the relation of court to courtier, to visitor, to hanger-on in wonderfully orchestrated ways, is a means–because it’s kind of poly-vocal–of containing within its structure elements of subversion, according to the argument that’s made about these things: the same with court ritual itself, the same with the happenstance that takes place once a year in early modern England, in which the Lord of Misrule is so denominated and ordinary authority is turned on its ear for one day. Queen for a day, as it were, is something that is available to any citizen once a year. These are all ways of defusing what they, in fact, bring into visibility and consciousness–mainly the existence, perhaps the inevitable existence, of subversion with respect to structures and circulatory systems of power. It’s t

Chapter 5. Jerome McGann and Bakhtin [00:26:12]

his relationship between power and subversion that the New Historicism, especially in taking up issues of the Early Modern period, tends to focus on and to specialize in.

Now it’s not wholly clear that Jerome McGann has ever really thought of himself as a New Historicist. He has been so designated by others, but I think there is one rather important difference in emphasis, at least between what he’s doing and what Greenblatt and his colleagues do in the Early Modern period. McGann doesn’t really so much stress the reciprocity of history and discourse. He is interested in the presence of history, the presence of immediate social and also personal circumstances in the history of a text. His primary concern is with–at least in this essay–textual scholarship. He himself is the editor of the new standard works of Byron. He has also done a standard works of Swinburne, and he has been a vocal and colorful spokesperson of a certain point of view within the recondite debates of textual scholarship: whether textual scholarship ought to produce a text that’s an amalgam of a variety of available manuscripts and printed texts; whether the text it produces ought to be the last and best thoughts of the author–that’s the position that McGann seems to be taking in this essay–or whether the text, on the contrary, ought to be the first burst of inspiration of the author. All the people who prefer the earliest versions of Wordsworth’s Prelude, for example, would favor that last point of view. In other words, McGann is making a contribution here not least to the debates surrounding editing and the production of authoritative scholarly texts.

It’s in that context that the remarks he’s making about Keats have to be understood. I think the primary influence on McGann is not so much Foucault, then, with the sense of the circulation of power back and forth between history and literary discourse, as it is Bakhtin, whom he quotes on pages eighteen and nineteen; or whose influence he cites, I should say rather, in a way that, I think, does pervade what you encounter in reading what he then goes on to say at the bottom of page eighteen in the copy center reader:

What follows [says McGann] is a summary and extrapolation of certain key ideas set forth by the so-called Bakhtin School of criticism, a small group of Marxist critics from the Soviet Union who made an early attack upon formalist approaches to poetry [just as he, McGann, is, and as the New Historicists are themselves, in their turn, doing]. The Bakhtin School’s socio-historical method approaches all language utterances–including poems–as phenomena marked with their concrete origins and history.

That is to say, phenomena voiced by the material circumstances that produce them or phenomena, in other words, in which the voice of the Romantic solitary individual is not really that voice at all, but is rather the polyglossal infusion of a variety of perspectives, including ideological perspectives, shaping that particular utterance and also, in the case of the textual scholar, shaping which of a variety of manuscripts will be chosen for publication and for central attention in the tradition of the reception of a given text. So all of this McGann takes to be derived from Bakhtin rather than from Foucault. I do think that’s a significant difference between our two authors.

Chapter 6. McGann on Keats [00:30:28]

Now McGann’s most important contribution to the return to history of the seventies and eighties is a short book calledThe Romantic Ideology, and this book–well, what it is is an attack on Romanticism. At least it’s an attack on certain widely understood and received ideas about Romanticism–ideas with which, by the way, I don’t agree, but this course isn’t about me. The Romantic Ideology is an amalgam of two titles. One of them is the important early critique of Romanticism by the German poet and sometime Romantic Heinrich Heine called Die romantische Schule, or The Romantic School, in which the subjectivity, even solipsism, and the isolation from social concern and from unfolding historical processes of the Romantic poets is emphasized and criticized. In addition to that–that’s where the word “Romantic” comes from in the title The Romantic Ideology–the other title that it amalgamates is Marx’s book The German Ideology, which is about many things but is in particular about Lumpenproletariat intellectuals who think with Hegel– still following Hegel despite believing themselves to be progressive–who think with Hegel that thought produces material circumstances rather than the other way around: in other words people, in short, who are idealists and therefore, under this indictment, also Romantic.

McGann’s title, as I say, cleverly amalgamates these two other titles and sets the agenda for this short book, which is an attack not just on Romanticism but on what he believes to be our continued tendency still to be “in” Romanticism, still to be Romantic. There his particular object of attack is the so-called Yale school, which is still under attack in the essay that you’ve read for today. Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman’s well-known essay on Keats’s “To Autumn” are singled out for particular scorn and dispraise, all sort of on the grounds that yes, it’s all very well to read Romanticism, to come to understand it, and even to be fascinated by it; but we can’t be Romantic. In other words, our reading of Romanticism–if we are to be social animals, politically engaged, and invested in the world as a social community–must necessarily be an anti-Romantic critique. This is, as I say, still essentially the position taken up by McGann.

All right. So I’ve explained the ways in which he differs from Greenblatt in leaning more toward Bakhtin than toward Foucault. I have explained that McGann is engaged primarily in talking about issues of textual scholarship in this particular essay, that he defends Keats’s last deliberate choices, that he believes the so-called “indicator” text of 1820 of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is Keats’s last deliberate choice, as opposed to the 1848 text published by Monckton Milnes in the edition of Keats’s poems that he brought out at that time.

Now I think that in the time remaining to sort of linger over McGann, I do want to say a few things about what he says about Keats. I want to emphasize that his general pronouncements about the historicity of texts, about the permeation of texts by the circumstances of their production, their conditioning by ideological factors, is unimpeachable. It seems to me that this is a necessary approach at least to have in mind if not, perhaps, necessarily to emphasize in one’s own work of literary scholarship. The idea that a text just falls from a tree–if anybody ever had that idea, by the way [laughs] –is plainly not a tenable one, and the opposite idea that a text emerges from a complex matrix of social and historical circumstances is certainly a good one. So if one is to criticize, again it’s not a question of criticizing his basic pronouncements. It seems to me nothing could be said really against them. The trouble is that in the case of McGann–who is a terrific, prominent Romantic scholar with whom one, I suppose, hesitates to disagree–everything he says about the text that he isolates for attention in this essay is simply, consistently, wrong. It’s almost as if by compulsion that he says things that are wrong about these texts, and the reason I asked you in my e-mail last night to take a look at them, if you get a chance, is so that these few remarks that I make now might have some substance.

Take for example “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” In the first place, who says we only read the 1848 text? A scholarly edition–and his main object of attack is Jack Stillinger’s scholarly edition of Keats–gives you basically a variorum apparatus. Yeah, maybe it gives you a particular text in bold print, but it gives you the variant text in smaller print in a footnote. It doesn’t withhold the variant text from you. It says, “No, look, there’s this too. Take your choice.” Really the atmosphere of a variorum scholarly edition is an atmosphere of take your choice, not a kind of tyrannical imposition on the public of a particular version of the text. Everybody knows the 1820 Indicator text. “What can ail thee, wretched wight?” is at least as familiar to me, as a Romanticist, as “What can ail thee, knight at arms?” the way in which the 1848 text begins; and frankly how many people who aren’t Romanticists know anything about either text? What are we talking about here? [laughter] [laughs]

The Romanticists know what’s going on. They’re not in any way hornswoggled by this historical conspiracy against the 1820 indicator text, and people who aren’t Romanticists don’t care. That’s what it comes down to; but, if it’s not enough simply to say that, turning to the question of which text is better–well, it’s hard to say which text is better. McGann’s argument is that the 1820 version is better because it’s a poem about a guy and a girl who sort of meet, and the next thing you know they’re having sex and that doesn’t turn out so well. In other words, it’s about the real world. These things happen. It’s not a romance, whereas the “What can ail thee, wretched knight?” in the 1848 version–and all of its other variants, the “kisses four” and so on–the 1848 version is a kind of unselfconscious–in McGann’s view–romance subscribing to certain medieval ideas about women, simultaneously putting them on a pedestal and fearing, at the same time, that they’re invested with a kind of black magic which destroys the souls and dissipates the sap of deserving young gentlemen: all of this is ideologically programmed, according to McGann, in the 1848 version. Why? Because Charles Brown behaved despicably toward women, he didn’t like Fanny Brawne, and because Monckton Milnes, the actual editor of the 1848 edition, loved pornography and was a big collector of erotica. So that’s why the 1848 text with its fear of and denigration of women, in contrast to the 1820 text, is inferior.

Well, two things: first of all, who’s to say the 1848 text wasn’t Keats’s last thoughts? In other words, yes, he was already ill when the Indicator text was published in 1820. It is pretty close to the end of his ability to think clearly about his own work and to worry very much about the forms in which it was published, but at the same time we don’t know when Brown received his version of the text. We can’t suppose, as McGann more than half implies, that Brown just sort of sat down and rewrote it. [laughs] Nobody has ever really said that, and if he didn’t rewrite it, then Keats must have given it to him in that form. Who’s to say that wasn’t his last and best thoughts? Who’s to say Keats didn’t really want to write a poem of this kind? After all, the title, taken from a medieval ballad by Alain Chartier, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” bears out the “What can ail thee, knight at arms?” version. It’s about a Morgan Le Fay-type. For better or worse, whatever we think of that ideologically, it is about, if the title is right, the kind of woman who is evoked in the 1848 version, as opposed to the kind of woman who is evoked in the 1820 version.

So the 1848 version is simply more consistent with the title. That’s one point to be made, but the additional point to be made is that taking advantage of the New Historicist acknowledgement that one’s own subjectivity, one’s own historical horizon, is properly in play in thinking about these things, McGann is then able to infuse Keats’s text and therefore Keats’s intentions with a pleasing political correctness. That is to say, Keats can’t possibly have thought in that demeaning way about women. By the way, everything– I like Keats, but everything in his letters suggests that he did–but back to McGann: Keats can’t possibly have thought in that demeaning way about women. Therefore, the 1820 text is the text that he intended and preferred.

Okay. That, of course, makes Keats more consistent with our own standards and our own view of the relations between the sexes, but does it, in other words, make sense vis-à-vis the Keats whom we know and, despite his weaknesses and shortcomings, love? There is a great deal, in other words, to be said over against McGann’s assertions about this textual issue, not necessarily in defense of the 1848 text but agnostically with respect to the two of them, saying, “Yeah, we’d better have both of them. We’d better put them side-by-side. We’d better read them together; but if by some fiat the 1820 were somehow subsequently preferred to the 1848, that would be every bit as much of an historical misfortune as the preference, insofar as it has actually existed, of the 1848 or the 1820.” I think that’s the perspective one wants to take.

Now I was going to talk about “To Autumn.” I’ll only say about his reading of “To Autumn” that McGann, who doesn’t seem to like the poem very much–he likes “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” so he makes it politically correct. He doesn’t like “To Autumn” because he thinks that “Autumn” was published in collusion with Keats’s conservative friends in the Poemsof 1820, which bowdlerized everything he had to say of a progressive political nature. He thinks that “To Autumn” is a big sellout, in other words, and that yes, 1819 happened to be a year of good harvest, and so Keats turns that year of good harvest into something permanent, into a kind of cloud cuckoo-land in which the fruit falls into your basket and the fish jump into your net and everything is just perfect.

Well, do you think the poem is really like that? You’ve read the third stanza, which McGann totally ignores apart from “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?” In other words, he gives you the opening but he doesn’t give you any sense of the rest of the stanza, because for him “To Autumn” is all about the first stanza. For him, Keats seems to identify with the bees who think warm days will never cease, “for Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.” Keats is like a bee. He’s all into the sensuous.

Well, again just in terms of historical evidence, this is outmoded by at least eighteen months if we consult Keats’s letters. He was like that early in his career, but he has had severe misgivings about a point of view which is represented in what he said in an early letter: “Oh, for a life of sensations rather than thoughts…” That’s no longer Keats’s position when writing “To Autumn.” Keats’s position when writing “To Autumn” is the position of a guy who has a sore throat just as his tubercular brother did, who is increasingly afraid that he’s going to die soon and is trying to confront mortality in writing what is in fact–and I say “in fact” advisedly–the most perfect lyric ever written in the English language, and which is most certainly not a celebration of sort of wandering around like an aimless bee, thinking that the autumn is perfect but that autumn is always perfect, that warm days will never cease, and that everything is just lovely in the garden. It is not that kind of poem, and it’s really a travesty of it to suppose that it is simply on the grounds that it was published in the Poemsof 1820 as a kind of sellout to the establishment under the advice of Keats’s conservative friends.

Chapter 7. Tony the Tow Truck Revisited [00:45:54]

All right. So much then for McGann’s remarks on Keats, which I want to say again in no way impugn or undermine the general validity of the claims that he’s making about taking historical circumstances into account. Precisely, we need to take them into account and we need to get them right. That’s the challenge, of course, of working with historical circumstances. You have to get it right.

With that said, let me turn quickly to a review of Tony from Bakhtin to the New Historicism. I may glide over Tonyaccording to Jameson, because we did that at the end of the last lecture, so let me go back to Bakhtin. You can see the way in which in the structure of Tony the Tow Truck the first part of the poem is absolutely saturated with the first person singular: I do this, I do that, I like my job, I am stuck–I, I, I, I. Then as you read along through the text you see that the “I” disappears, or if it still appears, it’s in the middle of a line rather than at the beginning of a line. In other words, the “I,” the subjectivity, the first person singular, the sense of having a unique voice–this is gradually subsumed by the sociality of the story as it unfolds. I am no longer “I” defined as a Romantic individual. I am “I,” rather defined as a friend–that is to say, as a person whose relation with otherness is what constitutes his identity, and in that mutuality of friendship, the first person singular disappears. What is spoken in Tony the Tow Truck, in other words, in the long run is not the voice of individual subjectivity but the voice of social togetherness, the voice of otherness.

According to Jauss, the important thing about Tony the Tow Truck is that it is not the same story as The Little Engine that Could. In other words, in each generation of reception, the aesthetic standards that prevail at a given time are reconsidered and rethought, reshuffled. A new aesthetic horizon emerges, and texts are constituted in a different way, much also as the Russian formalists have said, only with the sense in Jauss of the historical imperative. The Little Engine that Could is all about the inversion of power between the little guy and the big guy, so that the little guy helps the big guy and that is unequivocal, showing, as in Isaiah in the Bible, that the valleys have been raised and the mountains have been made low. That’s not the way Tony the Tow Truck works. The little guy himself needs help. He needs the help of another little guy. There is a reciprocity not dialectically between little and big, but a mutual reinforcement of little-by-little, and that is the change in aesthetic horizon that one can witness between The Little Engine that Could and Tony the Tow Truck.

In Benjamin the important thing, as I think we’ve said, is the idea that the narrator is the apparatus. The humanization of a mechanized world, through our identification with it, is what takes place in Tony the Tow Truck. In other words, all these cars and trucks, all these smiling and frowning houses, of course, have as their common denominator their non-humanity, but the anthropomorphization of the cars and trucks and of the houses constitutes them as the human. They are precisely the human. We see things, in other words, from the point of view of the apparatus. Just as the filmgoer sees things from the point of view of the camera, so we see Tony the Tow Truck from the point of view of the tow truck, right? And what happens? Just as the camera eye point of view leaves that which is seen, as Benjamin puts it, “equipment-free”–so, oddly enough, if we see things from the standpoint of equipment, what we look at is the moral of the story: in other words, the humanity of the story. What we see, in other words, surrounded by all of this equipment, is precisely the equipment-free human aspect of reality. So Tony the Tow Truck works in a way that is consistent with Benjamin’s theory of mechanical reproduction. For Adorno, however, the acquiescence of this very figure–the apparatus of mechanical reproduction, of towing again and again and again–in the inequity of class relations, rejected as always by Neato and Speedy, proves that the apparatus which Benjamin’s theory takes to be independent of the machinations of the culture industry, that the apparatus in turn can be suborned and commandeered by the culture industry for its own purposes.

All right. I will skip over Jameson. The Old Historicist reading of Tony simply reconfirms a status quo in which virtue is clear, vice is clear, both are uncontested, and nothing changes–in other words, a status quo which reflects a stagnant, existent, unchanging social dynamic. The New Historicism in a lot of ways is doing this, but let me just conclude by suggesting that if literature influences history, Tony the Tow Truck might well explain why today we’re promoting fuel-efficient cars, why the attack on the gas guzzler and the SUV or minivan–remember the car that says “I am too busy”–is so prevalent in the story, and why if we read today’s headlines we need to get rid of the Humvee if GM is to prosper, and we need to downsize and streamline the available models. The little guys, Tony and Bumpy, reaffirm the need for fuel-efficient smaller vehicles and you can plainly see that Tony the Tow Truck is therefore a discourse that produces history. All of this, according to the prescription of Tony, is actually happening.

All right. Thank you very much. One thing that needs to be said about Tony the Tow Truck is it has no women in it, and that is the issue that we’ll be taking up on Thursday.

[end of transcript]

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