Citation: “The Power of Formalism: The New Historicism.” ELH 56 (1989): 721-71.

  • DOI: 10.2307/2873158
  • Open access (published version in institutional repository, viewable online and downloadable as PDF)
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      Translations of essay:

    • “El Poder del Formalismo: El Nuevo Historicismo.” Nuevo Historicismo. Ed. Antonio Penedo y Gonzalo Pontón. Madrid: Arco/Libros, 1998. 193-261.
    • “Die Macht des Formalismus: Der New Historicism.” New Historicism. Literaturgeschichte als Poetik der Kultur. Ed. Moritz Baßler. Frankfurt am M.: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1995. 94-163.
    • “Il potere del formalismo:il nuovo storicismo.” Trans. Angela Tranfo. L’Asino d’oro 4.8 (November 1993; special issue on “Il nuovo storicismo“): 78-122.


Excerpt from pages 754-55

Only on the basis of an adequate history of the New Historicism, I suggest, can an adequate theory of the method be articulated. This is because only an awareness of shared cultural contexts will provide the missing medium in which to see the commonality of the New Historicism and those criticisms it has so far sought to distinguish itself from. As I have throughout implied, it is simply not the case that the New Historicism is essentially different from formalism. [W]hat kind of movement is subversion anyway—the single action still allowed in a New Historicist universe become like a gigantic, too-quiet house within which, somewhere, in one of the walls, perhaps, insects chew? (p. 734)It is more true to say that it is an ultimate formalism so “powerful” that it colonizes the very world as its “text.” The New Historicism opens the door between text and context in a spirit of seeming equivalence such that the metaphoricity I earlier signalled ultimately confuses tenor and vehicle: the context is the text and vice versa (e.g., Montrose: “The new orientation to history . . . may be succinctly characterized, on the one hand, by its acknowledgement of the historicity of texts. . . . [and] On the other hand . . . by its acknowledgement of the textuality of history . . .”). But from the perspective of literary studies, we recognize, the result is an imperialism of textual and specifically formal analysis: a sudden expansion of methods of thought previously segregated to paradoxical, ambiguous, or ironic literature. To “read” the world, after all, is not an ideologically neutral act. It is to appropriate the world from the masses of the less articulate and literate. It is a statement of privilege.

A theory of the New Historicism, then, should not eschew its formalist origins but embrace those origins together with the historical conditions that prompted them. It would seek to explain both contextually and textually its borrowings from formalisms early and late, New Critical or deconstructive.