Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why Read?-Historicizing

Why Read?-Historicizing

I was surprised in class to learn that several people dislike the process of historicizing, finding it more of an inhibitor than an aide. In my favorite English classes, the professors presented the historical background of the narratives or poetry being studied in an attempt to enhance our understanding of the pieces. I respond well to this type of analyzing because it offers me more than just my initial interpretation; I am given an additional focal lens through which I can enjoy the discovery of different perspectives and thus interpretations.

While studying Why Read?, I initially thought Edmundson shared the dissatisfied view that our discussion Wednesday touched briefly on, due to his chapter entitled “Literary Life,” in which he criticizes studying the historic context of literature. This topic recurred during the sections “History Now” and “Always Historicize?”. However, his musings were drastically contrary to his initial statements found in earlier sections. In the first, Edmundson states that “by studying history we can attach ourselves to human efforts and human energies larger than ourselves and bring our personal force into the great wave of unfolding, collective hopes” and that “without history to teach how hard it is…one is likely to be content with mere literary half-truths” (p 116, 118). Again, this is precisely how I view the practice of historicizing: it is an enhancing guide that ultimately broadens our literary experience. Understanding the complex, nuanced motives of the author and the time period that he or she was living in helps to color our original interpretation and gives us a foundation that we can more easily expand upon. Then in the later section he revisits his earlier negative views and sarcastically alludes that by concentrating on the past, readers fail to connect works with the present. I could not disagree more, as I have made clear. Then he shifts positions again and claims that “…historical interpretations …allows us to read a past text in more nuanced ways” (p. 119). For me, the last section of this book is almost obnoxious due to Edmundson’s consistent tendency to vacillate.

Why did Edmundson write his sections regarding historicizing (or any others, as indecisiveness is a common occurrence in this book) in this way? Do you agree with the way that I have read this final section? What are your feelings on the process of historicizing itself and how has it affected, negatively or positively, your study of literature?


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  2. In my opinion, Edmundson's indecisiveness may be due to the fact that there are both pros and cons to historicizing.

    On one hand, I think historicizing can help the reader to understand where the writing is coming from by studying the time period. In my opinion, if the reader's intention is to study a work as the author intended or may have subconsciously implied, reviewing his personal life and the history of the time is crucial. After all, every person is shaped by his experiences, and an author is most likely going to write based on his experiences and historical/social influences. For example, when reading works by Hemingway, knowing that he was an expatriate writing from Paris, or that he had volunteered as an ambulance driver in WWI can help us to understand why he wrote what he wrote.

    Also, when a writer writes, he is writing to a certain audience. Since times are always changing, I think it is good to keep in mind the author, his audience, and his history.

    On the other hand, I don't think historicizing should dictate what you should take away from a novel. I personally don't believe there is only one interpretation to a piece of writing. Humans themselves are complex beings, so I don't see why their writings should be limited to a certain view or interpretation. I think historicizing can help you to understand what may have inspired the work, however, how the reader reads the work is solely up to the reader.

    I guess in a sense, it sounds like I am contradicting myself, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that it doesn't have to be black and white. Perhaps what Edmundson was trying to say was that it is good to understand the history that produced the work, but that the reader shouldn't limit himself by fixating solely on the past.

  3. I think the contradictions are the key. It allows us to see and agree with opposing points and to step away from western thought where we find that everything is connected. Maybe it's the ying and yang of things. I should be able to come up with literary examples but historizing should be done delicately. How many works have been taken out of context? How many figurative statements have been overlooked especially when based on racial or sexual identity? More so, what about works that may be stretched to say something that wasn't intended... even if it's a great interpretation?

    I have not read the novel but the film, The Wizard of Oz comes to mind. Was Judy Garland's portrayal of Dorthy intended as to be seen as a gay icon or is this just an amazing interpretation? I always found the film entertaining but when introduced to this interpretation found new meaning and importance in the movie. I just don't know if I buy the idea that it was intended.