Historical Criticism

Historical criticism generally pursues the authentication of the nonfictional text (e.g., diary, letter, governmental report) and the documentary information it provides about persons and events it discusses and their historical context. A good example is provided by V. H. Stanton’s review of the authorship of the gospel of Mark. Literary criticism, in contrast, focuses on fiction (e.g., poem, novel) and examines the historical context in order to illuminate the text. These are not ironclad definitions. Historians frequently analyze fictional texts, but usually their purpose is to learn about their historical era, rather than learning about the literary tradition of the text. Literary critics often address nonfictional literature, such as travel and nature description, but usually they are interested in the text as literature, rather than for its report of conditions in the countryside. When literary critics speak of “historical criticism,” they refer to the theory that literary texts are fully products of their historical setting.

David Boucher, Texts in Context: Revisionist Methods for Studying the History of Ideas (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1985);

Stanley Fish, “Introduction,” pp. 1-17, “How Ordinary Is Ordinary Language?,” pp. 97-111, and “Normal Circumstances … and Other Special Cases,” pp. 268-292, in Is There A Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980);

Brewster Rogerson, “Criticism,” pp. 158-174, in Alex Preminger, Editor, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Enlarged Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974);

V.H.S. [Vincent Henry Stanton], “Mark, Gospel of,” pp. 729-30, Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. XVII, 11th ed. (1911);

RenĂ© Wellek and Austin Warren, “The Extrinsic Approach to the Study of Literature,” pp. 73-138, in Theory of Literature, Third Edition, Reprint edition (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1956).