Analytical Commentary Assessment System: Sample Commentary (Historicity)
Historicity Commentary on the Reader Response Artifact, “Montana, 1948, Isolation, Adolescence…”
On Historicity in General
In his role as Head of the English Department at UIC, Don Marshall once opened a meeting with a pronouncement (or a side comment after a pronouncement), “There are no essences to things, just histories.” This statement, I’d suggest (with a tinge of irony) characterizes an “essence” of postmodernism, one of the Big Ideas of contemporary criticism. Context is king; the greater part of every text is its context, which includes not only where it came from, but how things evolved over time to create the conditions of the text’s coming into being. Context is stuff that is not there in the text, but that somehow forms and in-forms the text that is there.
Put otherwise, contemporary criticism, whatever the brand, emphasizes the situated nature of textuality, of language, of thinking, of critique, of analysis—of every human activity. Kenneth Burke gives us a version of Marshall’s pronouncement in his philosophical analysis of “substance”—which etymologically means “to stand beneath”: substance is not a “thing”—but a means of placement.
Scholars in literary studies have found various ways to discover what “stands beneath” any text under consideration. The context might be conceived of as formal, historical, psychological, cultural, biological, social, economic, and so on. The text is both an effect and a cause of such contexts, and a large part of the task of criticism, it seems, is navigating possible claims and alignments pertinent to or possible in regards to the text and these various contexts.
Prior to New Criticism—and in part contributing to the methodological developments of New Criticism—traditional historical criticism more or less looked to make connections between the literary work and the author’s biography, social milieu, and historical events and ideas, often in an impressionistic and factoid-based way. After New Criticism—and the development of post-structuralist and postmodern methods and schools of critique, a “New” Historicism developed, which took a much more systematic and comprehensive approach to the relationship of the text and the environment out of which it arose. New Historicist critics investigate how literary works reflect cultural constructs of social and political power, and looks for the way power structures reproduce themselves in cultural practices. All historical criticism, from traditional to New Historicism take the relationship between the work and the culture that produces it as the central point of access into understanding the meaning and significance of the literary work.
On Historicity in “Montana, 1948, Isolation, Adolescence. . .”
My artifact, “Montana, 1948, Isolation, Adolescence. . .” presents a reader response to Larry Watson’s novel, Montana 1948, that attempts to trace an appreciative connection I felt with the story’s narrator, an adolescent boy. My appreciation focuses on the role of the narrator as a passive part of the novel’s landscape, rather than an actor in it. The narrator’s passivity and isolation portrayed aspects of adolescence that seemed both authentic and relatable. These aspects include powerlessness, confusion, perturbations, the “Secret,” and the bystander (or “cauldron”), aspect of adolescence.
This artifact is relevant to the idea of historicity as developed in this commentary—but primarily in a negative way. The artifact culminates in a view that Montana, 1948 depicts an archetype of adolescence. My artifact is undergirded by an essentialist view about adolescence as a universal experience that is knowable and recurrent despite culture, time, place, and events. “The isolation of adolescence is archetypal, and the depiction of it in this novel reverberates in my unconscious and in the collective unconscious, one feels, of all who have survived adolescence.”
But my artifact also resists an “either-or” position in regards to the role of history and archetypes/essences. My artifact argues that the situatedness of history matters in a far more formative way than as a mere “factor” in this novel. My current project of writing this historicity commentary draws my attention to the novel’s title in a way I hadn’t considered explicitly earlier: Montana, 1948 is a book with a title that calls attention to a specific place and time, and thus would seem to take a very conscious stand on the issues of historicity. Despite the lack of a reference to the title, the artifact nonetheless discusses the way that novel functions as an “extended definition” of Montana, 1948 (taken either as the novel’s title or the naming of a place and time). As presented in the artifact and novel, Montana is something to be blamed/not to be blamed; it is fierce, wild; it is the Wild, Wild West; and on it goes. It is a cause and a victim (“Don’t ever blame Montana!”) of the events in the novel.
The artifact concludes that the events and actions of the text collectively create a rich, troubling, suggestive, complex definition of something that needs a great deal of discursiveness to be presented or even approached with understanding: “This book teaches, in its quietly desperate way, the need for extended definition” . . . of—we might add in the terms of this artifact commentary—any historical context.
The artifact suggests that critical understanding and aesthetic appreciation come in the layering of contexts—be they of historical particularities, of “essences”/archetypes of a collective unconscious, of cultural milieus (this latter seen in the artifact’s reader response that contrasts the novel’s passive depiction of adolescence with contemporary society’s “cult of adolescent cool”), etc. While lacking the methodological rigor of a specifically New Historicist approach (which offers the most thorough means of seeing the reciprocal relationship between the text and the historical grounding of its creation), the artifact also suggests how a reader’s response might help one take stock of possibilities for analysis—even if those possibilities don’t cohere in a systematic way.