Professor Jennifer K.
LA496 Research and Writing in the Liberal Arts
The Author is Dead, But Not Gone
Applying Historicism and Author’s Intent to Major Literary Movements
If acclaimed author Mrs. Smith writes a novel to combat communistic values in schools, is her novel’s message that communism is bad for schools? Most movements of literary criticism respond with a resounding “not necessarily.” They have dethroned the author “from any special, metaphysical importance” in the realm of interpretation. (Loter) In doing so, they ignore the simplest aids of the literary critic: author’s intent and historical context. What has for many centuries been the guide to interpretation has in one century been discarded entirely in favor of unbounded subjectivity. Though an author’s intent is not always clear, there is no sufficient reason to reject the available evidence from affecting one’s interpretation of a text. This exhortation may seem obvious to some readers, but complex philosophies have clouded the matter of interpretation. Resolving some of this uncertainty is essential to a well-rounded understanding of literary criticism and—more importantly—how to interpret great texts.
Though major literary movements raise legitimate objections to the historical interpretation of literature, most fail to persuade against any use of historical context. This paper will attempt to explain how author’s intent and historical context can be integrated into most major literary movements. We will first examine the fundamental differences between pro- and anti-historicists. This will provide the foundation necessary to examine the primary objections to historical and intentional interpretation, and more importantly how a tempered approach to the issue can improve the major schools of literary theory. To accomplish this, we will look at a dichotomy that has arisen between major movements, primary objections to intentionalism, and how the use of historical context and author’s intent can improve major literary movements.
Before diving in, let us examine a few terms to avoid confusion. In this work, I will refer to both author’s intent and historical context. The two are not interchangeable; however, the former is included in the latter. Historical context can, therefore, refer to an author’s culture and influences as well as intent. The term “intentionalism” refers to criticism that accepts author’s intent as a legitimate tool of interpretation. “Historicism” refers to criticism that accepts history as such a tool. That history, of course, includes author’s intent: his intent is both part of history because it is in the past and because the culture of his day influenced his thoughts.
Now that our main terms are defined, we must confront the first source of confusion in considering author’s intent. That source involves whether the opposing sides are even arguing over the same thing.
In the intelligentsia’s quest to do away with the author, a false dichotomy has arisen. On one side of the spectrum is the age-old idea that the author’s intent should determine the meaning of a text. This school believes that the best place to go to understand a work of literature is the one who forged it. In this system, his ideas, personality, and culture (to the extent knowable) guide the critic to a proper understanding of a text.
The stark opposite view, that taken by New Criticism and advocates of structural forms of criticism, is that nothing exists outside of the text that should concern the interpreter. (Delahoyde) Details of understanding differ, but the usual stance of these movements is that a legitimate conception of a text should be formed without consulting the potentially contaminating influence of historical context. Keats’ poetry, they argue, should be interpreted with exclusive reference to the verse itself. Details of Keats’ personal life, interesting though they may be, should have no bearing on interpretation.
Could two views be more exclusive? Yet the two address different aspects of the interpretive spectrum. Historically informed critics, such as W. P. Ker, tend to apply their methods to an entire text with the intent of discovering the general meaning of a text. (Encyclopædia Britannica) The ubiquitous “close reading,” however, is used on a passage-by-passage basis. In short, an author’s intent tends to affect the general meaning of a work, whereas text-only critics use methods that demonstrate meaning on a sentence or paragraph level. They are, in essence, arguing for different things.
Another type of criticism that must find its way into any comprehensive consideration is Reader-response theory. This method of interpretation, which entrusts meaning to readers’ experiences, can apply to general or specific interpretation, depending on the reader. Reader-response, therefore, does not ignore author’s intent. It simply amalgamates it into the group of interpretations from all readers.
Then where do these pro- and anti-intentional camps diverge? Author’s intent is ignored not because it is impossible to apply, but because the philosophy assumed to be behind author’s intent (that the author knew what he was doing) conflicts with the philosophies of other movements’ philosophies. Therefore, the primary difference between these camps is not whether author’s intention matters, but whether texts have multiple meanings. If there is a dichotomy between the two groups, this is it. With this we discover the first objection to considering author’s intent and historical context: texts have more than one meaning. An examination of this and other complaints against extratextual criticism will guide our effort to produce a balanced look at interpretation.
The first and greatest battle of literary movements is the battle of subjectivity. According to Steven Knapp and Waltern Benn Michael’s seminal text, Against Theory,
Contemporary theory has taken two forms. Some theorists have sought to ground the reading of literary texts in methods designed to guarantee the objectivity and validity of interpretations. Others, impressed by the inability of such procedures to produce agreement among interpreters, have translated that failure into an alternative mode of theory that denies the possibility of correct interpretation. (1)
The movements that most strongly fall into the latter camp are deconstruction and post-structuralism. Deconstruction “focuses on the inherent, internal contradictions in language and interpretation” (Quinn 89), whereas post-structuralism argues that “meaning is indeterminate since any given text can be interpreted in various, even conflicting ways.” (Quinn 255) The former revels in conflict, the latter in diversity. Either way, they have embraced the idea that because a single meaning is not always apparent, there must therefore be no definite meaning at all.
Deconstruction’s goal is to embarrass a text’s logic by hammering on marginal elements. (Eagleton 116) This leads to squirrelly interpretations that latch onto minor elements of a text for general understanding. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, subjected to deconstruction, could be interpreted based on the similarity between the words “bonnet” and “Bennet” or how frequently Mr. Collins mentions Rosings Park. Using the same example, post-structuralism would examine how viewing Pride and Prejudice from different perspectives would provide different (and to it legitimate) meanings. A feminist would see it as a text of female struggle in a pro-male age. A Socialist would see it through the lens of the oppressive nature of Imperialism.
According to these movements then, a text cannot be said to have only one meaning. An author has no control over what his words mean. No control over his ideas. The ideas need to be examined based on how they interplay and on the conflicting messages they send. The fact remains, however, that the author did write particular words. C. S. Lewis, in his Experiment in Criticism, put it this way: “The truth is not that we need the critics in order to enjoy the authors, but that we need the authors in order to enjoy the critics.” (123)
Too much fuss is made over the author’s intent one way or the other. It can be glorified as supreme or subjected to the darkest castigation. Neither is fair to the simple idea that there are some things an author obviously does not intend for his work to mean. Say what you will, Macduff’s resistance against Macbeth does not refer to the class warfare that flushes Marxists with boyish pleasure. This does not mean that it is ridiculous to use one to parallel the other, but the fact is that Shakespeare was not a child of the revolution. A man of that time could not have supported those views.
Advocates of close reading gravely note that occasionally nothing of the author’s intentions and only sketchy historical context are available. After all, who knows what Homer thought of The Odyssey, or what Shakespeare thought of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? My answer is to apply close reading. Consider what historical context you have. The occasional ineffectiveness of author’s intent, however, does not provide reason to discard it entirely. To say that a few exceptions disprove the effectiveness of a technique in any situation is akin to arguing that diplomacy should never be attempted because it has occasionally led to force.
Some argue that the past is not a reliable guide to interpretation. New Criticism shunned critics who applied unimportant details about an author to the author’s work. An author’s work should be considered, they argued, based on its own characteristics, not the author’s childhood, marriage, or facial features. Their solution was close reading—that there is nothing but the text. Terry Eagleton, literary theorist, declares that in dispelling “anecdotal irrelevancies, ‘close reading’ also held at bay a good deal else: it encouraged the illusion that any piece of language, ‘literary’ or not, can be adequately studied or even understood in isolation.” (38)
A movement that attempts to correct this deficit is New Historicism, a movement whose aim is to pay proper attention to the “interplay between the text and historical contexts (such as the author’s life or intentions in writing the work).” (Ross & Supryia) New Historicism takes care to avoid projecting modern attitudes on past works lest they “find symptoms of the author’s hidden attitudes where there are in reality only symptoms of his age or his remoteness from London.” (Lewis 119) To say that history is an unreliable guide rejects the good and the bad. Because history too can have multiple interpretations does not mean that care cannot be taken to apply it to literature.
Consider Mark Twain’s works. Interpreted without the guide of history, some language in his text could be considered racist. During Twain’s time however, such language was not considered offensive in the way it is today. Interpreting Huckleberry Finn as an anti-African American text is unreasonable in the light of some carefully handled history.
The literary schools most diametrically opposed to my thesis are the descendants of structuralism—namely, post-structuralism, postmodernism, and deconstruction. This difference is procedural as well as philosophical. The procedural difference is that author’s intent does not matter. He has produced his work and is done affecting it. End of story. The philosophical difference, however, is deeper.
According to the descendants of structuralism, meaning is not singular. That is, one text or passage can mean multiple or contradictory things. Deconstruction, for example, declares that because there is a multiplicity of meanings in a text, a singular author’s intent would conflict with deconstruction’s ideals. Deconstruction emphasizes the meaninglessness of language on account of a conflict of meanings.
If one were to apply authorial intent to deconstruction without changing its fundamentals, one would simply declare the author’s intent to be one of those conflicting meanings. There is, however, a better way to improve deconstruction with authorial intent: use historical context to determine when a deconstructionist interpretation would be appropriate. That is to say, when a work is written from a deconstructionist or conflicted viewpoint, deconstruction’s precepts would apply without distorting a work into something it never was before. Such a distortion may make entertaining private reading, but cannot stand up as an ideal interpretation. That a text’s meaning is sometimes held in contention does not mean that there is no solid meaning at all. In the past decades, some operas have been subjected to nihilistic re-staging (jocularly called “Euro Trash”). These new sets, in which an Arcadian landscape might become a pink box, may hold interest in their own right, but they are not the original piece and do not necessarily convey the original’s meaning to the greatest extent possible.
Movements that rely on close reading (formalism and New Criticism) are also improved by the consideration of an author’s intent. Close reading—reading a text with attention to techniques, vocabulary, grammar, et al.—emphasizes sufficiency of the text for interpretation. Terry Eagleton suggests that New Critics and formalists, who like deconstructionists believe there is nothing outside the text, overlook important guides to interpretation. One of those guides is context.
Without allowing context to clarify a text, New Criticism and related theories fall into the damaging pit of multiple interpretations. (Rabinowitz 26) Nothing in this brief space can plumb the depths of the philosophy of subjectivity. Objective interpretation of literature has long been out of vogue, but even a rejection of strong objectivity allows that some interpretations are better than others. Franz Kafka’s works, for example, have been interpreted as social allegory, psychoanalytic allegory, and religious allegory. (Sontag) All may be argued for, but without the ability to research Kafka’s intent (perhaps impossible in this case), there may be no way to settle on a reasonable guess at the truth.
These movements’ passion for the text overshadows the possibility that the New Critic fights for author’s intent, because he believes everything the author intends is clearly reflected in the text. If this is the case, New Critics are resisting something that could help them achieve their end. If the text indeed reflects the author’s attitudes, why not compare those attitudes as preserved by history with the results of the critic’s close reading? If the latter is correct, would it not agree with the former? It would, at least, cast out some gross misinterpretations, if not subtle variations. Historical context, therefore, can be used as an accompanying tool of close reading.
The last of the three groups of theory that benefits from author’s intent and historical context is reader-response theory. Reader-response theory derives from phenomenology, a “philosophical method that describes objects as they are registered in the consciousness of an observer.” (Quinn 244)
Reader-response theory itself is broken up into three groups. (Goucher College Faculty) The first group, the individualists, consists of Transactional Reader-Response and Affective Stylistics. They declare that each person derives a legitimate meaning from the text while reading. Subjective and Psychological Reader-Response, the second group, believe the text is in our mind, or that the reader’s interpretation becomes the text. Both of these groups, rather than rejecting author’s intent, simply ignore it. The intent of the author is to them nothing but one more reader’s response. A multiplicity of meanings confines author’s intent to the same validity of any reader’s interpretation. The other aspects of historical context have even less application.
The last group, Social Reader-Response, believes in the most uniform method of interpretation. Whatever the interpretive community accepts as generally true is the basis for interpretation of a work. Author’s intent might be the reason the community interprets the way it does, but it is not a basis of the theory. For example, J. R. R. Tolkien expressly wrote of his dislike of allegory and insisted his fantasy novels were not allegorical. (Liukkonen & Pesonen) Social Reader-Response theorists could argue that Tolkien’s thoughts have shaped reader’s perception of his work, and therefore the most popular interpretation of his work. It is not his authority itself but its effect that has value.
The use of intent in reader-response criticism would eliminate the first two groups in favor of the third. Theory that rests upon the interpretation of each reader is incompatible with the use of historical context. Why bother with history when the reader holds a despotic sway over the meaning of the text?
Social Reader-Response theory, however, could be modified to incorporate historical context by using it as a fail-safe against misinterpretation. The need for application would be rare, since the likelihood of a majority of readers misunderstanding a work is uncommon at best. This democratic method of interpretation, however, is more of a reaction against text-only criticism rather than a balanced way of viewing literature. Surveying readers to discover the meaning of a text is not nearly as easy as simply apply traditional criticism—with similar results.
In this examination of author’s intent and historical context in literature, we have discovered exactly how pro-intentionalism differs from other views of criticism. The two sides differ primarily in whether a text has one or more meanings. Though the argument is made frequently, it is better to view literature as having a few best meanings. With careful historical study, even an absence of author’s intent can provide valuable interpretive information. This information can be used to reshape major literary movements so that they provide more objective interpretations.
The best use of author’s intent is not as an authoritarian trump card to be played on all creative interpretations, but a tool to eliminate gratuitous criticism. Criticism is not a game in which we reinterpret texts forever, but a tool to increase our enjoyment of literature. Critics disagree about specifics, but the fact remains that literature exists for the reader and not for the critic. If we can enter the world of our literature and discover its pleasures as the author wanted us to, we are engaging in criticism of the best kind: reading for reading’s sake. Or as Matthew Arnold wrote, “The great art of criticism is to get oneself out of the way and to let humanity decide.” (qtd. in Lewis 120)