The essays printed here all make the case for historical criticism in reasonable and persuasive terms. Professor Weinbrot's paper shows how recovering the meaning that classical allusions, formal word order, and particular loaded phrases had for their original audiences makes us better readers of eighteenth-century novels. One of his examples is the phrase “dispensing power,” which James II claimed in his attempt to remake the monarchy on an autocratic model, and which Samuel Richardson used in a different context while describing Pamela in her “exalted condition.” Further research shows that controversial pamphlets contemporaneous with Richardson's novel discussed the refusal of Quakers to pay tithes by using the same phrase, an intriguing circumstance as Pamela attends a masquerade dressed as a Quaker. Professor Hume's paper details how little we know about many aspects of dramatic history, and rightly criticizes sweeping claims based on sparse data. Although we shall always wrestle with inadequate data, our readers still expect us to speculate, and as long as we do so honestly, labeling our guesses as guesses, what we do is at worst harmless and at best suggestive. If some factual discoveries decisively invalidate earlier readings, others enrich our sense of context while leaving room for different interpretations. Professor Ezell, who describes herself as “quite happy with the constructions of databases and counting things,” correctly rejects the preposterous and increasingly widespread belief that “close reading is … totally inappropriate as a method of studying literary history.” We need to nurture and celebrate scholars who understand the importance of historical evidence, even when that evidence is incomplete, and who also understand the subtleties of rhetorical, cultural, and aesthetic interpretation that remain well beyond the reach of any existing computer program.
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Research Article| September 01 2017
James A. Winn; Dispensing with Power: A Response to Three Papers on Historical Criticism. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 September 2017; 41 (3): 89–95. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-4130789
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