Although form and history are joined in reading, the profession of literary studies has regularly regarded formalism and historicism as opposites and even antagonists. When dichotomous terms replicate themselves without mediation, a phenomenological approach to resolving the stalemate is typically to reflect on how they interact in lived experience. Refocusing attention in this way, I offer five theses on how history and form are connected in the experience of reading: (1) Literary works are historical entities, but they are not reducible to their origins. (2) The historical meaning of a literary work includes the history of its reception. (3) Reading literature entails a response to value and form. (4) The form of a literary work is integral to its moral, social, and political meaning. (5) Unmasking is not an end in itself but a means to various kinds of revelations. I develop these theses by engaging the arguments of some of the best formalist and historicist critics, focusing mainly on well-known examples from the New Critics and the New Historicists, and by trying to bring out aspects of the reading experience that they ignore or insufficiently acknowledge. My goal is to recover the interaction of form and history by analyzing reading as an intersubjective experience in which literary works are preserved and passed on through our ever-changing engagement with their forms.
Skip Nav Destination
Paul B. Armstrong; Form and History: Reading as an Aesthetic Experience and Historical Act. Modern Language Quarterly 1 June 2008; 69 (2): 195–219. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00267929-2007-032
Download citation file: