From Lee Patterson, “Literary History,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2nd ed., ed. Lentricchia and McLaughlin (Chicago, 1995), 250-51


As originally conceptualized in the nineteenth century, extrinsic historicism was burdened with programmatic difficulties that eventually became so intractable as to bring it into disrepute. Its central weakness--imported from the reigning scientific positivism of the time--was its reliance upon a mechanistic cause-and-effect mode of explanation. This weakness manifested itself in two ways. First, nineteenth-century literary historicism shared the widespread assumption that historiography was capable of achieving an objectivity and reliability that other forms of cultural understanding, like literary criticism, could not achieve. However subjective might be one's understanding of a literary text, so ran the argument, history provided the facts that could control interpretation. The discovery of America, the English Civil War, the French Revolution--these were historical events that had a facticity and objectivity, a presence in the world, that allowed of precise and accurate description. They existed "out there," as part of the historical record, and diligence and discipline could reconstruct them accurately. Such a reconstruction could in turn govern the interpretation of literary texts by defining the parameters of possible significance, showing what texts could and could not mean.


Second, and in line with the desire to use historical context to provide interpretive reliability, nineteenth-century literary historicism assumed that each part of a culture was governed by the values that informed the whole. Hence it searched for the spirit of the time or Zeitgeist, those values that governed the cultural activity of a period as a whole; and it tended to construct its determinative historical context in homogeneous and even monolithic terms. This homogenizing of the past was motivated both by patriotic nationalism and by a desire to silence dissident voices in the name of cultural unity: it is no accident that historical scholarship developed contemporaneously with the emergence of movements of national unification, especially in Germany. . . . Yet quite apart from the political agenda that underwrote its commitment to cultural harmony, what made this enterprise possible was the methodological positivism that saw history as objective and literature as subjective. The construction of a totalized past, whether as global as Hippolyte Taine's History of English Literature (1864) or as specific as E. M. W Tillyard's Elizabethan World Picture (1944) , depended upon a method that relied upon "historical" materials to construct an account of period consciousness that was then read back onto the "literature." The effect was that "literature" could never say anything that "history" had not authorized, that the literary critic was subject to the prior ministrations of the historian before he could expound the significance of his text. And to repeat, what made this tyranny of the historical possible was the unexamined distinction between “objective" history and "subjective" literature.