Deep Focus

Toward the Thin Description of Literary Culture
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Series book series


Descriptions of culture as a totality occur infrequently today In fact, changes to the form in which cultural research is presented hint at our diminished confidence in seeing culture “whole,” or even extensively; we now tend to analyze culture not in book-length studies but in essays.1 And such essays typically employ a critical genre of relatively recent origin: “thick description.” Thick description can be said to have changed the way literary critics read and write. At the very least, thick description remains the form in which important changes to critical analysis and the presentation of research have been registered. Its popularity in Shakespeare studies surely comes from the special influence of new historicism on the field. In the preceding chapter I remarked that new historicism has been the dominant methodology in early modern studies for several decades. While some observers would see new historicism as a kind of ghost, a “moment in critical history that… is seen to be passing,” even a “form of cultural and literary criticism that no one practices today except the founders,” I believe that such characterizations overstate the case.2 New historicism can be seen as a thing of the past precisely because so many of its assumptions and practive have become standard and hence less visible to us.


Literary Text Cultural Analysis Literary Culture Thick Description Cultural Criticism 
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  1. 1.
    In describing a transition from book-length to essayistic treatments of early modern culture, I am thinking of such earlier studies as, for example, Louis B. Wright’s Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935);Google Scholar
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    Tillyard’s book reminds us that, just as not every book that invokes “culture” strives to address culture, some books that do not invoke the term aspire to comment on it. With all its faults, The Elizabethan World Picture seems an instance of the latter. A useful corrective to Tillyard’s univocal model of Elizabethan ideology can be found in Deborah Kuller Shuger, Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990; rpt. 1998).Google Scholar
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© Douglas Bruster 2003

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