How Formalism Became a Dirty Word, and Why We Can’t Do Without It
  • Richard Strier


I’m afraid that in my rather eighteenth-century title, “Wherein the author, etc.,” I certainly promise more than I am going to deliver. In particular, I am not going to give a proper historical account but only the merest sketch of a history. I am also not truly going to show why—in absolute terms—we can’t do without formalism. Much of my effort will go into distinguishing between two different kinds of “formalism” and considering the implications and underlying premises of each of them. I will argue that we give up a lot if we do, in fact, want to do without “formalism” in either of these senses. And I will argue this in relation to both literary and historical studies.


Resistant Structure Literary History Chicago School Formalist Ideology Republican Tradition 
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  1. 1.
    Paul de Man, “The Dead-End of Formalist Criticism,” in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 229–245.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    On the formalism of Clifford Geertz’s anthropological work—the model for much new historicism—see, inter alia, my remarks in “Historicism Old and New: Excerpts from a Panel Discussion,” in “The Muses Common-weale”: Poetry and Politics in the Seventeenth Century, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988), 214; and Vincent P. Pecora, “The Limits of Local Knowledge,” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York: Routledge, 1989), 243–276.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    For an attempt at a balanced assessment of the need for and accomplishments of both “new” and “old,” see Richard Strier, Resistant Structures: Particularity, Radicalism, and Renaissance Texts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), ch. 4.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    See Wimsatt’s title essay in Explication as Criticism: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1941–1952 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 1–26; also W K. Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), 234–265.Google Scholar
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    See the textual analyses in J. H. Hexter, The Vision of Politics on the Eve of the Reformation: More, Machiavelli, and Seysell (New York: Basic, 1973);Google Scholar
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  12. 15.
    See Richard Strier, “From Diagnosis to Operation: The ‘Root and Branch’ Petition and the Grand Remonstrance,” in The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre, and Politics in London, 1576–1649, ed. David L. Smith, Richard Strier, and David Bevington (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 224–244.Google Scholar
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    Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), ch. 1.Google Scholar
  14. For Spitzer, see Leo Spitzer, Essays on English and American Literature, ed. Anna Hatcher (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962).Google Scholar
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    See Morris Croll, Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm: Essays by Morris W. Croll, ed. J. Max Patrick and Robert O. Evans, with John M. Wallace and R. J. Schoeck (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966).Google Scholar
  16. 19.
    See, for instance, Robert Weimann, “Appropriation’ and Modern History in Renaissance Prose Narrative,” New Literary History 14 (1983): 459–95;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. and Weimann, “History and the Issue of Authority in Representation: The Elizabethan Theater and the Reformation,” New Literary History 17 (1986): 449–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For the “Pleroma,” see Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon, 1963), esp. ch. 8.Google Scholar
  19. 23.
    See Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Ldea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), ch. 1.Google Scholar
  20. 24.
    For a fuller version of this reading, see Strier, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 166–173.Google Scholar
  21. 26.
    W. V. Quine, Methods of Logic, 4th ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982) 50, 146n., 268.Google Scholar

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© Mark David Rasmussen 2002

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  • Richard Strier

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