“For me,” Stephen Greenblatt once told an interviewer, “it had everything to do with the extraordinary place that Berkeley, California was. In the 1970s there was a sense of excitement, of disorder, of the dream of reconstituting the world—a sense that hierarchies were breaking down. It was a great institution for that.” Greenblatt, who started his career at the institution in question, namely the University of California at Berkeley—and who now, having held since 2000 the title of John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, is by many accounts the most influential figure in academic literary studies—was referring to the birth of the so-called New Historicism, the “school” of criticism that he founded and that turned out to be his ticket to the top. He had been trained—at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and Yale—to be a New Critic,...


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