Thinking About Theory (One Last Time)
Remember, Theory isn’t some abstract thing that only academics use or something that exists (and rots) in a jar. A theory is, as Culler defines it, “a contesting of premises and postulates, what you thought you knew…You reflect on your reading in new ways. You have different questions to ask and a better sense of the implications of the questions you put to the works you read” (16). That means it’s simply a way of articulating ideas and perspectives that might otherwise go unnoticed in a literary work. In general, a theory should be an idea that goes against ‘common sense’ notions and helps us see what is not obvious or expected (though, to be fair, what is not obvious to you might be obvious to someone else, which is why I try to avoid talking about “depth” in literature). That said, a theory should be something that gives you a light bulb moment so you say, “oh, I never thought about it like that before!”
Some theories we’ve discussed that work well with Shakespeare and the Harlem Renaissance writers:
- Chapters 4,5,7, & 8 in Culler: these are chapters about how poetry and language works and creates a persona, how literature creates identity for readers and writers. Crucial for thinking about any of these poets and why we continue to read them. Each chapter contains several “theories” in it, so you only need to use part of a given chapter as your lens.
- Greenblatt, “The Circulation of Social Energy”: this talks about how the historical and cultural moment creates and shapes literature. No work is solely the work of its authors—the historical moment is an active co-author. That’s why we can talk about a “Harlem Renaissance” as a school of thought: they were responding to their culture and society in a unified (if individually diverse) manner.
- Essays in The Portable
HarlemRenaissance Reader: writers such as Richard Wright, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Hughes worked hard to create theories and perspectives for their people to follow. Hughes’ own poetry is shaped by his theoretical ideas, as we see here. However, these ideas can also shed light on how Shakespeare wrote and thought: he, too, defined himself against a majority group and felt that his writing should reflect a theoretical ideal of “race” (though his race was more a class—though actors/writers were almost seen as an inferior race in that time).
- Marx/Communist Manifesto: the idea of class constructions being the most important way to read history and society profoundly shapes how we read literature. You could argue that both Shakespeare and writers like McKay or Hughes are really writing about class inequality. Marx provides us a historical lens with which to make sense of the struggle of writers writing against power and privilege.
- Fetterly/Feminism: her notion of American literature being “male” by default, and forcing readers to identify with a male identity is important to reading older literature in general. You could examine how the identity shaped by Shakespeare and Cullen (for example) is inherently male and robs women of their own expression (the “Dark Lady” sonnets seem to equate femininity with falsehood). Or, you could argue that Shakespeare writes from a position of subjectivity and inferiority, allowing him to better identify with a female ethos. The same could be argue of all the Harlem Renaissance writers—and not just the women.