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We have just seen how Paige’s research and writing process led to a New Historical paper centered on Melville’s “Benito Cereno” and the American notion of Manifest Destiny. We also looked at Stefanie’s analysis of Emily Dickinson and the Civil War. In both cases, the writers’ processes were complex ones—developed as they got further and further into their projects. This complexity of research and writing is natural—all writers engage in this process. The difficulty of “doing” historical criticism, however, seems to be that you must have a base knowledge that most students in an introductory literature class don’t yet have. But let us assure you that students can write an involving New Historical paper if they are diligent about conducting research, which will eventually lead to a working topic that will lead to a critical claim.
While Paige’s and Stefanie’s researching and writing processes were recursive ones (see Chapter 1 "Introduction: What Is Literary Theory and Why Should I Care?" for a review of recursive processes), we can chart a strategy that will help you as you undertake a writing project that uses New Historical theory. A general key is that you need to approach such an assignment by surrounding your topic; that is, you need to examine your author and work from a variety of perspectives, which includes a parallel reading of multiple texts that leads to a thick description of your subject. Be guided by the following general steps to get you started on an exciting New Historical paper:
Once you have conducted your initial research using the following steps, you’ll be in a position to start making more concrete working claims about your project. Keep in mind that writing a paper on literature using New Historicism allows you to speculate more than when applying other literary theories. We don’t know for certain, for example, if Melville was aware that in “Benito Cereno” he was critiquing the notion of Manifest Destiny. But Paige makes a persuasive argument that opens up the story to further discussion.