Art mirrors life, they say.
Studying history, then, is necessary to studying creative work, in any form.
On Tuesday evening, Lauren Goodlad, a Professor of English and the Director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, affirmed this essential truth in her lecture "The Way We Historicize Now."
But what is historicism?
"Historicism is a way of looking at the world that recognizes it as changing in some ways that we can see and in some ways that we cannot see," Goodlad said. "Just because something is in a certain set of relations or in a certain condition in one era does not mean it will necessarily be just that way or be regarded that way in another."
Historians attempt to relate novels to things specific to the book's era rather than bicker over its influence and intended purpose. First becoming interested in literature and historicism in graduate school, Goodlad devoured both history and Victorian fiction, gaining distinctive opinions on its study.
Using a historical perspective in literature, Goodlad said, allows the reader to better understand not only the time period in which the work was written, but also how that era differs from the present.
She also believes that the interpretation of a work cannot be limited to what readers believe the author meant.
"You can't be arrogant about this," Goodlad said. "We can't ever know what [Charles] Dickens was thinking, and even if we did know what Dickens was thinking, that's not necessarily why he wrote the novels that he did."
Mentioning AMC's hit show "Mad Men," Goodlad said that its form has resurrected American ideas from the early 60s to present viewers with a glimpse of the "pre-counterrevolution 60s."
This kind of retrospection, Goodlad implied, is the essence of historicism.
Andrew Lallier and Heather Hess, both UT graduate students studying 19th century British literature, came to hear Goodlad's lecture.
"I thought it was a useful historical survey and sort of an indication of where things are at the present and where her [Goodlad's] particular position is," Lallier said.
"I think it very clearly described the state of criticism," Hess added.
Emphasizing books as a common denominator among strangers, Goodlad argued for the value of literature.
"Literature has many values: its expression of the imagination; a way of moving people; a way of sharing experience; a way of communicating something that can be enjoyed collectively," she said. "If you and I are on a bus and we discover that we both like Lemony Snicket, that gives us something in common that we can talk about."