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Genre between Literature and History

Roger Chartier

L et us start these concluding remarks with a paradoxical observa-

tion. At first glance, it may seem that the different forms of literary

criticism that dominated the intellectual scene during the twentieth century did not need the old notion of genre for their understand- ing of literary texts. Linguistic approaches emphasized the plural and unstable linguistic construction of meaning, since, as Roland Barthes has written, a text is “un espace à dimensions multiples, où se marient et se contestent des écritures variées, dont aucune n’est

un texte est fait d’écritures multiples, issues de plusieurs cultures et qui entrent les unes avec les autres en dialogue, en parodie, en contesta- tion” (a multidimensional space in which are married and contested

several writings, none of which is

writings, proceeding from several cultures and entering into dialogue, into parody, into contestation). 1 The rigidity of the category of genre is therefore unable to grasp such hybridity and lability. When attention is centered on the response of readers and their decisive role in the pro- duction of diverse receptions of the same text, genre is no longer a fun- damental category, since it unsuccessfully tries to locate in a particular register what readers may understand very differently. By displacing attention onto the circulation of words, objects, rituals, or discourses between the social world and the literary works that appropriate them and return them in a new form to readers or spectators, the New His-

a text consists of multiple

1 Roland Barthes, “La mort de l’auteur,” in Le bruissement de la langue: Essais cri- tiques IV (Paris: Seuil, 1984), 67, 69; “The Death of the Author,” in The Rustle of Lan- guage, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), 53–54.

Modern Language Quarterly 67:1 (March 2006): 129–39. © 2006 University of Washington.



130 MLQ March 2006 toricist perspective considers generic distinctions as always subverted by the process of

March 2006

toricist perspective considers generic distinctions as always subverted by the process of negotiations, transactions, and exchanges that give to “aesthetic forms of social energy” (according to Stephen Greenblatt’s expression) their capacity to shape collective experiences. 2 Nevertheless, genre resisted. It resisted first in the “New Criticism,” which postulated that any text is a structure of meaning in which aes- thetic form and discursive content are inseparable. In such a perspec- tive, genre is fundamental, as proven by the “heresy of paraphrase,” to quote Cleanth Brooks—that is, the impossibility of the rendition in prose of a poetic work. 3 The more classical distinctions of the old poetics are therefore endowed with the task of correcting the two falla- cies characterizing traditional literary history: the “intentional fallacy,” since the constraints that rule the autonomy of the work are indepen- dent of any authorial intention, and the “affective fallacy,” since the inherent generic regime of any work cannot be deduced from its effects on its audience. The self-sufficiency of the literary verbal artifact gives an essential importance to the oppositions between genres—as, for example, between poetry and history in the Aristotelian manner, or between poetic and dramatic genres. All efforts to liberate meaning from the textual machinery (recep- tion aesthetics, reader response theory, etc.) mobilized the category of genre as a powerful resource for avoiding the infinite dispersion of meaning between innumerable acts of reading. Indeed, the distance taken vis-à-vis textual tyranny and the imperialism of close reading could lead to an unbound proliferation of interpretations. Concepts like “horizon of expectations,” proposed by Hans Robert Jauss, or “interpretive communities,” coined by Stanley Fish, addressed such an issue by conceiving of reading not as an autonomous, free, and individ- ual experience but as collectively framed by shared conventions, proper to a time or to a community. 4 Among these conventions, the ascription

2 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 7.

3 Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York:

Harcourt, Brace, 1947).

4 Hans Robert Jauss, Literaturgeschichte als Provokation (Frankfurt am Main:

Suhrkamp, 1970); Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpre- tive Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980). For an English translation of Jauss’s essay see “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,”


Chartier Genre between Literature and History 131 of texts to specific genres was a key element

Genre between Literature and History


of texts to specific genres was a key element that defined the system of intelligibility or the common expectations allowing the appropriation and understanding of the texts, literary or not. According to these per- spectives, the notion of genre acquired a dynamic or dialogical dimen- sion. By framing a set of assumptions proper to the reception, each tex- tual genre imposed on the reader the intended identity of the text. But such assumptions can also be challenged by revolutionary works that subvert the conventional boundaries between generic distinctions and disrespect the criteria characterizing each class of texts. If literature can be a “provocation” (according to Jauss’s formula), it is because some innovative works defy the inherited and canonical definition of such or such a genre and, by doing so, create new aesthetic expectations. The category of genre is not explicitly acknowledged by the New Historicism, even if it was in the journal Genre that Greenblatt proposed in 1982 (and for the first time) such a designation for a new form of criticism. Nevertheless, generic distinctions find their place among the systems of demarcation between the different discursive practices of which transactions and exchanges are the very object of the analysis. The very concept of negotiation, central to such an approach, supposes a previous distinction between the social discourses that are appropri- ated and the literary repertoires that endow them with a new literary force. Hence follow a series of consequences. The first one is to widen the notion of genre beyond the textual real and to consider that public ceremonials, religious rituals, and everyday practices constitute differ- ent “genres,” the “social energy” of which is encoded and refashioned by their representation or appropriation. The second is that the genres remain a pertinent way for delineating specific aesthetic experiences (theatrical practice, for example, implies a manner for separating artis- tic practices from social practices that is not the same in other literary genres) and for characterizing even within the same realm of experi- ences different types of exchanges between social anxieties and literary writing. “Generic distinctions are useful markers of different areas of circulation, different types of negotiation,” Greenblatt writes in the first chapter of Shakespearean Negotiations, a book in which the four follow-

in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: University of Min- nesota Press, 1982).



132 MLQ March 2006 ing chapters each focus on a different one of the four classical

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ing chapters each focus on a different one of the four classical genres (classical at least from the eighteenth century on) among Shakespeare’s plays: histories, comedies, tragedies, and romances. But—and it is a third feature of the New Historicists’ use of genre—“there is no exclu- sive, categorical force behind the generic distinctions” (20). If the dis- courses of the social world are the very matter of literary creation, then, conversely, aesthetic energy can invest texts that are deprived of any artistic design. The travelogues that account for the marvels encoun- tered in the new worlds are examples of such investment. 5 In this issue of MLQ, two other cases of such transfer or hybrid- ization are analyzed. The political reading in Renaissance England of Ovid’s elegies, analyzed by Heather James, is the first one, since the erotic poems are understood as an illustration of the freedom of clas- sical republicanism and a critique of the despotic restriction imposed on speech. The providential dimension of Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, as stressed by David Harris Sacks, is the second one. The collection of travels brought together by Hakluyt overcomes the classi- cal definition of the genre by giving it the meaning of the knowledge, lost after the Fall, of the world as it was created by God. In this sense, the book is an example of the genre of ecclesiastical history, which based on the erudition of the antiquarians the unveiling of God’s will. Hakluyt’s compilation raises another issue about the notion of genre. The category implicitly supposes that a book represents a coher- ent work, assignable to a certain genre or to a generic hybrid. Hakluyt, who acted more as an editor than an author and who drew on col- lections already in print for constructing his own, reminds us that a great number of books in the early modern age were anthologies, compilations, and bibliothecae. Some were “organic miscellanies” (to use Armando Petrucci’s paradoxical expression), because, like the Principal Navigations, they gathered entire works or excerpts belonging to the same genre or the same subject matter. 6 But others were not; they put

5 See Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chi- cago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). 6 Armando Petrucci, “From the Unitary Books to Miscellany,” in Writers and Read- ers in Medieval Italy: Studies in the History of Written Culture, ed. and trans. Charles M. Radding (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 10–11.


Chartier Genre between Literature and History 133 together, like manuscript books, texts without any generic unity.

Genre between Literature and History


together, like manuscript books, texts without any generic unity. In this case, it is clear that editorial practices and publishing strategies profoundly challenged the classification of discourses. Historians of the book have often inherited such a contradiction: even if dealing with many books having multiple identities, their statistical approaches to the production and ownership of books were strictly organized by genres. They have often followed the example of the classificatory sys- tem of Parisian booksellers of the eighteenth century, who divided the books among five main categories: theology, law, history, sciences and arts, belles lettres. It is not easy to locate in one or another of these five classes the providential, historical, cosmographic, and epic dimensions of Hakluyt’s book. The generic plurality of some works, or books, and the mobility of their assignation are reasons for the instability of the category of genre. Editorial and publishing strategies sometimes changed the generic identity of the same work, as when some Shakespearean plays, published as “histories” in the Quartos (the 1603 Q1 and the 1604 Q2 of The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke, or the 1608 Q1 of the True Chronicle Historie of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters), were put among the “tragedies” in the 1623 Folio. In other cases, it was the author’s will that modified the genre of the work at the same time that the text was slightly or profoundly rewritten. Corneille’s Le Cid was published in 1637 as a “tragi-comédie,” but when it was reedited in 1648, it became a “tragédie,” and its text was revised in accordance with the critiques made by the Académie Fran- çaise, even if Corneille rebuffed the accusations addressed to him. In 1660, for another reedition within the playwright’s Oeuvres, the identity of the play as a tragedy was maintained and led Corneille to a profound rewriting of it, with a more uncertain ending and without the two first scenes, which dealt with Chimène’s marriage and belonged more to the genre of “domestic comedy” than to the register of tragedy. 7 The transformation of the generic identity of a work can also be linked to the imposition of the rules of print publication on a work des- tined to be circulated in the form of a manuscript. This is the hypoth-

7 See Pierre Corneille, Le Cid: Tragi-comédie, ed. Jean Serroy (Paris: Gallimard,




134 MLQ March 2006 esis proposed by Francisco Rico for the transformation of the epistolary Lazarillo

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esis proposed by Francisco Rico for the transformation of the epistolary Lazarillo de Tormes, which belonged to the successful genre of “carte messaggiere,” into different printed versions in the guise of a life story. Such a displacement, or betrayal, imposed on the letter a marginal

rubric and a title (La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adver- sidades), a biographical narrative of the young Lazarillo (a diminutive never used in the text itself except as a pun on lazarillo/lacerado), and stereotyped wooden engravings that reused figures already printed in

a saint’s life. 8 The generic designation of a work can also be an object of conten- tion explicitly addressed by paratextual elements. In the editions of 1499 and 1500 the Celestina was labeled a “comedia.” In 1502 the sec- ond author, Fernando de Rojas, added a prologue in which he evoked the dispute between those who considered the play a tragedy and those who understood it as a comedy. To solve the quarrel, Rojas designated the five acts of the work a “tragicomedia” (a category respected by the

English translator James Mabbe, who in 1631 titled the play a “tragicke- comedy”). Thus the generic ambiguity of the Celestina was for Rojas one of the reasons that the text had received very different interpreta- tions, along with the summaries and rubric added by the printers (as in the editions of the Lazarillo), and had been read in different ways:

for excerpting “sententiae,” for collecting pleasant anecdotes, or for deciphering the meaning of the work. 9 Finally, the works themselves can appropriate generic identities and their subversion, or parody, as one of the motives of the fiction. Such

a game is played by Cervantes in Don Quijote on multiple scales. The

first one is the traditional opposition between “historia” and “poesía.” Cervantes, or rather, Sansón Carrasco, reaffirms the principle underly- ing the distinction: “El poeta puede contar o cantar las cosas, no como fueron, sino como debían ser; y el historiador las ha de escribir, no como debían ser, sino como fueron, sin añadir ni quitar a la verdad cosa alguna” (The poet may describe or sing things, not as they were, but as they ought to have been, while the historian has to write them

8 Lazarillo de Tormes, ed. Francisco Rico, 2nd ed. (Madrid: Cátedra, 1987); Fran- cisco Rico, Problemas del Lazarillo (Madrid: Cátedra, 1988). 9 Fernando de Rojas (and “Antiguo Autor”), La Celestina: Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea, ed. Francisco J. Lobera et al. (Barcelona: Crítica, 2000).


Chartier Genre between Literature and History 135 down, not as they ought to have been, but

Genre between Literature and History


down, not as they ought to have been, but as they were, without add- ing to or subtracting from the truth). 10 But the Historia de don Quijote de la Mancha, written by the Arabic historian Cide Hamete Benengeli, subverts the opposition. It is a history of things as they had to be in the dream or madness of the hidalgo, and not as they were. Before the imaginary biographies or the apocryphal texts of the writers of the twentieth century (Marcel Schwob, Jorge Luis Borges, Max Aub), Cer- vantes mobilized all the signs of authentication (references to actual documents, archival records, learned controversies, the book itself and its apocryphal continuation) for accrediting as historical what the reader enjoys as a poetic fiction. The play with genres, their boundaries or incompatibility (Carrasco recalls that the introduction in the book of a “novela,” El curioso impertinente, does not fit history), is one part of the textual machinery that produces what Borges has called the “par- tial enchantments” of the text and therefore the reader’s suspension of disbelief. 11 A second scale of the play with genres in Don Quijote is given by the different parodies of the different textual literary practices of its time. The parody of the chivalric romances is not the only one, even if it is the more essential. Cervantes also mocks the picaresque novel by attrib- uting to Ginés de Pasamonte the authorship of a manuscript titled, like the Lazarillo, La vida de Ginés de Pasamonte (1:22), as well as the pastoral genre, imagining at the end of the second part of the novel an Arcadia in which Don Quijote, condemned to retire for one year after his defeat by the Caballero de la Blanca Luna, will name himself “el pastor Quijótiz” and celebrate imagined shepherdesses by engraving his poems on trees (2:67, 73). As Georgina Dopico Black has written, el Quijote “incorpora, parodia y transforma todos los discursos literarios (y muchos no literarios) que lo anteceden” (incorporates, parodies and

10 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha, ed. Francisco Rico and Joaquín Forradellas, 2 vols. (Barcelona: Instituto Cervantes, 1998), 1:649–50; Don Quixote, ed. Joseph R. Jones and Kenneth Douglas, trans. John Ormsby (New York: Norton, 1981), 440. 11 Jorge Luis Borges, “Magias parciales del Quijote,” in Otras inquisiciones (Madrid:

Alianza, 1997), 74–79. For an English translation see “Partial Enchantments of the Quixote,” in Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952, trans. Ruth L. C. Simms (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), 43–46.



136 MLQ March 2006 transforms all the literary discourses [and many others that are not literary]

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transforms all the literary discourses [and many others that are not literary] that preceded it), not only the chivalric, picaresque, and pas- toral novel but also the “comedia,” with Maese Pedro alias Ginés de Pas- amonte’s puppets; the proverb, or “refranes,” which gives its texture to Sancho’s speech; the “romances”; lyric poetry; and many other genres. 12 In this sense, Don Quijote is the book of books, the compendium of the entire literature of its age. The same text can be located in different genres, and the same story embodied in different textual forms. Marina Brownlee shows how the story of the Abencerraje, his beloved Jarifa, and his Christian friend Rodrigo de Narváez existed in three versions: as a chronicle printed circa 1560, as an interpolation in Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (1561), and as a novel or short story in Antonio de Villegas’s miscellany Inventario (1551)—another example of the surviving importance of the heterogeneous book in the age of print. 13 More generally, this example raises the question of the different textual embodiments of the same historical fact, that is, the fall of Granada in 1492 and the disappear- ance of Muslim Spain. The event was appropriated either by literary fictions or by historical chronicles—which leads us to discuss history as genre and the category of genre within historical writing. The notion is less familiar to historians than to literary critics. But the attention paid in recent years to the constraints that rule the writ- ing of any historical discourse has led to a reflection on genre, even without the word. The category can be mobilized for constructing a typology of the archival documents used by historians. All are texts that belong to a series defined by peculiar conventions, codified forms, and discursive regimes. Written records never give immediate, transparent, unmediated access to the past, because their production has been gov- erned by a particular relation to the reality they designate: depiction, representation, prohibition, prescription, quantification, and so on. Such a perspective can give rise to a typology of written records that

12 Georgina Dopico Black, “ ‘España abierta’: Cervantes y el Quijote,” in España en tiempos del Quijote, ed. Antonio Feros and Juan Gelabert (Madrid: Taurus, 2004), 348. My translation. 13 La Diana first appeared in 1559, but the 1561 edition, printed in Valladolid, is the first to include the history of the Abencerraje. See Jorge de Montemayor, La Diana, ed. Juan Montero (Barcelona: Crítica, 1996), 213n245.


Chartier Genre between Literature and History 137 stresses the relation between classes of documents and types

Genre between Literature and History


stresses the relation between classes of documents and types of hands. It also underlines the continuity between documentary practices and lit- erary composition. In late medieval Italy, the writing habits of notaries were the matrix for the authorial and autograph composition of poetic texts. The familial ties or professional experience that linked notaries and authors explain the similarities between the registers of legal docu- ments and the “unitary books” copied by the “writer” himself. Petrarch, for example, who was a scribe of his own works (to avoid the corruption of his poetic compositions by ignorant or clumsy copyists), was the son and grandson of notaries (Petrucci, 145–68, 161). Understood as a discursive series that can be labeled documentary genres, the records used by historians are referred back to the differ- ent situations in which (and for which) they were produced. Numerous are the historical works dealing with the relation between the genres of documents and the constraints imposed on the representations of the past. The genre of “lettres de rémission” in the Middle Ages and the six- teenth century entailed the elaboration of pardon tales by condemned people and by their lawyers, who had to present excuses for a crime and, at the same time, respect the verisimilitude of the facts. 14 The inquisito- rial records of early modern times construct uneven dialogues between the judges and the accused, where the main stake was the categoriza- tion of the suspected crimes by the former and the latter. 15 The archives of the Parisian police in the eighteenth century create situations in which private affairs and public issues are mingled during encounters between people and the authorities. 16 These three examples, among many others, show that the first object of any historiographical analysis must be the elucidation of the effects produced on the historical evi- dence by the rules governing archival records.

14 See Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987).

15 See Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Six- teenth and Seventeenth Centuries, trans. John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore:

Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

16 See Arlette Farge, La vie fragile: Violence, pouvoirs et solidarités à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Hachette, 1986); and Farge, Dire et mal dire: L’opinion publique au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Seuil, 1992). For English translations see Fragile Lives: Violence, Power, and Solidarity in Eighteenth-Century Paris, trans. Carol Shelton (Cambridge: Polity, 1993); and Subversive Words: Public Opinion in Eighteenth-Century France, trans. Rosemary Mor- ris (Cambridge: Polity, 1994).



138 MLQ March 2006 It is such a relation between actions or experiences and the discur-

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It is such a relation between actions or experiences and the discur- sive genres considered proper for representing them that is discussed in the essays by Timothy Hampton and David Quint. The first deals with the different possibilities during the Renaissance for framing within written texts the practices and rituals of diplomatic actions. The second explores in a comparative way how tragedy exposes in the seventeenth century the loss of identity and power experienced by the different European nobilities subjugated by the absolutist sovereigns. In both cases, the failure of some form of public discourse (diplomatic rhetoric or aristocratic proclamation) leads to the production of “lit- erature,” understood either as private representation of the self or as tragic vision of the world. Literature is not the only means of expressing experience. As Rein- hart Koselleck has shown, different forms of historiographical writing are also attached to different modalities of the experience of time. To the three categories of experience—the perception of singularity, the consciousness of repetition, and the knowledge of transformation— correspond three manners of writing history: history that registers the uniqueness of phenomena, history that mobilizes comparisons and analogies, and history that deploys critical methods and techniques. 17 Nevertheless, these different forms of textual embodiment of the past belong to the same generic category: history. In recent decades the definition of history as a genre (according to the old Aristotelian defi- nition) led to the inventory of the similarities that such a discursive representation of the past shares with fiction: rhetorical tropes, narra- tive structures, metaphorical figures. Works by Hayden White, Michel de Certeau, and Paul Ricoeur made more complex the demarcation held as evident by positivist tradition between historical knowledge and fictional narratives. 18 The vulnerability of the distinction was made still

17 Reinhart Koselleck, “Erfahrungswandel und Methodenwechsel: Eine historisch- anthropologische Skizze,” in Historische Methode, ed. Christian Meier and Jörn Rüsen (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch, 1988), 13–61. For an English translation of the essay see “Transformations of Experience and Methodological Change: A Historical- Anthropological Essay,” in The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. Todd Samuel Presner et al. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 45–99. 18 Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973); White, The Content of the


Chartier Genre between Literature and History 139 more evident by imaginary biographies or histories that have

Genre between Literature and History


more evident by imaginary biographies or histories that have appropri- ated the techniques of authentication and proof proper to scientific writing (notes, quotations, references). 19 Is it reasonable to assume that because the form is the same, the content is identical? Or that the regime of truth about the past is the same in historical accounts and novelistic writing? I do not think so. Quint’s claim about the need to identify the formal marks that allow us to recognize a text as “literary” (even if the word could be anachro- nistic) has a corollary: to characterize the criteria that permit designat- ing historical discourse as “scientific,” if we understand by such a term what Certeau has described in his book L’écriture de l’histoire as “la pos- sibilité d’établir un ensemble de règles permettant de ‘contrôler’ des opérations proportionnées à la production d’objets déterminés” (the possibility of conceiving an ensemble of rules allowing control of opera- tions adapted to the production of specific objects or ends) (Ecriture de l’histoire, 64; Writing, 103). It is perhaps a way of thinking that there is no contradiction between rhetoric and proof and that the blurring of generic distinctions does not necessarily mean the identity of epistemo- logical differences. 20

Roger Chartier is directeur d’études at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris) and Annenberg Visiting Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.

Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni- versity Press, 1987); Michel de Certeau, L’écriture de l’histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1975); Paul Ricoeur, Temps et récit, 3 vols. (Paris: Seuil, 1983–85). For an English translation of Certeau see The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). For an English translation of Ricoeur see Time and Narrative, trans. Kath- leen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,


19 Among others, see the two imaginary biographies written by Max Aub, Vida y obra de Luis Alvarez Petreña (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1971), and Jusep Torres Campalans (Barcelona: Ediciones Destino, 1999). 20 See Carlo Ginzburg, History, Rhetoric, and Proof (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999).