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A Literature Research Guide - Historical Context Research: Historical Texts

Finding Representative Texts

Finding documents in print

Sourcebooks or readers on a time period often include selected representative texts and provide a view of the contemporary debate. Search the Tomlinson Library catalog or other library catalogs on your topic, including the word sources in your search. Example: modernism and sources  

Finding documents online

Use the online primary source collections available through the library (listed to the right).  The HathiTrust Digital Library provides complete scans of many older books. 

University archives, national libraries and historical and cultural societies often have online digital collections with representative cultural texts and other primary sources. Example: The National Library of Ireland includes key documents relating to Home Rule as well as The Gaelic League.

Google can also be an effective tool for tracking down a particular document - Search on the title of the document with the author and the word text (or digital or document) to track down the original text. Example: A Retrospect Ezra Pound text   

With documents found through Google, be sure to consider the provenance of the text. What agency has taken responsibility for digitizing or publishing this text online?  Do they have guidelines for maintaining the integrity of sources?

Historical Criticism considers a work of literature as a statement, a text engaged in debate with contemporary cultural mores and other texts. This historical context provides "a larger field of meaning in which a text can and should be situated in order to be understood fully." * How do you identify representative texts within a cultural debate or discourse?  Some approaches:

  • Look at biographical sources about an author to discern the author's concerns and opinions within the cultural, artistic, and political debates of their time. (For example, James Joyce's views on Catholicism, British imperialism in Ireland, & realism in literature).  What contemporary texts or cultural movements was the author responding to?
  • Look at literary criticism of the work grounded in cultural or political history.  These analyses usually refer to historical texts that represent the cultural climate and debate. 
  • Do some research on the time period when the work was written, with an eye toward political and cultural controversies.  Are there historical texts that represent these controversies? 
  • Consult encyclopedias and other reference sources.  Reference articles concerning a historical figure, event or movement may note important texts.

*"Historical Criticism" From An Introduction to Criticism: Literature/Film/Culture by Michael Ryan

Historical Texts

Sources from Multiple Times and Places

American Sources

English Sources

Medieval and Elizabethan Sources

To find texts from a particular time period and/or place, use the catalog below and type in the time and/or place and the word sources.  For example: Modernism and sources.



Titles with texts from particular time periods & places are compiled below:

American Sources

Texts from Early American History - Click to see results

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Texts from 19th Century America - Click to see more

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Texts from 20th Century America - Click to see more

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English Sources

Texts from Medieval England - Click to see more

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Texts from Elizabethan England - Click to see more

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Texts in English Women's History - Click to see more

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Texts on Modernism  - Click to see more

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To find primary source materials for placing a particular work in historical context, search the library catalog below on the title of interest and the word sources.  For example: King Lear and sources