New Historicism in Hughes’s Salvation

As a literature students we should use some literary theories in order to analyze literary works. Literary theory enables us to analyze the theories that explain what literature does mean instead of analyzing the general concept of literature.

Beside its role in investigating the relationship between the author and the text; literary theory has an important contribution in developing and revealing the significance of class distinctions, race and gender in literature. Indeed, literary theories contain approaches that lead us to understand the role of historical contexts.

Moreover, new historicism is a new branch in literary criticism, appeared in recent years and started to explain the fact that one text is more related to a culture than an individual author’s experience. It expose how literary works contribute in creating cultures. In this paper I will analyze the short story Salvation by Langston Hughes through new historicism in terms of identifying New Historicism, giving a brief summary about the short story “Salvation”, highlighting the context of the story and explaining how they affected the author’s life and changed his beliefs.

New Historicism Theory

New historicism is a critical theory coined by Stephen Greenblatt, It was first practiced in the 1980s, in America, and gained widespread influence in the 1990s. New historicism is a branch of literary criticism that aims to understand a literary work through its cultural context. It is based on the premise that any literary work should be considered as a product of place, time and historical circumstances in which it is written rather than an isolated work of text.

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New historicists look at literature in a wider context, they aim to understand a work through its historical context and investigate in cultural and intellectual history through literature. In other words, new historicists do not look at history objectively, but rather they interpret events as products of time and culture. However, the most interesting thing is that there is equality in all literary and non-literary texts analyzing by historicism theory.

Salvation is a short biographical story in which it tells the narrator’s real experience at a church revival when he was twelve years old. The narrator said that his aunt took him to church and told him he would see and hear Jesus when he were saved. Hughes and the other young children are brought to the altar to be saved. As the children went up to accept Jesus in their hearts and souls. Hughes and his friend Westley were the only ones that remained at the altar. The preacher persuaded Hughes and Westley to come up but they were indecisive. After two minutes of waiting Westley tells Hughes that he is tired of sitting on bench, thus he moved to preacher, accepting Christ. Hughes still waiting in order to see the light, meanwhile the whole church prayed for him to get up. Hughes chooses to get up and accept the God. At night, he cried a lot because he hadn’t seen Jesus and he felt like he deceived the church and his aunt. Since that time, he no longer believed there was a Jesus anymore.

Salvation’s historical, social and religious context revealed through the picture that the author was depicting his Christian American society in 20th century. Langston wrote the story is in order to criticize the norms, rituals and attitudes in a specific black American society. Moreover, the narrator’s environment where composed of a group of Christian peoples who believes in salvation. For them it doesn’t matter if the children like Langston don’t experience any spiritual changes inside. What does matter for parents at that time is that their children allow themselves to be declared saved by the priest in front of congregation. Their religion, in the narrator’s perspective was superficial. All the adults were in one way or another enforce the children to believe in Christ and lead them telling a lie about the light that no one of them has seen. Actually, the disappointed action that Hughes practiced in the church led him to write such a story in order to criticize his community and their beliefs because he felt nothing at all during what was supposed to feel in the most important religious rituals in his life. Instead, he simply did what every child was doing and told a lie to save himself and his aunt from embarrass in front of their whole community. In fact, through the story we understand that the religion in Hughes’s society has a power that can somehow effect change in the world, and that what led Hughes later to atheism.

To conclude, in this article I have analyzed the short story Salvation by Langston Hughes through new historicism theory. The major aim of this story is to depict the Christian American society and how their children enforced to believe in such religious beliefs. It also clarifies the questions of how atheism started, when it is started and why. Furthermore, I think that Hughes’s story is a catalyzer work that may contribute in the appearance of new social group of people who lost their faith and declare their atheism. This story was a mirror in which it succeeded in revealing the exact picture of 20th century stereotypical American society.

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New Historicism in Hughes’s Salvation. (2022, Feb 04). Retrieved from

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