In Edmund Wilson's "The Historical Interpretation of Literature," Wilson attempts to demonstrate the means by which literature is interpreted in its "historical" sense - the sociopolitical and economic worlds of a literary work. Throughout the essay, he notes the history of this kind of criticism, which goes back all the way to the Enlightenment - investigating the historical components of a story allows the reader to bring further context to these works. The use of historical interpretation is a very strong and powerful method of gleaning meaning from a work - "The experience of mankind on the earth is always changing as man develops and has to deal with new combinations of elements; and the writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered" (Wilson).
The ultimate goal of Wilson's push toward historical interpretation is to provide us with a greater understanding of the universe and the world around us. "In my view, all our intellectual activity, in whatever field it takes place, is an attempt to give a meaning to our experience – that is, to make life more practicable; for by understanding things we make it easier to survive and get around among them" (Wilson). By using literature to explore history, it can be said that we allow ourselves to address pressing issues of the human condition that have as of yet been unexplored but for literature. Understanding the literature's stance on history allows us to place it in a framework we can comprehend, as well as use it to address them and make the societal changes we need.
Wilson raises many good points in his essay, especially regarding the importance of knowing what kind of world produces a particular type of literature. Works from authors like Marx and Engels were couched and placed in their proper context - that of social and economic pressures which forced people to create new ways of thinking and living to survive, or force the changes that were needed. Once the background of a literary work is established, the events and philosophies contained in that work can be made clearer. Even the style of writing is often informed by historical circumstances; the plays of Chekhov and other Russian literary minds of the time were often filled with social criticism of Tsarist Russia, whether intentional or not.
Learning the historical significance of a literary work is part and parcel to understanding the intentions of the writer themselves. Whether it is a primary plot point or just part of understanding the context and atmosphere that surrounds the events of the literary work, history is vital to the setting. It can also help us recover the intentions and attitudes of the writer or playwright at the time, providing a lens into the sociopolitical attitudes of the time. With this in mind, historical criticism is very valid, and in fact integral to understanding a written work.
Wilson, Edmund. "The Historical Interpretation of Literature." in The Norton Anthology of
Theory and Criticism, 2nd ed. pp. 1130-1140.