Feb. 17, 2009
Engl. 6973: Dr. Jolliffe
For the better part of the 20th century, New Criticism influenced Language Arts instruction. But the model fell out of favor in the 60s as liberal theoretical models became more fashionable. Soon, New Criticism was admonished by Deconstructionists, Marxists, and Feminists for being “best known for what [it] opposed than for what [it] espoused (Booker 14). No longer a foundational critical approach in universities and colleges, opponents claim that the New Criticism “appears powerless, lacking in supporters, declining, dead or on the verge of being so” (qtd. in Young 8). Despite these claims, the New Critical theory remains a pedagogical foundation for teaching close reading and responsive writing in Western secondary schools.
New Criticism largely began with the exchange of letters and papers between critics T.S. Eliot and I.A. Richards during the early 1920s. Richards’s The Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) proclaimed that criticism had become tainted by contemporary historical scholars who “endeavored by underground tactics to invert the covenants of the trust held by literary criticism” (Richards 48). At Vanderbilt University in 1919, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks were editors of The Kenyon Review, The Sewanee Review, and The Southern Review, respectively. The three editors, dubbed the “Fugitive” club, “made persistent efforts in close and conscious collaboration with each other to preserve aesthetic values from the onslaughts of scientific attitudes” (Patnaik 3). With the addition of members Robert Penn Warren and Donald Davidson, the Vanderbilt “Fugitives” became known as the “Southern Agrarians.” This largely conservative group sought to preserve “the moral and spiritual condition which is favorable to poetry” (Patnaik 3). These critics wanted to preserve the study of literature as an aesthetic focus for fear that it would become appropriated into other disciplines or watered down by arbitrary foci.
In 1941, John Crowe Ransom wrote the seminal work, The New Criticism, which gave title to the critical approach. Ransom’s compilation highlighted works by some of the founding fathers of New Criticism (Richards, Eliot, and Yvor Winters) to advocate this “New” method of criticism that deviated from emphasis on “the realms of biography, history, and personal impressions… [and] the neo-classical approach” (Patnaik 3). Cleanth Brooks later reiterated the notion that the literary critic “must deal with [a text] as a work of art and not merely as a grammatical or historical or sociological or political or biographical document” (Patnik 9). He later collaborated with Robert Penn Warren to produce textbooks for applying this theoretical approach— Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943). These textbooks became milestones for teaching literature in American high schools and colleges. Understanding Fiction was essentially an anthology that contained works by primarily Western authors; the works were selected from various genres “with the hope of providing as wide a range of examples in terms of fictional method as could be reasonably expected” (Brooks, Warren xvi). The purpose in doing so was to illustrate the belief that linguistic elements such as words, images, and symbols can consistently promote humanly significant themes across literary genres.
John Crowe Ransom asserted that criticism “shall be objective, shall cite the nature of the object, and shall recognize the autonomy of the work itself as existing for its own sake” (Abrams 189). The New Critical method focuses on the form of the text itself. In essence, New Critics regard a literary text as an “independent entity” that should be isolated from extraneous variables such as the biography of the author, the environment in which the author wrote, or the personal impressions of the reader. In the eyes of New Critics, these factors distracted readers from appreciating the true aesthetic of the work. The goal of the New Critic is to “stress form as structure of significance, an embodiment of human experience” (Young 5).
New Critics evaluated a text’s ability to evoke senses that reflect human tendencies, both good and bad, through the use of style, form, and language. These three literary devices work together to achieve organic unity, the state in which the text comes to be infused with Deep Hidden Meaning, or DHM (Bagwell xiii). But the DHM is intrinsic and should not be influenced by the “affective fallacy,” the belief that true meaning lies in the reader’s feelings or thoughts, or the “intentional fallacy,” the belief that the author’s original intention determines the work’s meaning. Instead, linguistic devices allow the text to take on its own inherent meaning.
Thus, New Critics hailed literary language as superior to the scientific language: the former language is rich with diverse meaning, while the latter relies expressly on denotative meaning and requires no explication to discern meaning. What constitutes a “good” work is how well the writing stays true to form and evokes meaning that reflects universal human values.
New Criticism is often regarded as American Formalism on the basis that it privileges the work over the author, and that it establishes criteria for “high” and “low” literary works. Rene Wellek identifies four of the major oppositions to New Criticism: first, estranging the author from his or her work in order to more clearly evaluate form and language results in the removal of the human element from literature. Next, New Criticism deemphasizes the historical contexts in which a work is produced, thereby bringing them into ideological opposition with Marxism (Booker 15). The third argument is that New Criticism reduces literary criticism to an abstract science by imposing standards and criteria. This argument leads to accusations that New Criticism is elitist in that it “excludes readers who lack the background for arriving at the ‘correct’ interpretation” (Spurgin).
But the final argument levied against New Criticism is the most problematic for critics—the use of close reading as a pedagogical device. William Cain argued that New Criticism had not only become institutionalized, but had become the institution itself…the ground upon which everything else is based” (Young 8). R.V. Young counters this argument with the explanation “that careful interpretation of works of demonstrable literary excellence necessarily lies at the heart of literary study” (Young 9). Thus, canonical works of literature are more effective tools for teaching Language Arts because they represent “the accumulated wisdom of Western Civilization” (Young 13) as well as “the New Criticism’s commitment to intellectual and artistic excellence, and its insistence on the vigorous life of the mind” (Young 14).
New Criticism is most closely aligned with Louise Rosenblatt’s definition of the “Expression-Oriented Authorial Reading” (20). As readers organize a “principle or framework” for interpreting the words on a page, the New Critical method moves the reader towards prescribed literary devices in order to make the words “fit into tentative meanings” (Rosenblatt 20). Ideally, close reading of the text will evoke a universally accepted meaning for a reader; otherwise, the reader is compelled to reread the text to “restructure the attributed meaning” (Rosenblatt 20).
But close reading is not a method of repetitious torture; rather, it challenges readers to explore variant meanings of a word and its use in a sentence. As a reader works his way from local sentence level interpretation to the organic whole, he comes to recognize the effects certain word choices have when applied as figurative language. The reader then sees the work as taking on new meaning beyond an 19th century work of American gothic, but he comes to recognize humanistic values situated in the structure and form of the work. Young illustrates this through the close reading of Anne Bradstreet’s “Before the Birth of One of Her Children. Young justifies that, despite Bradstreet’s mediocre style, the poem possesses a “simple dignity with which it expresses both a fearful realization of the possibility of death and courage in the face of that fear…a testament of a woman of great fortitude and spiritual depth” (Young 157). Young challenges Frank Lentricchia’s claim that “Literature is inherently nothing…or it is inherently a body of rhetorical strategies waiting to be seized” (Young 148).
New Criticism establishes a hierarchy of writing (i.e. a “canon”) that advocates “intellectual, moral, and aesthetic excellence” (Young 147). This affects perceptions of what constitutes “good” literature, especially in the eyes of academics. New Critics draw sharp differentiation between works of literary art and popular culture; the latter is disdained as less-sophisticated and less worthy of critical analysis. This distinct polemic affects what individuals read in school as well as what they read outside of school. Brooks and Warren state that most students read fiction of their own will, and that a teacher “does not…have to ‘make’ the student read fiction as he has to “make” the student read poetry and essays…Frequently, the student does discover that the ‘good’ story or novel is interesting to him” (xi). But this method of differentiating the good from the bad in literature isolates canonical works as “objects of study instead of media and enjoyment and illumination” (Rosenblatt 111). Still, New Critics uphold that this separation is necessary for proper instruction of Language Arts. In 1919, T.S. Eliot stated that “the existing monuments from an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new of art among them” (36). So the distinction between canonical works and popular culture is necessary to help readers better understand the qualities of figurative language and standardized English.
Proponents for the New Criticism argue that it is not elitist in any sense. Rather, they advocate that it is a critical method that hails particular works as exemplary expressions of human ideals. The model praises the use of language rather than questions its meaning to the point of non-consensus. New Criticism is decisively a Western theoretical model; it is largely applied to Native English speaking literatures; and it mostly favors American literature.
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 8th ed. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.
Booker, M. Keith. A Practical Introduction to Liertary Theory and Criticism. New York: Longman Publishers, 1996.
Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction, 2nd ed. New Jersy: Prentice Hall, 1959.
Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Perspecta. 19. (1982): 36-42.
Lentricchia, Frank, and Thomas McLaughlin. Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Patnaik, J.N. The Aesthetics of New Criticism. New Delhi: Intellectual Publishing House, 1982.
Ransom, John Crowe. The New Criticism. Norfolk: New Directions, 1941.
Richards, I.A. Principles of Literary Criticism, 5th ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934.
Rosenblatt, Louise. Making Meaning with Texts. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2005.
Wellek, Rene. “The New Criticism: Pro and Contra.” Critical Inquiry. 4.4 (1978): 611-624.
Young, R.V. At War With the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education. Wilmington: ISI Books, 1999.