John Crowe Ranson, The New Criticism, 1941. Courtesy Literary Theory and Criticism.

New Criticism was a movement in literary theory that dominated American literary criticism in the middle decades of the 20th century. It emphasized close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object.

History[edit | edit source]

New Criticism developed in the 1920s-30s and peaked in the 1940s-50s. The movement is named after John Crowe Ransom's 1941 book The New Criticism. New Critics focused on the text of a work of literature and tried to exclude the reader's response, the author's intention, historical and cultural contexts, and moralistic bias from their analysis. Their aesthetic concerns were initially outlined in essays like Ransom's "Criticism, Inc." and Allen Tate's "Miss Emily and the Bibliographers."

New Critics often performed a "close reading" of the text and believed the structure and meaning of the text were intimately connected and should not be analyzed separately. Before the New Criticism became dominant, English professors in America focused their writings and teaching on historical and/or linguistic scholarship surrounding literature rather than analyzing the literary text itself. Also, at that time, this kind of close reading (or explication de texte) was considered the work of non-academic "critics" (or book reviewers) and not the work of serious scholars. But the New Criticism changed this. Though their interest in textual study initially met with heavy resistance from the establishment, the practice eventually gained a foothold and soon became one of the central methods of literary scholarship in American universities until it fell out of favor in the 1970s as post-structuralism, deconstructionist theory, and a whole plethora of competing theoretical models vied for more attention in literary studies.

The New Criticism was never a formal collective, but it initially developed from the teaching methods advocated by John Crowe Ransom who taught at Vanderbilt. Some of his students (all Southerners) like Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren would go on to develop the aesethetics that came to be known as the New Criticism. Nevertheless, in his essay, "The New Criticism," Cleanth Brooks notes that "The New Critic, like the Snark, is a very elusive beast," meaning that there was no clearly defined "New Critical" school or critical stance.[1] Also, although there are a number of classic New Critical writings that outline inter-related ideas, there is no New Critical manifesto.

In 1954, William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published a classic and controversial New Critical essay entitled "The Intentional Fallacy", in which they argued strongly against the relevance of an author's intention, or "intended meaning" in the analysis of a literary work. For Wimsatt and Beardsley, the words on the page were all that mattered; importation of meanings from outside the text was considered irrelevant, and potentially distracting.

In another essay, "The Affective Fallacy," which served as a kind of sister essay to "The Intentional Fallacy" Wimsatt and Beardley also discounted the reader's personal/emotional reaction to a literary work as a valid means of analyzing a text. This fallacy would later be repudiated by theorists from the reader-response school of literary theory. Ironically, one of the leading theorists from this school, Stanley Fish, was himself trained by New Critics. Fish criticizes Wimsatt and Beardsley in his essay "Literature in the Reader" (1970).[2]

The popularity of the New Criticism persisted through the Cold War years in both American high schools and colleges, in part, because it offered a relatively straightforward (and politically uncontroversial) approach to teaching students how to read and understand poetry and fiction. To this end, Brooks and Warren published Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction which both became standard pedagogical textbooks in American high schools and colleges during the 1950s, 60's, and 70's.

Studying a passage of prose or poetry in New Critical style required careful, exacting scrutiny of the passage itself. Formal elements such as rhyme, meter, setting, characterization, and plot were used to identify the theme of the text. In addition to the theme, the New Critics also looked for paradox, ambiguity, irony, and tension to help establish the single best and most unified interpretation of the text. Such an approach has been criticized as constituting a conservative attempt to isolate the text and to shield it from external, political concerns such as those of race, class, and gender.

Although the New Criticism is no longer a dominant theoretical model in American universities, some of its methods (like close reading) are still fundamental tools of literary criticism, underpinning a number of subsequent theoretic approaches to literature including poststructuralism, deconstruction theory, and reader-response theory.

Important New Critical Texts[edit | edit source]

Criticism[edit | edit source]

One of the most common grievances, iterated in numerous ways, is an objection to the idea of the text as autonomous; detractors react against a perceived anti-historicism, accusing the New Critics of divorcing literature from its place in history. New Criticism is frequently seen as “uninterested in the human meaning, the social function and effect of literature.” [3][4]

Indicative of the reader-response school of theory, Terence Hawkes writes that the fundamental close reading technique is based on the assumption that “the subject and the object of study—the reader and the text—are stable and independent forms, rather than products of the unconscious process of signification," an assumption which he identifies as the "ideology of liberal humanism,” which is attributed to the New Critics who are “accused of attempting to disguise the interests at work in their critical processes.”[4] For Hawkes, ideally, a critic ought to be considered to “[create] the finished work by his reading of it, and [not to] remain simply an inert consumer of a ‘ready-made’ product.”[4]

In response to critics like Hawkes, Cleanth Brooks, in his essay "The New Criticism" (1979), tried to argue that the New Criticism was not diametrically opposed to the general principles of reader-response theory and that the two could complement one another. For instance, he stated, "If some of the New Critics have preferred to stress the writing rather than the writer, so have they given less stress to the reader--to the reader's response to the work. Yet no one in his right mind could forget the reader. He is essential for 'realizing' any poem or novel. . .Reader response is certainly worth studying." However, Brooks tempers his praise for the reader-response theory by noting its limitations, pointing out that, "to put meaning and valuation of a literary work at the mercy of any and every individual [reader] would reduce the study of literature to reader pscyhology and to the history of taste." [5]

Another objection to the New Criticism is that it is thought to aim at making criticism scientific, or at least “bringing literary study to a condition rivaling that of science.”[3] However, René Wellek points out the erroneous nature of this criticism by noting that a number of the New Critics outlined their theoretical aesthetics in stark contrast to the "objectivity" of the sciences (though it should be noted that Ransom, in his essay "Criticism, Inc." did advocate that "criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic").[3][6]

Wellek actually attempts to refute much of the recent criticism aimed at the New Critics in his essay "“The New Criticism: Pro and Contra” (1978).

References[edit | edit source]

  • Searle, Leroy. "New Criticism" in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory, 2nd edition. Edited by Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. Available online in PDF from the University of Washington [1].
  • Davis, Garrick. Praising It New. Swallow, 2008. Anthology that includes some of the keys texts of the New Criticism.

Ibargüen, Raoul, "The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism," Narrative Detours, (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1989)

External links[edit | edit source]

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  1. Brooks, Cleanth. "The New Criticism." The Sewanee Review 87: 4 (1979): 592.
  2. Leitch, Vincent B. , et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Wellek, René. “The New Criticism: Pro and Contra.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 4. (Summer, 1978), pp. 611-624. [2].
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Jancovich, Mark (1993). The Cultural Politics of the New Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521416523. 
  5. Brooks, Cleanth. "The New Criticism." The Sewanee Review 87:4 (1979) 598.
  6. Ransom, John Crowe. "Criticism, Inc." The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1937.
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