Brooks, Cleanth 1906–1994

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Brooks, Cleanth 1906–1994

PERSONAL: Born October 16, 1906, in Murray, KY; died of cancer of the esophagus, May 10, 1994, in New Haven, CT; son of Cleanth (a Methodist minister) and Bessie Lee (Witherspoon) Brooks; married Edith Amy Blanchard, September 12, 1934 (died, October 1, 1986). Education: Vanderbilt University, B.A., 1928; Tulane University, M.A., 1929; Exeter College, Oxford, B.A. (with honors), 1931, B.Litt., 1932. Politics: Independent Democrat Religion: Episcopalian

CAREER: Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 1932–47, began as lecturer, became professor of English, visiting professor, 1970 and 1974; Yale University, New Haven, CT, professor of English, 1947–60, Gray Professor of Rhetoric, 1960–75, professor emeritus, 1975–94. Visiting professor of English at University of Texas, summer, 1941, University of Michigan, summer, 1942, University of Chicago, 1945–46, Kenyon School of English, summer, 1948 (fellow, 1948–94), University of Southern California, summer, 1953, Breadloaf School of English, summer, 1963, University of South Carolina, 1975, Tulane University, 1976, University of North Carolina, 1977 and 1979, and University of Tennessee, 1978 and 1980; research professor with Bostick Foundation, 1975; Lamar Lecturer, 1984; Jefferson Lecturer, 1985. Southern Review, Baton Rouge, LA, comanaging editor, 1932–41, coeditor, 1941–42. Member of advisory committee for Boswell Papers, 1950–94; Library of Congress, fellow, 1953–63, member of council of scholars, 1984–87; American Embassy, London, England, cultural attaché, 1964–66; National Humanities Center, senior fellow, 1980–81.

MEMBER: Modern Language Association of America, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Institute of Arts and Letters, American Philosophical Society, American Association of University Professors, Royal Society of Literature, Phi Beta Kappa, Athenaeum (London, England), Fellowship of Southern Writers (chancellor, 1986–91).

AWARDS, HONORS: Rhodes scholar, 1929–32; Guggenheim fellowship, 1953 and 1960; senior fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1975; Explicator Award, c. 1980, for William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. Honorary D.Litt. from Upsala College, 1963, University of Kentucky, 1963, University of Exeter, 1966, Washington and Lee University, 1968, Tulane University, 1969, University of the South, 1975, Newberry College, 1979, and Indiana State University, 1992; L.H.D. from University of St. Louis, 1968, Centenary College, 1972, Oglethorpe University, 1976, St. Peter's College, 1978, Lehigh University, 1980, Millsaps College, 1983, University of New Haven, 1984, University of South Carolina, 1984, and Adelphi University, 1992.



(With others) An Approach to Literature, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1936, 5th edition, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1975.

(With Robert Penn Warren, and coauthor) Understanding Poetry, Holt (New York, NY), 1938, 4th edition, 1975, transcript of tape recording to accompany 3rd edition entitled Conversations on the Craft of Poetry: Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, with Robert Frost, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Lowell, and Theodore Roethke, Holt (New York, NY), 1961.

(With Robert Penn Warren) Understanding Fiction, F.S. Crofts, 1943, 3rd edition, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1979, abridged edition published as The Scope of Fiction, 1960.

(General editor, with A.F. Falconer and David Nichol Smith) The Percy Letters, 1944–88, Volumes 1-6, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), Volumes 7-9, Yale University Press; special editor of Volume 2: The Correspondence of Thomas Percy and Richard Farmer and Volume 7: The Correspondence of Thomas Percy and William Shenstone.

(With Robert Heilman) Understanding Drama, Holt (New York, NY), 1945.

(With John Edward Hardy) The Poems of John Milton (1645 edition), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1951.

(With Robert Penn Warren) An Anthology of Stories from the "Southern Review," Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1953.

Tragic Themes in Western Literature: Seven Essays by Bernard Knox (and Others), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1956.

(With Robert Penn Warren and R.W.B. Lewis) American Literature: The Makers and the Making, two volumes, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1973, paperbound edition published in four volumes, 1974.

Southern Review, managing editor with Robert Penn Warren, 1935–41, editor with Warren, 1941–42; Kenyon Review, member of advisory board, 1942–60.


The Relation of the Alabama-Georgia Dialect to the Provincial Dialects of Great Britain, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1935.

Modern Poetry and the Tradition, University of North Carolina Press, 1939.

The Well Wrought Urn, Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1956.

(With Robert Penn Warren) Modern Rhetoric, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1949, 4th edition, 1979, abridged edition, 1961.

(With Robert Penn Warren) Fundamentals of Good Writing, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1950.

(Contributor) Humanities: An Appraisal, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 1950.

(With William K. Wimsatt) Literary Criticism: A Short History, Knopf (New York, NY), 1957.

Metaphor and the Function of Criticism, Institute for Religious and Social Studies, c. 1957.

The Hidden God: Studies in Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot and Warren, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1963.

William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1963.

William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1978.

(Contributor) Louis D. Dollarhide and Ann J. Abadie, editors, Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1979.

Cleanth Brooks at the United States Air Force Academy, April 11-12, 1978 (lectures), edited by James A. Grimshaw, Jr., Department of English, U.S. Air Force Academy, 1980.

William Faulkner: First Encounters, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1983.

The Language of the American South, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1985.

On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1987.

Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth Century Poetry, University of Missouri Press (Columbia MO), 1991.

Community, Religion, and Literature: Essays, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1995.

Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence, edited by James A. Grimshaw, Jr., University of Missouri Press (Columbia MO), 1998.

Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate: Collected Letters, 1933–1976, edited by Alphonse Vinh, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1998.

Also author of recorded lectures on works by William Faulkner. Contributor of articles and reviews to literary journals.

SIDELIGHTS: From the early 1940s until his death in 1994, Cleanth Brooks was "one of the pillars of the American literary-critical establishment," as noted by Brian Stonehill in the Los Angeles Times. Brooks is best remembered as one of the pioneers of the so-called "New Criticism," a scholarly approach that examines literary works to discover internal tensions and abiding ironies that enable them to stand free of personal, religious, and historical circumstances. Southern Review essayist Rene Wellek described the erudite Brooks as an "eminently fair-minded, text-oriented, conscientious examiner of ideas who is rarely openly polemical." Wellek added that Brooks "is convinced that the amalgamation and confusion of literary theory with morals, politics, and religion has been at the root of many difficulties of critical theory."

From his base at Yale University, Brooks wrote and edited a number of volumes that aimed to enlarge a reader's understanding of seminal works of literature. His best-known books, including The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry and (with Robert Penn Warren) Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students "revolutionized literary pedagogy by employing the criterion of shared aesthetic properties, rather than subject, author, or chronology, to organize poems," according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor James J. Sosnoski. Long before his retirement from Yale in 1975, Brooks had turned to an in-depth examination of William Faulkner's fiction, becoming "the most important Faulkner critic," according to a Washington Post Book World reviewer.

Sosnoski wrote of Brooks: "Not only was he considered to be the critic of his generation of critics but also … he was critical of other critics. During the 1940s and 1950s he was widely regarded as the most lucid and instructive close reader of literary texts." Unlike his associates Warren, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom, Brooks wrote little poetry or fiction of his own. Instead he concentrated on criticism, revealing undervalued or unsuspected complexity in poetry from Shakespeare to William Butler Yeats. In The Possibilities of Order: Cleanth Brooks and His Work, Monroe K. Spears noted: "Far from being the irresponsible aesthete or technician that his opponents have represented him as (in the polemics of literary journals and seminar rooms), Brooks is … distinguished among critics precisely by his strong sense of responsibility. This is not his only distinction; aside from such obvious gifts as perceptive-ness, imagination, and intelligence, his critical integrity, his sense of proportion, and his instinct for the centrally human are rare qualities indeed. But responsibility is primary."

Brooks was born in Kentucky in 1906, the son of a Methodist clergyman. During his childhood the family moved often, going from town to town in Tennessee. Brooks's father was a scholarly man who encouraged his son to read works of world literature. Later Brooks attended the McTyeire School, a small classical academy where students became well acquainted with Greek and Latin in addition to a standard curriculum.

In 1924 Brooks entered Vanderbilt University, the seat of an important 1920s literary group known as the Fu-gitives. The Fugitives—including Ransom, Donald Davidson, Tate, and Warren—wrote and discussed modern literature and "laid the theoretical groundwork for the New Critical movement," according to Sosnoski. Brooks's exposure to the Fugitives changed the direction of his career. He had planned to become a lawyer, but he opted instead to pursue the study of literature. He was quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as saying: "The thing that I got most out of Vanderbilt was to discover suddenly that literature was not a dead thing to be looked at through the glass of a museum case, but was very much alive."

After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1928, Brooks continued his studies at Tulane University, receiving his M.A. in 1929. Tulane nominated him for a prestigious Rhodes scholarship that sent him to Exeter College at Oxford University in England. At Exeter he earned another B.A. with honors and was accorded a graduate degree in 1932. He returned to the United States the same year and began teaching literature at Louisiana State University. Robert Penn Warren was also hired by LSU shortly after Brooks arrived, and the two men continued a close personal and professional relationship that had begun in their Vanderbilt days. Together, in 1939, they founded the Southern Review, one of the nation's most important critical quarterlies.

As college professors, Brooks and Warren found the existing textbooks for the study of literature grossly inadequate. They determined to develop their own, editing An Approach to Literature: A Collection of Prose and Verse with Analyses and Discussions; Understanding Poetry; and Understanding Fiction. Sosnoski noted of these works that the editors "tried to deal with what they considered a widespread problem, namely to get students to do a close analyses of the literary works. Therefore, they provided model analyses as well as questions that might provoke students to do their own analyses. This approach was quite controversial." Indeed, some opponents of Brooks's approach accused him of neglecting such "essentials" as the author's background and the poem's place in cultural history. Brooks, on the other hand, saw himself merely as a proponent of a more text-oriented criticism.

In The Well Wrought Urn, published in 1947, Brooks applied this text-oriented New Criticism to ten English language poems, some of them centuries old. New York Times Book Review correspondent R.P. Blackmur noted of the work: "Mr. Brooks gives us intensive and exciting readings of his chosen poems…. He wants to liberate—to bring out into the open air of the poems themselves—a way in which the poems grow together and grow into life which we can recognize as related to our own practice. His readings suggest something much more important: that, at least from Shakespeare to Yeats, English poetry has an identity of inner or conceptual forms; and that even more important, we can learn the scope of our own practice, and stretch it, too, better from old models than our own."

From works such as The Well Wrought Urn, Brooks earned a reputation as a "close reader" of literary texts. In Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South, John Edward Hardy remarked of Brooks's method: "Commentary is never allowed to get in the way of the poem. Whatever the other risks involved in the style he has chosen, Brooks avoids the greatest danger that the 'inspired' critic faces, that of having his critique become a rival or substitute poem for the one supposedly being investigated." Sosnoski wrote: "In combining aesthetic formalism with linguistic self-reflexivity, Brooks's readings mark a real turning point in the development of poetic theory, one that (to Brooks's chagrin) could be claimed to lead to deconstructionist practices. On the other hand, Brooks also thus moves even further from the kind of political or social or cultural criticism so many called for in the troubled decades of the 1930s and 1940s."

Like many other writers, Brooks found the labels attached to him—"New Critic," "close reader"—quite confining. In A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Writer's Craft, Brooks commented on his position in the academic community. "The pigeonhole assigned to me carries the label 'The New Criticism,'" he wrote. "Now, it is bad enough to live under any label, but one so nearly meaningless as 'The New Criticism'—it is certainly not new—has peculiar disadvantages. For most people it vaguely signifies an anti-historical bias and a fixation on 'close reading.'" Brooks calls this reaction to his intentions "an overshadowing generalization."

Brooks moved to Yale University in 1947 and remained there until his retirement in 1975. He also served as a visiting professor at numerous universities and even worked as a cultural attaché at the American embassy in London. As a Southerner himself, Brooks was perhaps inevitably drawn to William Faulkner's fiction, and he spent nearly three decades analyzing Faulkner's difficult but rewarding texts.

Yale University Press published Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country in 1963. The book considers Faulkner as a product of his Southern milieu with its particular ethical and religious heritage and then explores the themes and characters in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha novels. Yale Review contributor Joseph Blotner called the work "the best single critical work on the novels of Faulkner's fictional saga," praising Brooks for his "remarkable erudition, broad historical consciousness, penetrating insight, sympathetic sensitivity, blessed common sense, and the ability to express them in a flexible prose that is clear, straightforward, and persuasive." Blotner concluded that Brooks "leads the reader through Faulkner's complexities and intricacies, not only making them more easily understandable but also showing how they function in the novel's ultimate meaning."

In 1978 Brooks published a companion volume, William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, a study of Faulkner's development as a writer with a discussion of novels not set in Yoknapatawpha County. Critics also found favor with a 1983 Brooks work, William Faulkner: First Encounters. The volume, intended principally for undergraduates and general readers interested in Faulkner, assists in unraveling the great writer's most difficult novels. Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley wrote of First Encounters that, for the reader coming to Faulkner for the first time, "this slender volume provides the keys to the kingdom." Yardley concluded: "First Encounters can be read with profit by the scholar, for it is a distillation of our most important Faulkner critic's views of Faulkner's most enduring work. But the reader who will value it most is the daunted but determined one who wants to gain admission to one of the great bodies of work in the English language."

Many of Brooks's books were inspired by lectures he gave to students over the years. He also published two volumes on Southern dialect and its relationship to speech patterns in the south of England. Spears noted, "Brooks has always seemed to think of his criticism as simply an extension of his teaching, exactly the same in nature and purpose." Spears also said, "It appears never to have occurred to him to think of his criticism as autotelic; assuming its role to be obviously ancillary to that of literature itself but nevertheless vitally important, he has been concerned chiefly with its practical effectiveness upon its audience—mostly students and teachers, with some general readers. Through collaborative textbooks and editing, as well as through reviewing, lecturing, and criticism proper, Brooks has devoted himself single-mindedly to the aim of improving this audience's understanding of literature and hence its power of discrimination."

Sosnoski offered a similar assessment of Brooks's career. "Brooks's accomplishments are considerable," Sosnoski wrote. "He has been in every respect an exemplary literary scholar. Despite his … disclaimer, he is important in the history of criticism as a 'close reader' of complex modern literary texts. His two greatest achievements are that he made difficult modern writers accessible to a generation of scholars for whom it was inconceivable that a great writer could exist in the twentieth century, and he taught the next generation of critics how to read closely."

Brooks's death in 1994 inspired additional reflection on his lifelong dedication and highly influential contributions to the study of literature. Former student and friend Judith Farr wrote in a Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1994 tribute to Brooks: "Cleanth's vision was that the critic, however magisterial, however brilliant, essentially served the artist: he was never a rival presence but an adroit commentator, the most willing of willing, informed, knowledgeable readers, prepared to assist the public in achieving the richest possible understanding of the artist's work. There was a modesty implicit in this point of view, and I always felt Cleanth's reverence for true writers, though he could certainly be savage in his controlled fashion to a false or poor one." A London Times reviewer noted, "To his students, Brooks appeared a gentle, quietly spoken man, with enormous authority."

Commenting on Brooks's persistent effort to reconcile competing social, political, and historical forces in both literary creation and interpretation, Carol M. Andrews wrote in an essay for The Vanderbilt Tradition, "Brooks solves this conflict to his own satisfaction by seeing his traditional values as universal, inhering in human experience itself and therefore quite rightly represented in a work of art that separates itself from historical flux." According to Brooks, as quoted by Spears in the New York Review of Books, "Genuine literature … 'is not a luxury commodity but neither is it an assembly-line product. It cannot be mass produced. It has to be hand made, fashioned by a genuine craftsman out of honest human emotions and experiences, in the making of which the indispensable material is our common language, in all its variety, complexity, and richness.'"

As Michael L. Hall noted in Sewanee Review, "Brooks intends to demonstrate, finally, that his method of historical reading is not antiquarian but serves a larger purpose, and part of that purpose is to remind us why we would want to read these old poems, or any other works of literature, in the first place: 'No one has ever doubted that poems (and novels and plays) are products of the culture out of which they came, and consequently at some level they must reflect that culture. But that fact does not prevent our assessing these literary documents on other levels, including what they can tell us about the universal human condition.'"

In 1998, two books were published focusing on Brooks's correspondence with Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. In Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence, readers can peruse 372 letters between the two men concerning their collaborations on such books as Understanding Fiction. The volume also includes essays by colleagues of Brooks and Warren. David Kirby, writing in the Library Journal commented that the book "will matter considerably to biographers of two literary giants as well as historians of a critical method that has fallen into disrepute among literary theorists yet that continues to shape reading practices in classrooms today." The volume Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate: Collected Letters, 1933–1976 includes some 250 letters between two people who John L. Brown, writing in World Literature Today, called "outstanding Southern men of letters of their generation." The letters include personal events of the two men and discussions of literary criticism. Denise J. Stankovics, writing in Library Journal, commented, "Their correspondence testifies to their mutual respect and admiration as the stature of each writer grew over time."

While many have continued to debate Brooks's literary theories, few would disparage his ability as a teacher who could articulate his theories clearly. Southern Review contributor Joseph Leo Blotner commented, "He helped me to help my students in fundamental ways. When one of them asked me, as often happened during the writing of dissertations or theses, 'What style should I use?,' I would enumerate what were to me the attributes desirable in good scholarly writing. Then I would cite models to follow, exemplars of clarity in form and content. I would have them read Malcolm Cowley; more often, I would tell them to read Cleanth Brooks."



Brooks, Cleanth, A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Writer's Craft, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1972.

Bryher, Jackson R., editor, Sixteen Modern American Authors, Norton (New York, NY), 1973.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 24, 1983; Volume 86, 1995.

Crane, R. S., editor, Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1952.

Cutrer, Thomas W., Parnassus on the Mississippi: The Southern Review and the Baton Rouge Literary Community, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1984.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 63: Modern American Critics, 1920–1955, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1994, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.

Krieger, Murray, The New Apologists for Poetry, University of Minnesota Press, 1956.

Littlejohn, David, Interruptions, Grossman (New York, NY), 1970.

Poems and Essays, Vintage (New York, NY), 1955.

Price, Reynolds, Things Themselves: Essays and Scenes, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1972.

Pritchard, John Paul, Criticism in America, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1956.

Rubin, Louis D., and Robert D. Jacobs, editors, Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1953.

Simpson, Lewis P., editor, The Possibilities of Order: Cleanth Brooks and His Work, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1975.

Vanderbilt, Kermit, American Literature and the Academy: The Roots, Growth, and Maturity of a Profession, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1986.

Wellek, Rene, Concepts of Criticism, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1963.

Wellek, Rene, Discriminations, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1970.

Wellek, Rene, History of Modern Criticism, 1750–1950, Volume 6, 1986.

Winchell, Mark Royden, editor, The Vanderbilt Tradition: Essays in Honor of Thomas Daniel Young, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1991.

Winchell, Mark Royden, A Blossoming Labor: Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1996.


American Scholar, Volume 53, 1983; spring, 1995, p. 257.

Books, July 28, 1963.

Encounter, December, 1971.

Georgia Review, winter, 1973.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 25, 1984.

Library Journal, April 15, 1998, David Kirby, review of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: A Literary Correspondence, p. 78; January, 1999, Denise J. Stankovics, review of Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate: Collected Letters, 1933–1976, p. 95.

Los Angeles Times, November 18, 1983, Brian Stonehill.

New Republic, February 5, 1940; July 29, 1978.

New York Herald Tribune Books, July 28, 1963.

New York Review of Books, January 9, 1964; May 7, 1987, p. 38; March 7, 1991, p. 48.

New York Times Book Review, June 8, 1947; December 10, 1972; May 21, 1978; November 13, 1983; November 15, 1987.

Sewanee Review, fall, 1947; Volume 87, 1979; spring, 1992.

Southern Review, winter, 1974, Rene Wellek; summer, 1997, Joseph Leo Blotner, "Remembering Cleanth Brooks," p. 628.

Times (London, England), May 16, 1994, p. 19.

Times Literary Supplement, March 30, 1984.

Washington Post, August 31, 1983, Jonathan Yardley, review of William Faulkner: First Encounters.

Washington Post Book World, March 10, 1985.

World Literature Today, autumn, 1999, John L. Brown, review of Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate: Collected Letters, 1933–1976, p. 750.

Yale Review, October, 1978.



Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1994, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times, May 14, 1994, p. A26.

New York Times, May 12, 1994, p. B14.

Washington Post, May 13, 1994, p. C4.

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Brooks, Cleanth 1906–1994

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