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New Criticism


The New Criticism is the name given to the work of a school of formalist-oriented Anglo-American literary critics whose writings appeared in the years following World War I and came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s. John Crowe Ransom (18881974) coined the moniker itself in his 1941 study The New Criticism, in which he provided an overview of the work of key "New" Critics, including I. A. Richards (18931979), T. S. Eliot (18881965), William Empson (19061984), and Yvor Winters (19001968). Other important critics associated with this school included F. R. Leavis (18951978), Kenneth Burke (18971993), Allen Tate (18991979), Cleanth Brooks (19061994), Robert Penn Warren (19051989), and René Wellek (19031995), to name a few. Arising, in part, as a response to earlier approaches such as comparative philology and biographical and impressionistic criticism, the New Criticism focused on the individual work of literature, usually the poem, as the sole object of study. These critics placed special emphasis on the formalistic aspects of the literary work, highlighting connotative and associative usage of words and the many figurative devices of language that functioned within the poem.

Beginnings in England

The poet and critic T. S. Eliot gave shape to many of the concerns that would eventually coalesce as New Criticism. Eliot articulated a sense of literary tradition that wrenched criticism away from historical and biographical assessment. In essays such as "Tradition and the Individual Talent," rather than emphasizing the greatness of the individual poet, Eliot stressed the importance of directing criticism upon the poem itself. In turn, the tradition of poetry became the collective vessel through which cultural greatness was transmitted. By distinguishing levels of poetic appreciation, he stressed the benefit of technical appreciation as opposed to the more popular (and coarse) emotional. The aim of the critic was to mine "significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet" (Eliot, p. 11). Eliot, then, was establishing a way of reading poetry that acknowledged Western tradition as a continuum dating back to Greek antiquity, in which "art never improves, but that material of art is never quite the same" (p. 6). In doing so, he sought a rigorous, formalist appreciation of art as a corrective to more popular modes of modern culture. Eliot, like later New Critics, hoped to cultivate an understanding of great literature as a countervailing force to the vulgar and degradative thrust of modern mass society.

The emphasis on rigorous technical understanding of the literary work would become the hallmark of New Criticism. Most practitioners generally eschewed explicit formulation of theoretical orientation but, rather, focused on the practical application of certain, specific ways of reading. This orientation was captured in the title of I. A. Richards's 1929 work Practical Criticism, in which the notion of criticism was allied with careful or "close" readings of poetic works. Richards used his Cambridge Honors students' responses to poetry to reveal the reading deficiencies of ostensibly well-trained readers. These misreadings allowed him to distinguish four distinct meanings that the critic needed to draw out in order to understand a poem: Sense, Feelings, Tone, and Intention. Such an emphasis on reading as a practice, whose focus was to be directed solely upon formal aspects of the literary object, would become a key trait of New Critical thought.

Indeed, the status of the literary object, isolated from historical and cultural context, would gain strength over the next two decades. The poem was the literary object par excellence, its condensed and intense use of language particularly conducive to close reading. For most of the New Critics poetry was literature, and they eschewed more lengthy and convoluted genres such as fiction and drama. In the 1920s, Richards had defined the poem as an autonomous and organic being whose unity as an aesthetic object was essential to its study. In the 1930s and 1940s, critics based in the American South would develop this idea further.

American New Criticism

In the United States, several poets and critics based in the South would pick up on Richards's work. This group, associated with the Agrarian Revival, would elaborate upon close reading and the autonomy of the poem, eventually developing these principles into a full-fledged critical ethos. In the 1930s, John Crowe Ransom's writing on poetry positioned literature against the rapacious force of dehumanizing scientific logic. Considering the Revivalists' opposition to Southern industrialization, the turn to poetry as a means to maintain contact with a humanistic, organic, and agrarian tradition made sense. Most of the Agrarians shared a sense of distrust in technology and were religious and conservative in their social views. Ransom, Allen Tate, and others saw poetic knowledge as a remedy to an oppressive scientific modernity. For them, poetry offered access to means of human expression and communication that were not available in other, modern discourses.

Organic unity and the heresy of the paraphrase.

In the journal Southern Review, the editors Cleanth Brooks (19061994) and Robert Penn Warren (19051989) provided an influential platform for New Criticism. From 1935 to 1942, Brooks and Warren, in addition to raising the profile of Southern writers, also established New Critical principles of criticism as central to American literary studies. In his 1947 work The Well Wrought Urn, Brooks brought together many of his previous essays into a key text for the movement. Not only articulating its principles, Brooks also provided exemplary New Critical readings of poetry. In positioning poetic against scientific knowledge, he argued that paradox was characteristic of the unique knowledge of the poem. Unlike science, which sought to eliminate paradox, the poetic work achieved its ontological status through contradictions, oppositions, and ambiguity. Brooks also described the "Heresy of the Paraphrase" in order to highlight the importance of the poetic object as a complete and unified whole. No part of the poem could be read outside of the whole, and the whole was constituted by each individual part. Thus, any summarization or paraphrase of a poem was grossly inadequate, as the internal multiplicities of the poem could not be reduced in such a way. Brooks would, in later work, elaborate upon William K. Wimsatt (19071975) and Monroe Beardsley's (19151985) concepts of the intentional fallacy and the affective fallacy to reaffirm the organic unity and autonomy of the poem. Aimed at biographical and impressionistic criticism, the former dismissed attempts to gauge the poet's intentions through examination of historical context, whereas the latter argued that the poem is not to be judged based upon its emotional impact on the reader.

Decline of the New Criticism and
Continuing Influence

In the years following World War II, New Criticism became a force in Anglo-American literary studies. Its rise was attributed not only to the focus it placed on literature as a discipline unto itself but also to its ease of pedagogical transmission. In an era when universities were flooded with returning soldiers, the New Criticism offered a clear and direct approach to the analysis and appreciation of literature as a rigorous, objective form of study. Several prominent literary critics challenged New Critical methods during its heyday. Alfred Kazin (19151998), in the early 1940s, charged that it fetishized formalism. In the latter part of the same decade, R. S. Crane (18861967) attacked Brooks and others for their "critical monism," which was exemplified by their slavish adherence to poetry, and primarily lyrical poetry at that. While Brooks responded to this charge by setting his sights on fiction, he was forced to concede that historical context was an important component in the structure of the novel. But it was in the 1960s, with increasing social flux, when New Criticism began to see its influence diminish. Its ahistorical approach to the study of literature was faulted for depoliticizing literature and, thereby, upholding a political status quo. With increased interest paid to Marxist, hermeneutic, structuralist, and feminist criticism in the 1960s, New Criticism ceded ground to a variety of theoretical and historicist concerns. While in the early twenty-first century the New Criticism is faulted for its limitation of focus and methodological austerity, the impact it has had on the rise of a discipline of literary studies in the United States and that discipline's underlying reliance upon various methods of "close" reading are lasting achievements.

See also Literary Criticism ; Literary History ; Literature .


Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1941.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964.

Ransom, John Crowe. The New Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947.

Richards, I. A. Practical Criticism. 1929. Reprint, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.

Wimsatt, W. K., Jr., and Monroe C. Beardsley. "The Intentional Fallacy." In The Verbal Icon. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954.

Amit Ray

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