Literary Criticism

views updated May 17 2018


When the definitive account of post-1960s intellectual technologies is written, the history of literary movements will constitute a key chapter. Perhaps paradigmatic of the closing decades of the twentieth century in its dramatic shifts and realignments, literary criticism at the opening of the twenty-first century shows all the earmarks of specialized knowledge, professionalization, and market maneuvering that have successfully permeated the precincts of human activity in advanced industrial society since the end of World War II. Virginia Woolf's "common reader," for all intents and purposes, has disappeared, replaced by professional practitioners trained in the efficacies of "close reading" and highly conscious of a critical landscape represented by "schools" of criticism, from mythic to Marxist, from structuralist to feminist, from psychoanalytic to poststructuralist. Deconstruction and postcolonial critiques have joined a range of cultural studies that encompass race, gender, and sexual orientation. With allied movements in linguistic, rhetorical, narrative, and semi-otic theory, criticism at the turn of the twenty-first century accommodates the study of ethics regarding nonhuman species as well as conduct toward the environment. English and American literature at the university level cut across interdisciplinary formations; thus, the English department, situated in the humanities, could as easily play host to the analysis of legal documents, congressional legislation, aspects of the medical archives, and the fashion modes of hairdressers, as to the recurrence of images of senescence in William Shakespeare's sonnets, or the irreality of closure in Toni Morrison's novels, or the rhythm of repetition in William Faulkner's fiction. The field of literary criticism is a growth industry, its latest paradigm shift related to global transformations brought on by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Regarding its susceptibility to change, then, the critical field offers a good example of centrifugal movement.

Literary criticism had rather complicated beginnings, apparently unrelated to the project of literary study. Richard Ohmann argues in English in America: A Radical View of the Profession that the "technology of the Industrial Revolution gave knowledge a new and central place in the business of making a living" (p. 264; emphasis added). The modern American university is dynamically linked to the centrality of knowledge, "the regularizing of technical innovation, and the bending of knowledge to profit" (p. 266). An older technological model, with industries localized in the domestic sphere and skills transmitted from generation to generation, through hands-on experience, was displaced onto the site of the factory, which brought the worker together with the organizational talent of the manager and the stochastic innovations of the entrepreneur. As Ohmann explains, this new model required "a high concentration of special and theoretical knowledge, of the capacity to create more knowledge as needed, and of the managerial skill to bring this about." If these changes necessitated the systematization of knowledge, as well as its spread across "a large and diverse corps of people whose main work is generating, communicating, and developing ideas" (p. 271), then the modern university of the late nineteenth century would become fully complicit with the new social order and its growing market demands. The university would answer both the will and the imperative to knowledge and the demand for skills in an increasingly national population.

According to Ohmann, then, the humanistic project and its situation in the modern university springs from material grounds. Ohmann's work is subtitled "a radical view," playfully reinforced by the book's original cover collage, which superimposes the facial images of Edgar Allan Poe and Karl Marx. The graphic conveys the interarticulations of the aesthetic and materialist realms, and poses the conditions by which it is possible to understand not only the role of the university and the ascent of ideas in a market economy, but also the specific performances of criticism and theory. Not at all an oppositional movement to a "business civilization," the view usually taken by humanists, the "business" of the English department, for Ohmann, is compatible with the rationalizations of the "technostructure" and owes its prosperity to that structure's interventions.

Terry Eagleton pursues the provenance of literary criticism and theory back to the "rise of English" and the modern sense of literature that emerged with the English Romantics of the nineteenth century. A counterweight to the alienation of workers bred by the ravages of the industrial revolution, the literature of the Romantics "appears as one of the enclaves in which the creative values expunged from the face of English society by industrial capitalism can be celebrated and affirmed" (p. 19). The Romantics' "creative imagination" was enlisted on the side of the "intuitive, transcendental scope of the poetic mind" (p. 19) and marshaled in the interest of a "living criticism of those rationalist or empiricist ideologies enslaved to 'fact'"(p. 19). The literary work as a "mysterious organic unity" was opposed "to the fragmented individualism of the capitalist marketplace," and whereas the latter yields rational calculation, the former offers spontaneity. In time, the literary artifact would emerge "as an ideal model of human society itself" (p. 22).

Under the impact of scientific development and the related decline of religious sentiment, literature became in this context a decisive moral and aesthetic regimen: according to one of Eagleton's sources, English literature would in time be solicited "'to save our souls and heal the State'" (p. 23). From Matthew Arnold on, "English," in a period of religious decline, "is constructed as a subject to carry the ideological freight of social cohesion" (p. 24). The "poor man's Classics," English literature marked the route to a liberal, humanizing education, first institutionalized as an academic course of study in unexpected venuesnot in England's great universities, Eagleton contends, but in the "Mechanics' Institutes, working men's colleges and extension lecturing circuits" (p. 27). Installed in the British curriculum during the final quarter of the nineteenth century, English literary studies commenced as a "subject fit for women, workers, [and, given England's colonial project] those wishing to impress the natives" (p. 29).

Though Eagleton's and Ohmann's respective accounts of the development of English critical studies are contrastive, what they have in common is the attempt to put in perspective the relationship between manifestations of the creative and imaginative impulses as curricular objects and the material and political bases on which the former are predicated. Not some glorious abstraction, English, which will become the place of habitation of literary criticism and theory, belongs, one way or another, to the industrial phase of capital. Either as a preserve of creative values or as an elaboration of a radically transformed scene of labor, English in the twentieth century would supersede the old, time-honored trivium of the curricula of the Middle Agesgrammar, logic, and rhetoric.

The New Criticism

In 1930 Harper and Brothers published I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners, which might be considered the central doctrinal statement of the Fugitives literary circle and advanced the names of some of the founding personalities of what became the New Criticism in the United States. John Crowe Ransom, whose New Criticism (1941) named the movement, the poet Allen Tate, the fiction writer Andrew Nelson Lytle, and the critic and fiction writer Robert Penn Warren, among others, contributed essays to this collection, and there is a good deal of justification to support the view that the New Criticism, running conceptually parallel to Russian formalism, did not exhaust itself for decades to come; if one concludes that "close reading," or concentration on the text of a literary work, constitutes a minimal condition for the performance or practice of literary criticism, then its strategies would be adaptable to all the "schools" of criticism. In other words what began as a value peculiar to a certain social formulation was transformed into standard operating procedure: the practitioner is no longer focused on "close reading," but does it automatically. Close reading is considered so "natural" a posture to the work of the critic that whatever else he or she might do with a conceptual object or "hermeneutic demand" is predicated on its facilities. Terry Eagleton argues that close reading involves both a "limiting" and a "focusing of concern"both because it excises superfluitiesconsiderations such as the length of Tennyson's beard, for exampleand because it enforces, among other things, "the illusion that any piece of language can be adequately studied or even understood in isolation" (p. 44). In any case, for some critics, close reading is an act of reification, or the treatment of the literary work "as an object in itself" (p. 44).

M. H. Abrams describes the autonomous object as a "heterocosm," or "second nature": it is "an end in itself, without reference to its possible effects on the thought, feeling, or conduct of its readers" (pp. 35, 327). If, as Eagleton suggests, the poetic object for the New Critics "became a spatial figure rather than a temporal process" (p. 48), then the texts that one associates with the heterocosm, "chartered" by the Coleridgean imagination, makes the critical process itself as demanding as the thing it is interpreting: irony, ambiguity, paradox, and ambivalence are highly valued poetic practices for the New Critics and will yield, in turn, an appreciation for textual "density" and "complexity" as the watchword of value. The idea is that the poem, in rendering disparate things to harmony, in Shelley's formulation, achieves a dynamic stillness among competing linguistic and imagistic elements.

That a poem could be imagined to body forth such a beautifully orchestrated outcome makes it the model of a perfected world, well out of reach then and now. But I'll Take My Stand sketches the social and political presuppositions against which some of the early New Critics were operating and how poetic perfection might have provided them with a strategy of retreat from the realm of realpolitik in an era of global depression. These southern intellectuals were on the cultural defensive, given the South's defeat in the Civil War; General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox had occurred in 1865, only sixty-five years before the appearance of the manifesto. It is not difficult to imagine that the "political unconscious" of the "twelve southerners" could engage with, up close and personal, their own historical memory: Robert Penn Warren's contribution to the volume, "The Briar Patch," bristles with all the energy of revelation, illuminating Penn Warren's great anxietythe industrial/technological transformations homing in on the South: "The chief problem for all alike [the Negro and the white] is the restoration of society at large to a balance and security which the industrial regime is far from promising to achieve" (p. 264). Although what appears to be nostalgia for the full range of social relations imagined as complementary to the "agrarian tradition" runs through the entire volume, the unsigned "statement of principles" (the introduction) could easily be read in concert with "The Briar Patch," or even anticipatory of it. Written in opposition to the "American industrial ideal," I'll Take My Stand argues boldly in its introduction that the "capitalization of the applied sciences has now become extravagant and uncritical; it has enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome" (p. xi). Labor relations in this new order also fall under the microscope, as do the new means of production: "The act of labor as one of the happy functions of human life has been in effect abandoned, and is practiced solely for its rewards" (p. xiii). Just so, the apologists for industrialism "have been obliged to admit that some economic evils follow in the wake of the machines," yet the remedies that they propose "are always homeopathic," insofar as they "expect the evils to disappear when we have bigger and better machines, and more of them" (p. xiii).

A series of consequences follow from the new relations, and a crucial number of them point toward the cultural indices: "We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent" (p. xiv). If the delicate balance between humans and nature has been upset by the "machine in the garden," then it follows that for the Fugitives, art, as well as religion, is dependent on "a right attitude to nature" (p. xv). "Neither the creation nor the understanding of works of art is possible in an industrial age except by some local and unlikely suspension of the industrial drive" (p. xv). "Under the curse of a strictly-business or industrial civilization," life's amenities "suffer." Furthermore, a community must find a way to extricate itself from the toils of industrialism, the "evil dispensation," as the failure to do so is not only the mark of pusillanimity, but the loss of political genius and the embrace of impotence (p. xx). Despite themselves, context insistently bore down on the New Critics, although, surprisingly, some of them would be keenly attuned to it: "We cannot recover our native humanism by adopting some standard of taste that is critical enough to question the contemporary arts but not critical enough to question the social and economic life which is their ground" (p. xvi).

Bill Readings argues that F. R. Leavis in England and the New Critics in the United States would have "an enormous impact on the educational system" transatlantically (p. 84). According to Readings, the radical claim "for the benefits of literary scholarship was accompanied by a massive attention to the training of secondary school teachers who went out from the University entrusted with a sense of their mission to uphold literary culture" (p. 84). The impact of the new literary scholarship was hardly limited to teacher training, but profoundly altered the exercise of reading by removing the tasks of evaluation and canon-making from the precincts of common sense; in other words, pronouncements on the modern textthe poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the fiction of James Joyce, for examplewould become the vocation of the professional critic, who would read literary passages not only against the context of the text in which it was embedded, but with attention to the "total context provided by the [author's] work" (Brooks and Warren, p. 1616). Because criticism would become the province of the professionally trained, canonicity and how to determine the canonical would take on capital significance for American criticism. Readings contends that the New Criticism generated disagreement about the canon precisely because the latter was, in fact, "the surreptitious smuggling of historical continuity into the study of supposedly discrete and autonomous artworks" (p. 84; emphasis added). The New Criticism brought to fruition a development that quite probably began with the proliferation of "little magazines"Harriet Monroe's Poetry, which Venture launched in 1912, became a promoter of modern poetryand the culture of literary salons on both sides of the Atlantic, flourishing as early as the 1910s. The artistic entrepreneurial spirit of Bloomsbury, the London intellectual circle dominated by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, as well as the intense collaborative energy central to some literary masterworks, such as Eliot's Waste Land (1922), strongly shaped by Pound, prepared the basis of reception for the very notion of the art work as autonomous. In fact, the stirrings across the range of the "seven arts"in literature, painting, music, modern dance, drama and the stage, photography, and the new kid on the block, cinema, all heralded the heady transformation and new persuasions at work. For poetry and literary criticism, the New Critics would give the impulse a name: modernism.

Formalism and Beyond.

It might come as a matter of surprise for some readers that according to Lee Lemon and Marion J. Reis, "During the 1920s a group of Russian critics urged the separation of literature and politics [which] challenges our popular clichés about Soviet control of literary theory" (p. ix). In their succinct account of Russian formalist criticism, Lemon and Reis go on to observe that the early work of the Russian formalists and the America New Critics demonstrated certain concepts and strategies in common, among them: (1) "an attack against traditional academic scholarship"; (2) a critical theory that drives a corridor between literature and other disciplines of the human sciences, such as history, philosophy, and sociology; and (3) a strategy of literary investigation that would advance the "analysis of structure" in the place of discourse about "background, social usefulness, or intellectual content" (p. x). Literary critical performance would later annul the breach with related disciplines, not so much by "going over" to them, but by "translating" their content, in effect, into literary values and analogues, as is the case with poststructuralism, which gained ground from the 1970s on. But the isolation of structure, beginning with the formalists and the New Critics, enables the emergence of a conceptual object that gains a precision of focus comparable to the scientific object.

The wedding of formalism and the New Criticism, never officially pronounced as such, provided a merger called "formalism" that dominated literary study on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1930s through the late 1960s. The aims of this prolific period of theorization are perhaps most poignantly captured in the titles of certain works that attempt to configure literary study as a "system"René Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature (1942) and Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957), for example. More pointed investigations in genre theorythe meaning of poetry, the development of the novel and short story, studies in allegorical, symbolic, and mythic modes, as well as inquiries into the "grammar of motives," the "rhetoric of motives," and the "philosophy" of literary formall mark this period as one of the most distinct and distinguished chapters in the history of the modern humanities, but they also help to establish the foundations of what was referred to earlier as a centrifugal movement in literary study. In other words, formalism brings about the institutionalization of the study of literature and language, both in the academy and in the marketplace of ideas. But it also opens onto the possibilities of a broader application of literary method across the universe of signs. The not entirely playful or lighthearted complaint from scholars outside the field that personnel in English believe that they can "read" anything is not exactly misplaced; there is an ascendant logic operative here that grants primacy to the word/words. If the Russian formalists, as early as the period of the Russian Revolution, had been influenced by the enormous impact of the science of modern linguisticsprimarily by way of Roman Jakobsonthen the "structuralist turn," via Parisian intellectual circles, would integrate linguistic method and ideas into new systems of thought.

It would appear to the graduate student in English in 1968 that something quite astonishing was happening on the ground. Change was in the air and coming from a number of different directions, not the least of them political. The ramifications of those changesthe presence of larger numbers of minorities and women, on faculties and in student bodies, at American colleges and universities, as well as the commencement of "multiculturalism" as a mode of scholarly study and addresswould reverberate right through the contemporary period. The year 1968 might be regarded as a time of rupture, on the one hand, brought on by the transatlantic youth movement (in the United States, the Vietnam War protest movement ran parallel to the black nationalist movement and the continuation of the civil rights struggle, while in Europe, particularly in the big cities, students, demanding transformation in the educational system and allied with Labor, especially in the French instance, threatened political order). On the other hand, the literary object, destabilized by a reinvigorated debate on the canon, would seem to displace continuity with formalist and neoformalist persuasions onto questions that had not been asked before, such as How does one read as a woman, or a black person, or a post-colonial subject? Though it appears from the vantage of the early twenty-first century that these transformations occurred all at once, it is fair to say that they systematically unfolded over the last three decades of the twentieth century, falling out in a kind of domino pattern. As new legislation had been required to reinforce equal protection for minorities in public accommodations and at the ballot box, rights initially secured by the "citizenship" amendments (the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Amendments) to the U.S. Constitution, gender equality in access to higher education followed by legislative mandate. The entire panoply of multicultural occasions swam in its wake. While it would be appropriate to regard the 1960s protest movements in light of global development subsequent to the end of World War II, the isolation of intellectual currents in this sea of change is instructive.

Just as John Crowe Ransom's New Criticism in 1941 heralded a paradigm shift that had been well under way for at least two decades, Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato's The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy (1971), which introduced to an English-speaking scholarly audience many of the themes that would come to dominate critical inquiry for the next few decades, pointed to a radical shift in the humanities repertoire. Macksey and Donato's table of contents contains the names of many of the major continental thinkers whose projects would model the new scholarship, from René Girard, Georges Poulet, and Lucien Goldmann to Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida. Though the volume was not published, originally, until 1971, the event that engendered it had taken place during the fall of 1966 at the Humanities Center of the Johns Hopkins University. Supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation, this international symposium brought together more than one hundred humanists and social scientists from the United States and eight other nations. According to Macksey and Donato, the symposium initiated "a two-year program of seminars and colloquia which sought to explore the impact of contemporary 'structuralist' thought on critical methods in humanistic and social studies" (p. xv). The purpose of the symposium was not to consolidate an orthodox view on structuralist method and thinking, but, rather, "to bring into an active and not uncritical contact leading European proponents of structural studies in a variety of disciplines with a wide spectrum of American scholars" (p. xv). The 1966 convocation marked a turning point in the way that literary studies would be configured, and it also enabled the interdisciplinary extension of the latter in the direction of "cultural studies."

Perhaps the single most radical mark of the "structuralist turn" is the "death" of the subject, which opened the way to critical practices, deconstruction prominent among them, in the contemporary era. But the fate of the subject might be thought of as the consequences, or end results, of a series of premises that begin with the concept of "system," which Culler describes as "behind the event, the constitutive conventions behind any individual act" (1975, p. 30). If the prestige and success of the science of linguistics had had an enormous impact on literary study, then it would find application to other cultural and material phenomena on two fundamental grounds: First, cultural phenomena are constituted of objects and events that are riddled with meaning. Such events are, therefore, signs, and signs, as Ferdinand de Saussure (one of the preeminent founders of modern linguistics) contended, are made up of signifiers (auditory images that match a concept) and signifieds (strings of signifiers that yield meaning). Because cultural phenomena behave like language in yielding meaning, one can, then, in Culler's words, "investigate the system of relations that enables meaning to be produced" (p. 4). The science of signs, or semiology, was therefore enabled by the insights of linguistics. Second, the event in question is not only rule bound, but its rules cohere in an entire ensemble of relations: According to Culler, "Rules do not regulate behavior so much as create the possibility of particular forms of behavior" (p. 5). The best example, interestingly enough, comes out of lived experience: the English speaker has unconsciously mastered a host of complex operations called language competence; but the utterances that she will speak over a lifetime do not exhaust the possibilities of sentence formation in the English language (or any other), nor do such utterances even use up the potential formations that this individual speaker could generate. Following on the distinction between la langue ("a system, an institution, a set of interpersonal rules and norms") and la parole ("the actual manifestations of the system in speech and writing"), structuralism was able to posit systematicity across the universe of signs, from fashion modes and food consumption to the conduct of poems, novels, and films (Culler, 1975, p. 8). By investigating the rules behind material manifestations and events and what ensemble of relations they were configured in, the structuralist, at least in theory, could reconstruct how things come to mean.

When the French theorist Michel Foucault argued the "death" of "Man," or his "end," he was not talking about a nuclear holocaust, but, rather, the displacement of an anthropomorphic centrality onto theories of the constructed character of human and social events; in other words, the human subject, though events pass through him and have meaning for him by way of institutional and conventional practices, is not the autonomous being that Hegelian metaphysics had posited; he is instead the outcome of cultural forces and processes not only beyond his control, but beyond his knowledge. The radical nature of this proposition is perhaps most poignantly demonstrable in language itself: As Culler attests, "Individuals choose when to speak and what to say but these acts are made possible by a series of systems which the subject does not control" (1975, p. 29). Therefore, "I" do not speak so much as "I" am "spoken," or enter into a system of human and social relations on which the individual "I" is entirely dependent. When these influences are juxtaposed with the innovations of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytic practice and theorization in the wake of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and its revelation of the symptom in dreams and the neurosis, then we reach the Lacanian synthesis of psychoanalysis, heavily influenced by structuralist thought. In the Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis, Jacques Lacan would assert that the unconscious (the privileged site of the Freudian mental theater) is "structured like a language" (p. 20). Moreover, even "before strictly human relations are established, certain relations have already been determined" (p. 20). Lacan calls these preestablished or prior relations "supports," offered by nature and "arranged in themes of opposition."

Deconstruction and Beyond

It would be difficult to overstate the implications of (1) the recession of the subject of the humanities, (2) the emphasis on systematicity and process, and (3) the flattening out of the literary object in a vast sea of textual properties and equalities; in the aftermath of structuralism, between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, "literary criticism" would become one of a number of critical foci that joined a textualized universe wholly explicable by a generous term called "theory." Texts of philosophy, history, anthropology, and psychoanalytic practice, among other writings deemed to have powerful explanatory value, mixed and mingled in the corridors of criticism with uncustomary abandon, "guests," as it were, of the English department and the departments of comparative literature and modern languages. Bridges between these allied disciplines were supplied by a widespread importation of the writings of continental thinkers, particularly the French contingent. Of prime importance to these developments were the philosophy and methodology of deconstruction, articulated through a critique of modern philosophy by Jacques Derrida, in his De la Grammatologie (1967; Of Grammatology ), a work that was enormously influential to the development of theory in the poststructuralist period.

Deconstruction casts its gaze at the dominant trend lines of metaphysical philosophies that posit the centrality of the logos (the word) and the presence of speech/voice; through a "double gesture," as Jonathan Culler explains it, the deconstructionist project seeks to reverse the classical oppositions of philosophical writings at the same time that it exploits or uses them. By way of such reversals, deconstruction effects a displacement of the philosophical system. Deconstruction is carried out primarily as paradoxical procedure because it undermines "the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies" (1982, p. 86). One might think of deconstruction, then, as "the story of reading" writing (1982, p. 35), insofar as it ultimately holds that writing is a "writingin-general," an "archi-écriture," or a "protowriting which is the condition of both speech and writing in the narrow sense" (1982, p. 102). It seems that the key displacement executed by deconstruction is that of the "origin," or "beginnings"; as origin recedes, "transcendence" follows in its wake. If the "origin" of the "word" is taken as leading figures of thought to be displaced in the classical schemata, then a universe of oppositions opens up, splitting off positives and negatives, truth and falsity, presence and absence, good and bad, superior and inferior. The negatives can be lined up under one rubric and the positives under another, or the degraded class of objects over and against the transcending ones. By contending that these punctualities are the result of the manipulations of language, or the effects of the play of signification, rather than the hallmarks of truth, deconstruction posits différance (a French neologism) as the condition of meaningan interminable interpretation and analysis, or in Culler's words, an "act of differing which produces differences" (p. 97). Différance, as a paronomastic device, contains deferral (or cancellation of closure), as well as difference, in the sense of differing from. From Sausserian linguistics, the deconstructionalist reinforces the notion that meaning works by signification, but the latter is driven not by the meeting of opposites, but by the annulment of the latter. In other words, we can only account for the bombardment of differing elements. For example, a "tree," the sign vehicle, is a "tree" because something else is "not-tree," and so on, ad infinitum.

Interestingly, some of the best examples of the play of difference are presented in the "Sense-Certainty" segment of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind (1807), and in the vertiginous exceptions of Plato's Parmenides. The "now" that Hegel turns over, for instance, is not something under the thumb and pinpointed, since it is a continuity that "grows" into the present, ever passing into the "not-now," both the future and the has-been (p. 152). That simple "now," according to Hegel, is "therefore not something immediate, but something mediated." It might appear that this tedious activity of discrimination would sustain only esoteric appeal, but in truth, it seems convertible into a powerful heuristic tool or "speculative instrument," insofar as it also calls into question the entire repertoire of the mundane, of the domination and dogma of "common sense," "reality," "what we all know and believe," and the limitless orthodoxy of "what is ""that which everywhere, that which always, that which by all." Furthermore, if truth no longer has a guarantor in an undivided origin, then we are doomed to, or liberated from, essences or the gold buried beneath the dross, as the philosopher Louis Althusser would have itto the entanglements of existence.

The contemporary women's movement or the critique of knowledge undertaken by the black studies project, and de-construction, are not customarily spoken of in the same breath, but if the latter is thought of as the inscription of an attitude toward the symbolic enterprise, then it might be seen as the perfect context for a radically altered humanities academy. If origin is questionable, then it follows that canons will be, as well, and once canons are toppled, then an entire ensemble of hierarchical operations (one gender over another, one dominant race and its "others") might be rendered moribund, or at least brought down to size.

The curricular objects of women's studies and African American, Marxist, and postcolonial critiques are the newest epistemologies of the humanities academy, both enabled by poststructuralist methodologies and going well beyond them. The repertory of critical inquiries on sexuality, the New Historicism, and a range of cultural studies constitute the most exciting developments in a field generally known in the opening years of the twenty-first century simply as "theory." From Chicago to China, one of the languages that speaks across the cultures is that of "theory," now a global language of scholars in the humanities.

See also Continental Philosophy ; Formalism ; Literary History ; New Criticism ; Postmodernism ; Psychoanalysis .


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Hirsch, Marianne, and Evelyn Fox Keller. Conflicts in Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1930.

Jakobson, Roman, and Morris Halle. Fundamentals of Language. 2nd rev. ed. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981.

. Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

Kester-Shelton, Pamela, ed. Feminist Writers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1978.

Lemon, Lee T., and Marion J. Reis, trans. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

Macksey, Richard, and Eugenio Donato, eds. The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

Napier, Winston, ed. African-American Literary Theory: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Nicholson, Linda J., ed. Feminism/Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Ohmann, Richard. English in America: A Radical View of the Profession. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Richards, I. A. Speculative Instruments. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Reidlinger. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

Spillers, Hortense J. Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Wall, Cheryl A. Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Warren, Robert Penn. "The Briar Patch." In his I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1930.

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Wheelwright, Philip. The Burning Fountain: A Study in the Language of Symbolism. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

Wimsatt, W. K., Jr. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954.

Hortense J. Spillers

Literary Criticism

views updated May 29 2018


Literary criticism in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century clearly reflects the growth, often tumultuous and uneven, of America's culture and sense of self-identity. Between 1870 and 1920 the way literary critics thought about the relationship between art and society began to shift dramatically. New England's "genteel tradition," derived from Calvinism and transcendentalism and represented by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and others, enjoyed wide influence upon American criticism in the nineteenth century. The "genteel" critics evaluated literature in terms of aesthetic form, good taste, and moral rectitude. Yet as America experienced unprecedented social problems—Reconstruction and its attendant strife and corruption, mass urban poverty, crime, and a shortage of sanitary living conditions—literature became a forum for discussing such problems and their potential solutions.

Criticism near the nineteenth century's close was also influenced by a growing demand for a thoroughly American literature. Prominent American Renaissance authors of the nineteenth century, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, demonstrate the literary struggle to find a uniquely national mode of expression. Furthermore the literary landscape of America was in transition: the dominance of the romance—such as those written by Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville—and the tremendous influence of transcendentalism in the writings and lecturing of Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller were giving way to literary realism in the novels of William Dean Howells, Henry James, Mark Twain, and others. The increasing prominence of literary naturalism as seen in the works of Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser, the unprecedented acceleration of urbanization and industrialization, and America's involvement in World War I produced a generation of literary critics widely varying in approach, ranging from socially and politically minded literary criticism to neoclassical humanism intent upon opposing the decline of aesthetic standards.


Critics in the late 1800s were influenced by a twofold tension. They respected the genteel European standard for aesthetics, yet they were also deeply invested in the national struggle for a new and democratic American art and culture. Balancing an aesthetic, moral, and rational model of criticism with a sensitivity to cultivating American literature was the defining character of their labors. The criticism of Edwin Percy Whipple (1819–1886) is characteristic of his era's desire to achieve this balance. Considered to be one of the Boston Brahmins, Whipple, a popular lyceum lecturer, ranks with James Russell Lowell and Edgar Allan Poe as one of the most competent and widely read American critics of his day. In such works as Recollections of Eminent Men with Other Papers (1886) and American Literature and Other Papers (1887), Whipple commented favorably on American writers, particularly Emerson, while critically discussing contemporary European literature. Influenced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's philosophy of poetry, Whipple's criticism came to be termed "critical expressionism" (Rathbun, p. 107). This ethical and humanistic method assumes that the literary work is an organic whole with an inherent and intelligible form. John W. Rathbun explains in American Literary Criticism, 1800–1860 (1979) that for the critical expressionist "it becomes the business of the critic to sympathetically enter the [literary] work, imaginatively duplicate the artist's original experience, and come to a revelation of what the artist has done for man" (p. 108). Whipple's criticism is witty and urbane, written "in a spirited, conversational style free from the precious affectation of academics" (Pritchard, p. 141) and serves as a model of the public man of letter's contribution to culture.

William Crary Brownell (1851–1928), like Whipple, was a high-profile critic. Never associated with a university, he was recognized as exercising professional authority in the arena of literary criticism. Brownell's essays on British and American literature, Victorian Prose Masters: Thackeray, Carlyle, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Ruskin, George Meredith (1901) and American Prose Masters: Cooper, Hawthorne, Emerson, Poe, Lowell, Henry James (1909), comprise insightful literary analyses of prominent nineteenth-century Anglophone writers and showcase both his erudition and his critical abilities. Influenced by the British critic Matthew Arnold, Brownell insisted that authentic criticism is the work of a rational, trained mind. He rejected Impressionistic criticism, based primarily on the critic's personal response to a literary work. In Criticism (1914), Brownell argues that "no other than a rational criterion so well serves criticism in the most important of all its functions, that of establishing and determining the relation of art and letters to the life that is their substance and their subject as well" (Glicksberg, p. 122). For Brownell criticism is a species of writing guided primarily by human reason: it is not mere book reviewing, exposition, subjective impression, or a creative activity akin to writing fiction.


Whipple and Brownell developed literary theories. The Impressionists did just the opposite. The Impressionist literary critics did not analyze literary form or proceed according to fixed principles; they spoke in their own voices, providing their personal responses to the literature they were criticizing. Artfully rendering subjective literary experience became an end in itself for these critics. Opponents of Impressionist criticism, including Brownell, Irving Babbitt, and Paul Elmer More, rejected it as lacking rigor, substance, and standards. Its emphasis upon subjectivity and personality made Impressionism the perfect venue for such literary personalities as James Huneker, H. L. Mencken, and George Jean Nathan.

James Gibbons Huneker (1857–1921) was an eclectic journalist and an avowed Impressionist who wrote about music, art, and theater as well as about literature. He was the most significant "importer" of European culture and ideas of his day. Huneker popularized for American readers the French Impressionist painters, the drama of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen, and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. A cosmopolitan critic, he eschewed moralism in literature and criticism, rejecting literary puritanism and the genteel tradition. Huneker focused rather on what literature offered readers of fine sensibility, good breeding, and cultivated aesthetic taste. His reviews of art, literature, music, and drama in the New York Sun (1900–1917) and his book-length collections Mezzotints in Modern Music (1899), Iconoclasts: A Book of Dramatists (1905), and Promenades of an Impressionist (1910) exhibit little methodological consistency, yet they stand as paragons of Impressionism, showcasing Huneker's native wit and rich endowment of literary talent.

Henry Louis Mencken (1880–1956) and George Jean Nathan (1882–1958), two of the most important and well-known American critics of the 1920s, were deeply influenced by Huneker's Impressionism. From 1914 to 1923 Mencken and Nathan coedited the Smart Set, a witty, urban, iconoclastic magazine that scathingly critiqued contemporary American culture. In 1924 they founded the American Mercury, a periodical in the satiric vein of the Smart Set's skeptical critique, which Mencken edited until 1933. Nathan's criticism, as found, for instance, in Mr. George Jean Nathan Presents (1917) and The Critic and the Drama (1922), primarily concerns the theater and champions playwrights such as Shaw, Ibsen, and Eugene O'Neill.

An immensely influential critic, particularly upon emerging novelists and poets of the early twentieth century, Mencken applauded the works of such innovative American authors as Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Upton Sinclair because they engendered something vital, new, and necessary that American culture needed to embrace. Indeed for Mencken literary criticism is a platform whereby the critic develops his own ideas rather than executing a close study of literary works according to consistent principles. In his essay "Footnote on Criticism," originally published as "The Motive of the Critic" in the 26 October 1921 issue of the New Republic, Mencken asserts that the motive of the true critic "is no more and no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly . . . to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world" (reprinted as "The Critical Process" in Van Nostrand, p. 240). Thus Mencken's Impressionistic criticism is more about his own ideas than it is a detailed analysis of particular authors or works. Much of Mencken's pungent criticism is collected in six volumes aptly titled Prejudices (1919–1927).


H. L. Mencken was never reticent in expressing his opinions, but regarding contemporary literary critics, he was perhaps the most vociferous opponent of the two staunchest defenders of New Humanism, Irving Babbitt (1865–1933) and Paul Elmer More (1864–1937). Mencken's iconoclastic and Impressionistic criticism was the antithesis of Babbitt and More's neoclassical school of literary analysis. Few public literary battles between American intellectuals have been more heated and more interesting than that between Mencken and these two adversaries.

New Humanism was inspired by William C. Brownell and articulated as a school of criticism by Babbitt, More, and their literary confederate Norman Foerster (1887–1972). They called for a return to classical standards of aesthetic evaluation, emphasizing the perennial aspects of human nature as found in classical Greek and Christian culture. Rejecting Romanticism's emphasis upon subjective imagination and self-expression, naturalism's sordid realism and mechanistic suppression of free will, and radically populist or democratic models of literature, the New Humanists upheld a criticism informed by the virtues of order, decorum, and restraint. Irving Babbitt, a professor of French literature at Harvard, wrote more about the theory of literature than about particular authors or works, as exemplified in his first collection of essays, Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities (1908). He called for a return to the study of the Greek classics and roundly denounced both Romanticism, particularly Jean Jacques Rousseau and his legacy in Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), and the literary naturalism of such writers as Theodore Dreiser, who Babbitt thought reduced the dignity of the rational human person to the ignominy of a mere animal.

Paul Elmer More's prolific literary criticism, including essays, articles, and reviews, is collected in his eleven-volume series, the Shelburne Essays (1904–1921). More was involved in a journalistic countermovement to the iconoclasm of Mencken's Smart Set and the progressive liberalism of the New Republic and similar periodicals. More was the editor of the Nation from 1909 to 1914, and from 1914 to 1919 he was a frequent contributor to and sometime book review editor of the Unpopular Review. The Unpopular Review, a classically liberal publication, discussed current issues of cultural significance (World War I, the League of Nations, "the woman question," labor unions) while retaining a cautious restraint in matters of public policy. Regarding literary criticism, it became an outlet for the humanism espoused by Babbitt and More. Such frequent contributors as More; the novelist, playwright, and critic Brander Matthews; and the publisher Henry Holt discussed the decline in American education, the crisis of identity and leadership within the professoriate, the nature of modern poetry, the state of the theater in America, the art of novel writing, and the malign effects of Rousseau's Romanticism upon Continental literature as well as other topics.

In general the New Humanists were not receptive to much of the contemporary literature praised by Mencken and his critical circle. In their view, literary art produced by the likes of Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg, and Gertrude Stein painted a false picture of the human condition and was symptomatic of moral and cultural deterioration.


Socialism, including various strains of communist thought, gained unprecedented cultural support in the early twentieth century in America. Thus literature and literary criticism increasingly became a platform for radical politics and social reform. For instance, critical luminaries of the early twentieth century such as Randolph Bourne (1886–1918), Max Forrester Eastman (1883–1969), and Louis Untermeyer (1885–1977) were men of letters but were also to differing degrees partisans of radical politics. Their literary criticism reflects their political inclinations but is by no means exclusively, or in some cases even mostly, at the service of political ideology.

In his short life Randolph Bourne served in an editorial capacity at several political magazines with literary interests, including the New Republic and The Dial. Besides providing an outspoken pacifist voice opposing American involvement in World War I, Bourne influenced the literary careers of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and other of his contemporaries. In his articles and reviews appearing in the Atlantic Monthly, The Dial, the Masses, and the New Republic, Bourne evaluated literature in terms of aesthetic excellence (tone, style, form, and craftsmanship) as well as social responsibility and relevance to the modern sensibility. He believed strongly in the younger generation's ability to lead the nation in a progressive direction; thus he praised literature embodying what he called "the spirit of youth." History of a Literary Radical and Other Essays (1920), published posthumously and edited by Van Wyck Brooks, contains much of Bourne's philosophy of criticism.

Max Eastman, influenced by socialism and the Communist experiment in Russia, was one of the most prominent radicals of the 1910s and 1920s. In 1912 he was elected by the staff to edit the socialist journal the Masses, a position he retained until the demise of the magazine. Under Eastman's management, the Masses published literary articles and poems by Sherwood Anderson, Randolph Bourne, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, and Louis Untermeyer at the same time that it "attacked bourgeois economic, social, and political institutions with a verve and abandon that involved it in libel suits, loss of mailing privileges, suspension, and eventual suppression by the government at the end of 1917" (Sutton, p. 55). Immediately afterward Eastman began to publish and edit The Liberator, a similar journal, which survived until 1924. Eastman's major contribution to literary criticism came with the publication of his most important and enduring book, Enjoyment of Poetry (1913), which, revised and republished many times during his life, exerted much wider influence than his social and political writings. His book The Literary Mind: Its Place in an Age of Science (1931) further articulates his theory of poetry. According to Eastman, factual truth is the domain of science, and society should look to science to guide its course. Poetry does not deal with "truths"; poetry speaks to humanity's subjective, nonpractical, and emotional experiences. Thus poetry should be enjoyed as part of human experience rather than consulted as a source of truth about humanity and society. Because Eastman distinguished between the separate functions of poetry and science, his literary criticism is much more literary than propagandistic.

Although Louis Untermeyer never finished high school, he was an autodidact who became a prominent poet, critic, and anthologist of poetry. He held politically radical views and was associated with the Masses and The Liberator. Untermeyer's literary articles and reviews of poetry were widely published in the New Republic, the Independent, The Dial, and the New York Times. Possessing a broad command over the formal elements of poetry and the history of poetry in English, Untermeyer's criticism favored the spirit of modernity, a populist and democratic ethos, and nonacademic poetry. In his seminal collection of essays, The New Era in American Poetry (1919), Untermeyer celebrates H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, and others as being the needed departure from the genteel tradition and the puritan ethos. Untermeyer argues that the moderns are the first generation of truly progressive American poets, and he proclaims that modern poets have been set free "to look at the world [they live] in; to study and synthesize the startling fusion of races and ideas, the limitless miracles of science and its limitless curiosity, the growth of liberal thought, the groping and stumbling toward a genuine social democracy—the whole welter and struggle and beauty of the modern world" (Untermeyer, p. 13). Untermeyer enjoyed a lifelong influence and published an astonishing volume of poetry, criticism, and anthologies.


Joel Elias Spingarn (1875–1939) as a literary critic was unique among his contemporaries. Spingarn was, as John Paul Pritchard argues, "perhaps the best informed American on the history of literary criticism" (p. 200). He tried to blaze a new trail for criticism beyond the polemics of his day, one that surpassed mere impressionism, political radicalism, and moralistic humanism. In "The New Criticism," a lecture delivered at Columbia University in 1910, Spingarn provides a concise articulation of his critical philosophy. Maintaining that all art is expression, he rejects the subjectivity of the Impressionists, the moralizing of the humanists and the genteel critics, the urge to historically contextualize the work, and the impulse to judge the work by resurrecting classical "rules" of form and genre. Spingarn simply poses a twofold question of the literary work: What has the poet expressed, and how completely has he or she succeeded?

Spingarn rejects criteria extraneous to the work of art, believing that each work is unique and should be judged according to its own form. Thus Spingarn argues that, when the critic fully appreciates the organic unity of the work and the author's artistic intention at the moment of creation, criticism becomes a mirror to art. He argues for a common origin for criticism and art in "The New Criticism," suggesting that "in their most significant moments, the creative and the critical instincts are one and the same. . . . Criticism at last can free itself of its age-long self-contempt, now that it may realize that esthetic judgment and artistic creation are instinct with the same vital life" (Babbitt, pp. 43–44). With this essay Spingarn also provided the title that John Crowe Ransom appropriated three decades later for his bookThe New Criticism (1941) and the term that came to designate the most important American critical movement in the first half of the twentieth century.


While T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) is not generally numbered among the New Critics—the most prominent of whom are Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, and William K. Wimsatt—he provided the basic ideas and theoretical underpinnings of the New Criticism, which became the most resounding American critical trend in the first half of the twentieth century. In the early twenty-first century few students of literature would dispute John Paul Pritchard's assertion that "Eliot is undoubtedly the most commanding figure of twentieth-century criticism in the English-speaking world" (p. 233).

As a student at Harvard, Eliot studied under Irving Babbitt, whose insistence on classical standards and the virtues of reason, order, and objectivity guided Eliot's thinking. Soon after receiving his master's degree in 1910, Eliot traveled in Europe and within a few years settled in England. In 1917 his first book of poetry, the innovative and influential Prufrock and Other Observations, appeared, and he also began publishing important critical work in the Egoist, including his series of articles "Studies in Contemporary Criticism." In these essays he proposed that literary critics ignore the personality and background of the writer, withhold speculation about psychological motives and conditions underlying creative works, and forego attempting to assess the writer's intention in producing the work. Eliot eschewed both the homiletic urge of Impressionist critics and the centrality that they gave to the emotive power of the literature they were supposedly criticizing.

In 1920 Eliot published his first volume of essays, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, which contains his best-known and most-influential essays, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and "Hamlet and His Problems." In this collection of essays Eliot sweeps away the subjectivity and imprecision of past criticism and proposes objective means of evaluating literature by comparing and contrasting it with the tradition and by closely analyzing its inner workings. Former approaches yielded not criticism but varieties of biography, history, psychology, and inspirational writing. Eliot extols a distinct and scientific criticism that dissects and analyzes a literary work in the same way that a scientist would study nature. In the process he provides later criticism with such crucial concepts as the "objective correlative," the "dissociation of sensibility," and the "impersonal theory of poetry." T. S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood thus forms a monumental capstone to the development of American literary criticism between the end of the Civil War and 1920.

See alsoAestheticism; Anti-Intellectualism; Genteel Tradition; Impressionism; "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"


Primary Works

Babbitt, Irving, ed. Criticism in America: Its Function andStatus. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1924. An anthology that includes Brownell's "Criticism," Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Mencken's "Footnote on Criticism," Spingarn's "The New Criticism," and other important essays.

Bourne, Randolph Silliman. The World of Randolph Bourne. Edited by Lillian Schlissel. New York: Dutton, 1965.

Glicksberg, Charles I. American Literary Criticism,1900–1950. New York: Hendricks House, 1952. An anthology with critical commentary on Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Mencken's "Footnote on Criticism," Spingarn's "The New Criticism," and essays by Babbitt, Brownell, Huneker, More, and others.

Mencken, H. L. H. L. Mencken's "Smart Set" Criticism. Edited by William H. Nolte. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1968.

Untermeyer, Louis. The New Era in American Poetry. New York: Henry Holt, 1919.

Van Nostrand, Albert D., ed. Literary Criticism in America. New York: Liberal Arts, 1957. An anthology that includes Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and Mencken's "The Critical Process" ("Footnote on Criticism") as well as works by Irving Babbitt, Brander Matthews, Edwin P. Whipple, and others.

Secondary Works

Goldsmith, Arnold L. American Literary Criticism, 1905–1965. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Martin, Jay. Harvests of Change: American Literature,1865–1914. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Pritchard, John Paul. Criticism in America: An Account of the Development of Critical Techniques from the Early Period of the Republic to the Middle Years of the Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.

Rathbun, John W. American Literary Criticism, 1800–1860. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Rathbun, John W., and Harry H. Clark. American LiteraryCriticism, 1860–1905. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Sutton, Walter. Modern American Criticism. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Aaron Urbanczyk

Literary Criticism

views updated Jun 08 2018


Reviewing the Pennsylvanian Adam Seybert's (1773–1825) Annals of the United States in the January 1820 issue of Scotland's venerable Edinburgh Review, the English critic, clergyman, and author Sydney Smith (1771–1845) asked a question that would ring in the ears of American writers for over a generation: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue?" Several decades after the Declaration of Independence and the successfully waged Revolution, most knowledgeable observers felt that it was still too soon to identify a distinctively American way of writing, much less a coherent body of literary criticism produced on the American scene. A mere half century later, however, a vibrant, compelling, and durable body of American literature had been produced, and criticism had begun to take stock of the young nation's literary efforts.

The most important American literary criticism of the antebellum period was not written in university settings by professional academics but instead was produced by public intellectuals who typically were also active themselves as writers in such genres as poetry, fiction, essays, and religious sermons. The rise of major research universities in the United States, which began in earnest only in the late nineteenth century, would eventually spawn legions of highly trained academic critics wielding advanced degrees and diverse critical theories, but before the Civil War, literary criticism developed much more sporadically and with far less institutional support than in later years. Nevertheless, the criticism produced during this period has been extremely influential, particularly since some of the most indelibly important literary artists of the period—Walt Whitman (1819–1892), Herman Melville (1819–1891), Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882)—also made major contributions to American literary criticism.


Literary tastes were shaped largely by essays and reviews published in a range of newspapers and, especially, American magazines like the Christian Examiner, Biblical Repertory, United States Magazine and Democratic Review, American Whig Review, The Dial, North American Review, Boston Quarterly Review, Southern Literary Messenger, Putnam's Monthly Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, and Catholic World. Periodicals flourished in the United States, but American readers, most of whom read prose and poetry by both British and American writers, also continued to rely as well upon British critical opinion found in periodicals such as Blackwood's Magazine and Edinburgh Review in order to cultivate their own ideas about literature. Indeed, many American periodicals did not serve to produce distinctively "American" writing and criticism but instead followed the more conservative aesthetic tendency to favor the British Enlightenment tradition of neoclassical prose styles and oratory rather than the Romanticism, Democratic nationalism, and vernacular styles that eventually came to dominate the literary production of the major nineteenth-century American writers. Of particular note, the North American Review, an eminent Boston magazine founded in 1815, served as a venue for major publications in the areas of history, literature (especially poetry), and literary criticism. For instance, more than any other American magazine of the period, the North American Review was created along the lines of nineteenth-century English literary quarterlies—issues included not only literary criticism but also scholarly articles and reviews in an eclectic range of other intellectual fields, such as history, science, and theology—and maintained very strong ties with the scholarly worlds of Harvard and the Boston Unitarian establishment. So important were British publications for the development of American criticism that the young Maine novelist John Neal (1793–1876), an early advocate of American literature, actually had some of his greatest influence during 1824–1827, when he lived in England and became the first American to write for the major British reviews, including a series of critical essays on American writers for Blackwood's Magazine.


At approximately mid-century, an important exception to the dominance of periodicals in the field of antebellum literary criticism was produced just at the moment of America's most profound literary activity; just a few of the major works published during 1850–1855 include Emerson's Representative Men (1850), Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Thoreau's Walden (1854), Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850). The first major book to reckon comprehensively and critically with the American literary tradition arrived in the form of the large (ten pounds spread over two volumes) and lavishly illustrated Cyclopedia of American Literature (1855), produced by Evert Augustus Duyckinck (1816–1878) and George L. Duyckinck (1823–1863), two prominent New York editors and contributors to the Literary World, the leading weekly literary review of the period. Destined to become a standard reference work for American literary history, the Cyclopedia trumpeted innovative fiction by Duyckinck's close friends Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) and Melville in particular as representative of the best in American writing while reserving lesser praise for more popular (and more traditional) writers like the poets Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867), James Russell Lowell (1819–1891), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882).

Although he is remembered primarily for his short fiction and poetry, during the frenetic two decades before his death in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was one of the more active book reviewers and liter-ary critics of his generation. Having acquired some literary repute for his popular poem "The Raven" (1845), Poe proceeded soon after to detail his method and principles for composing verse in "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846), published in Graham's Magazine (1826–1858). It is here that Poe famously announced his intersecting aesthetic principles of brevity and the macabre. First, "If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression. . . . What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones" (p. 1375). Second, and more notoriously, Poe insisted on the production of beautiful lyrical effects, the most critical being that of poetry's ideal subject. Consequently, he would write "Beauty . . . incites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones" (p. 1377) and, citing the theme of his most famous poem, "The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world" (p. 1379). Poe refined his ideas on poetry—his own and that of British and American contemporaries like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Willis, and Longfellow—in a popular lecture titled "The Poetic Principle" delivered in various cities during 1848–1849. That talented public speakers like Poe, Emerson, and others could deliver lectures on poetry to large urban audiences during the nineteenth century suggests the extent to which literary criticism was a matter not only for printed texts but also for popular oratory on the lyceum circuit.

The fullest expression of Poe's theory of prosody and poetic technique arrived in final form in the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger with the publication of "The Rationale of Verse" (1848). Based in Richmond, Virginia, the Southern Literary Messenger (1834–1864) became one of the earliest American vehicles for southern literary criticism and book reviews. Its most prominent contributor, Poe, took over the editorship for the period 1835–1837, during which time he became notorious for his hard-hitting reviews and attacks on other writers. The Southern Literary Messenger quickly waned in its literary influence in the 1840s and especially as the Civil War approached, and the magazine's pages came to be filled with discussions of military and naval affairs.


For the early decades of the nineteenth century, most American writers continued to look to Europe, and especially to England, for their ideas about literature. But the theme of American literary identity steadily came to dominate the new nation's literary criticism during the antebellum period. As the century progressed, American writers increasingly spoke of the need for a distinctively American literature: one that would boldly express the new nation's difference from Europe while setting forth its own distinctive cultural, political, and moral sensibility. Based in New York City in the decades before the Civil War, the "Young America" literary movement, led by critics such as Evert Augustus Duyckinck, Cornelius Mathews, Bayard Taylor, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, and William Gilmore Simms, was perhaps the most vocal of all American groups advocating a resistance to European literary influences in favor of an authentic and innovative American way of writing. The antebellum Young America movement, which was active in both political and literary discourses, took a good deal of its energy from the jingoistic political concept of American "Manifest Destiny," a term first published in 1845 by John L. O'Sullivan (1813–1895) in New York City's United States Magazine and Democratic Review.

The fervor associated with the Young America movement can be traced through much literary criticism of the antebellum period, but the matter of American literary achievement found its watershed precisely in the summer of 1850 with the publication of Melville's lengthy essay-review of his friend Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) in the influential New York magazine the Literary World. Identifying himself only as "a Virginian Spending July in Vermont," Melville in his review took the bold step of comparing Hawthorne's genius to that of William Shakespeare, whose plays had become a highly popular staple of the antebellum American stage. The tragic sensibility of Shakespeare, wrote Melville, could be discerned in Hawthorne's great historical fictions of early America, in which readers could discover a "great power of blackness in him [that] derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free" (p. 243). At the same time Melville, who would not publish his masterwork Moby-Dick (1851) until the following year, would leave room for a new American writer (perhaps himself) who might surpass Shakespeare and Hawthorne in both genius and national sensibility:

But it is not meant that all American writers should studiously cleave to nationality in their writings; only this, no American writer should write like an Englishman, or a Frenchman; let him write like a man, for then he will be sure to write like an American. Let us away with this leaven of literary flunkeyism [sic] towards England. If either we must play the flunkey [sic] in this thing, let England do it, not us. While we are rapidly preparing for that political supremacy among the nations, which prophetically awaits us at the close of the present century; in a literary point of view, we are deplorably unprepared for it; and we seem studious to remain so. (P. 248)


Before the Young America movement took firm hold at mid-century and signaled the shift of intellectual and critical preeminence from Boston to New York City, the most innovative currents of American liter-ary criticism drew their sustenance from European Romanticism. Foremost among the groups of writers influenced by Romanticism were the New England transcendentalists, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and including such writers and critics as Amos Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, Sarah Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, Orestes Augustus Brownson, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Jones Very, and others. The critical principles of Romanticism came to these writers from numerous European sources, but a watershed event for many of them was James Marsh's (1794–1842) American edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Aids to Reflection (1829). It was Coleridge's Neoplatonic distinction between ordinary cognition (Understanding) and the spiritual activity of the mind's eye (Reason) that led Emerson to a number of crucial pronouncements about poetry in his most important essays.

The Dial (1840–1844), a seminal but short-lived Boston journal devoted to literature, philosophy, and religion, served in many respects as an organ of the New England transcendentalist movement and was a major vehicle for important critics of the day. Although its circulation was small and its content disparaged by the mainstream press at the time, The Dial—edited by the brilliant feminist critic Margaret Fuller, who was assisted by George Ripley (1802–1880)—presented a learned and eclectic mixture of literary criticism, much of it grounded firmly in the traditions of European Romanticism. Its essays included, for example, Fuller's "Goethe" and the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker's (1810–1860) "German Literature," among many others. While it never adopted a clear editorial position or cultivated a single critical model, its pages nevertheless reflected the continuing influence of European thinkers on the development of an American literature. Emerson succeeded Fuller as editor of The Dial in 1842.

Emerson's literary theory is at once the most rigorously stated and the most subtly complex of the antebellum period. Beginning with the eight brief chapters of his anonymously published Nature (1836) and continuing with his first edition of collected Essays (1841), Emerson set forth the main principles of his distinctive brand of Romantic intuitionism and laid the groundwork for Henry David Thoreau's (1817–1862) profound analysis of the correspondence between language and nature in Walden (1854). For instance, from Emerson's assertion, in Nature, that "words are signs of natural facts" (p. 20) grows much of Thoreau's interest in the relation between thinking, writing, and the natural world.


Walt Whitman (1819–1892), whose preface to his 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass stands with, and probably above, Emerson's essays as the major statement of American literary theory for the nineteenth century, is at once a major theorist and an unprecedented innovator in the field of American poetry. Although their ideas about American literature are not identical, there are profound links between Emerson's transcendental intuitionism and the younger Walt Whitman's own critical ideas and the innovative poetry that he produced between 1855 and 1891. As Whitman himself readily admitted, Emerson's literary theory—expounded not only in Nature but also in "The Poet," "The American Scholar," and "Self-Reliance"—was transformative for Whitman's sense of himself as America's greatest poet. "I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil" (Trowbridge, p. 166), Whitman was said to have written of the influence of Emerson's thought, thus confirming the intellectual linkage between the most crucial American poet and essayist, respectively, of the nineteenth century.

In his essay "The Poet" (1844), which was so important for Whitman's intellectual development, Emerson had outlined a concept of the poet as an heir to intertwined traditions of Christianity and Romanticism. As a former Unitarian minister trained at Harvard, Emerson saw in the greatest poets a prophetic dimension that infused an aesthetic of Romantic self-expression with the moral force of religion. Consequently, he could say with supreme confidence that "the poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty" and, moreover, that "the world is not painted or adorned, but is from the beginning beautiful; and God has not made some beautiful things, but Beauty is the creator of the universe. Therefore the poet is not any permissive potentate, but is emperor in his own right" (p. 449).

Less a literary critic than a founder of a new type of poetics in his untitled preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman is nevertheless of major importance as a theorist concerned with new forms of writing that would be appropriate to the American nation. In that crucial preface, Whitman declares that the ideal poet must be a complete lover of the universe, one who draws the materials of his composition from nature while prophetically serving as America's representative of the common people. The preface also makes specific assertions about a new poetry that will proceed organically, will be free of all unnecessary ornament, and will entirely avoid conventional rhyme and meter. When it came to the formal requirements of the new American poetry, Whitman insisted boldly,

the rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form. (P. 11)

In addition to his prescription for poetry freed of the traditional rules of rhyme and meter, though, Whitman's largest critical project is woven into his political sympathies and nationalist preferences for the concept of "America." Thus, he opens his preface to Leaves of Grass with a prose hymn to America, thereby signifying that his revolutionary poetics are inseparable from an implicit critique of all that is not American: "The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem" (p. 5). The elitism and cultural imperialism that such statements apparently engender, though, are modified by Whitman's abiding concern for democratic arrangements and a populist sense of preference for the ordinary human being, so that "the poet sees for a certainty how one not a great artist may be just as sacred and perfect as the greatest artist" (p. 9). Echoing the New York advocates of Young America who preceded him, Whitman would insist further in his preface to Leaves of Grass that "of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest" (p. 5)—the problem of literary criticism in America would remain for much of the nineteenth century inseparable from the problem of national politics. And only by enduring the trauma of the Civil War would criticism in America finally make the enormous adjustments required to see the complexities of American literary ambition through a cultural lens shaped profoundly by issues of race, class, and gender as well as by the earlier desire to create a literature of distinction that could claim artistic independence from Europe.

See alsoThe Dial;"Hawthorne and His Mosses"; Literary Nationalism; Periodicals; "The Philosophy of Composition"; "The Poet"; Transcendentalism; Young America


Primary Works

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. 1836. In Essays and Poems, pp. 7–49. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Poet." 1844. In Essays and Poems, pp. 445–468. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Melville, Herman. "Hawthorne and His Mosses." 1850. In The Writings of Herman Melville, vol. 9, The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, edited by Harrison Hayford et al., pp. 239–253. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1987.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Philosophy of Composition." 1846. In Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays, pp. 1373–1385. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. In Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Trowbridge, John Townsend. "Reminiscences of Walt Whitman." Atlantic Monthly, February 1902, pp. 163–175.

Secondary Works

Green, Martin. The Problem of Boston: Some Readings in Cultural History. London: Longmans, 1966.

Grey, Robin. The Complicity of Imagination: The AmericanRenaissance, Contests of Authority, and Seventeenth-Century English Culture. Cambridge, U.K, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art andExpression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Miller, Perry. The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: TheSubversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. 1988. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Spiller, Robert E., Willard Thorp, Thomas H. Johnson, and Henry Seidel Canby, eds. Literary History of the United States. 3 vols. 3rd ed., rev. New York: Macmillan, 1963–1972.

Widmer, Edward L. Young America: The Flowering ofDemocracy in New York City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum EconomicDevelopment and the American Reading Public. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

James Emmett Ryan

literary criticism

views updated Jun 27 2018

literary criticism Discipline concerned with literary theory and the evaluation of literary works. It effectively began with Plato's comments on the role of poets in his Republic; Aristotle's response to this, the Poetics, represents the first systematic attempt to establish principles of literary procedure. Notable later contributions to the debate include Sir Philip Sidney's The Defence of Poesie (1595); Dryden's Of Dramatick Poesie (1668); Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798); Shelley's A Defence of Poetry (1820); and the critical works of Matthew Arnold, in particular, Culture and Anarchy (1869). The 20th century witnessed an explosion of literary criticism, such as the writings of T. S Eliot, I. A. Richards, William Empson, and F. R. Leavis; also important are the writings of structuralism and post-structuralism, notably Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. The late 20th century saw the beginning of new critical approaches such as deconstruction and feminism.

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