INTRODUCTION: NEW CRITICISM
American New Criticism is named after John Crowe Ransom’s 1941 book The New Criticism. The movement focused on the text of a work of literature and excluded the reader’s response, the author’s intentions, historical and cultural contexts and moralistic bias from their analysis. It was the equivalent of the new professional criticism established in the emerging discipline of ‘English’ in Britain during the inter-war period. The reasons why it rose to almost hegemonic proportions are complex and many. The most significant of these reasons trace an outline of the movement. First, a number of key figures of the movement were part of another literary movement called the ‘Fugitives’ or the Southern Agrarians, including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. There was an inherent hostility to the industrialism and materialism of a United States dominated by the ‘North’. This Southern-oriented movement thus has consanguinity with Arnold, Eliot and Leavis, in opposing the modern ‘inorganic’ civilization. Second, the high point of influence for the movement was during the Second World War and the Cold War. There were whole hosts of alienated intellectuals and quietist students for whom the privileging of the ‘order’, ‘harmony’ and ‘transcendence’ of the text of a work of literature would represent a haven. The ‘impersonal’ analysis practiced in New Criticism would have attracted them as well. Third, the masses of individuals who had no ‘history’ in common found the ahistorical and neutral nature – the study only of the words on the page – equalizing and democratic. Fourth, with it being unconcerned about context, uninterested about the ‘Fallacies’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley) and a text’s meaning (A poem must not mean/ But be), New Criticism proved to be a pedagogically economic tool of criticism. Studying a passage of prose or poetry in New Critical style required careful, exacting scrutiny of the passage itself. Formal elements such as rhyme, meter, setting, characterization, and plot were used to identify the theme of the text. In addition to the theme, the New Critics also looked for paradox, ambiguity, irony, and tension to help establish the single best and most unified interpretation of the text. Such an approach would necessarily displace literature from its place in history and sever any ties it has with culture, society and religion, and also prevent morally biased readings. In short, it would make literature an isolated phenomenon. CLEANTH BROOKS
Cleanth Brooks (1906 – 1994) was one of the most important figures in the rise of New Criticism in America in the thirties and forties. He held many academic positions and received many distinguished fellowships and honorary doctorates. His textbook anthologies, Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943) were the principal media by which the orthodoxies of the New Criticism were transmitted to a whole generation of American students of literature. The most successful of his books are Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) and The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947). In "The Formalist Critics," Brooks offers "some articles of faith" to which he subscribes. These articles exemplify the tenets of New Criticism: That the primary concern of criticism is with the problem of unity—the kind of whole which the literary work forms or fails to form, and the relation of the various parts to each other in building up this whole. That in a successful work, format and content cannot be separated. That form is meaning.
That literature is ultimately metaphorical and symbolic.
That the general and the universal are not seized upon by abstraction, but got at through the concrete and the particular. That literature is not a surrogate for religion.
That, as Allen Tate says, "specific moral problems" are the subject matter of literature, but that the purpose of literature is not to...
Please join StudyMode to read the full document