The American New Critics

American New Criticism, emerging in the 1920s and especially dominant in the 1940s and 1950s, is equivalent to the establishing of the new professional criticism in the emerging discipline of ‘English’ in British higher education during the inter-war period. As always, origins and explanations for its rise – in its heyday to almost hegemonic proportions – are complex and finally indefinite, but some suggestions may be sketched in. First, a number of the key figures were also part of a group called the Southern Agrarians, or ‘Fugitives’, a traditional, conservative, Southern-oriented movement which was hostile to the hard-nosed industrialism and materialism of a United States dominated by ‘the North’. Without stretching the point too far, a consanguinity with Arnold, Eliot and, later, Leavis in his opposition to modern ‘inorganic’ civilization may be discerned here.

Second, New Criticism’s high point of influence was during the Second World War and the Cold War succeeding it, and we may see that its privileging of literary texts (their ‘order’, ‘harmony’ and ‘transcendence’ of the historically and ideologically determinate) and of the ‘impersonal’ analysis of what makes them great works of art (their innate value lying in their superiority to material history: see below Cleanth Brooks’s essay about Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’) might represent a haven for alienated intellectuals and, indeed, for whole generations of quietistic students. Third, with the huge expansion of the student population in the States in this period, catering for second-generation products of the American ‘melting pot’, New Criticism with its ‘practical criticism’ basis was at once pedagogically economical (copies of short texts could be distributed equally to everyone) and also a way of coping with masses of individuals who had no ‘history’ in common. In other words, its ahistorical, ‘neutral’ nature – the study only of ‘the words on the page’ – was an apparently equalizing, democratic activity appropriate to the new American experience.

But whatever the socio-cultural explanations for its provenance, New Criticism is clearly characterized in premise and practice: it is not concerned with context – historical, biographical, intellectual and so on; it is not interested in the ‘fallacies’ of ‘intention’ or ‘affect’; it is concerned solely with the ‘text in itself’, with its language and organization; it does not seek a text’s ‘meaning’, but how it ‘speaks itself’ (see Archibald MacLeish’s poem ‘Ars Poetica’, itself a synoptic New Critical document, which opens: ‘A poem
must not mean/But be’); it is concerned to trace how the parts of the text relate, how it achieves its ‘order’ and ‘harmony’, how it contains and resolves ‘irony’, ‘paradox’, ‘tension’, ‘ambivalence’ and ‘ambiguity’; and it is concerned essentially with articulating the very ‘poem-ness’ – the formal quintessence – of the poem itself (and it usually is a poem – but see Mark Schorer and Wayne Booth, below).

An early, founding essay in the self-identification of New Criticism is John Crowe Ransom’s ‘Criticism, Inc.’ (1937). (His book on Eliot, Richards and others, entitled The New Criticism, 1941, gave the movement its name.) Ransom, one of the ‘Fugitives’ and editor of the Kenyon Review 1939–59, here lays down the ground rules: ‘Criticism, Inc.’ is the ‘business’ of professional – professors of literature in the universities in particular; criticism should become ‘more scientific, or precise and systematic’; students should ‘study literature, and not merely about literature’; Eliot was right to denounce romantic literature as ‘imperfect in objectivity, or “aesthetic distance”’; criticism is not ethical, linguistic or historical studies, which are merely ‘aids’; the critic should be able to exhibit not the ‘prose core’ to which a poem may be reduced but ‘the differentia, residue, or tissue, which keeps the object poetical or entire. The character of the poem resides for the good critic in its way of exhibiting the residuary quality.’

Many of these precepts are given practical application in the work of Cleanth Brooks, himself also a ‘Fugitive’, professional academic, editor of the Southern Review (with Robert Penn Warren) 1935–42, and one of the most skilled and exemplary practitioners of the New Criticism. His and Warren’s textbook anthologies, Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943), are often regarded as having spread the New Critical
doctrine throughout generations of American university literature students, but his most characteristic book of close readings is the significantly titled The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947), in which the essay on the eponymous urn of Keats’s Ode, ‘Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes’ (1942), is in our view the best exemplification, explicitly and implicitly, of New Critical practice one could hope to find. Brooks at once quotes the opening of MacLeish’s ‘Ars Poetica’ (see above); refers to Eliot and his notion of the ‘objective correlative’; rejects the relevance of biography; reiterates throughout the terms ‘dramatic propriety’, ‘irony’, ‘paradox’ (repeatedly) and ‘organic context’; performs a bravura reading of the poem which leaves its ‘sententious’ final dictum as a dramatically organic element of the whole; constantly admires the poem’s ‘history’ above the ‘actual’ histories of ‘war and peace’, of ‘our time-ridden minds’, of ‘meaningless’ ‘accumulations of facts’, of ‘the scientific and philosophical generalisations which dominate our world’; explicitly praises the poem’s ‘insight into essential truth’; and confirms the poem’s value to us (in 1942, in the midst of the nightmare of wartime history) precisely because, like Keats’s urn, it is ‘All breathing human passion far above’ – thus stressing ‘the ironic fact that all human passion does leave one cloyed; hence the superiority of art’.

As New Criticism is, by definition, a praxis, much of its ‘theory’ occurs along the way in more specifically practical essays (as with Brooks above) and not as theoretical writing (see below, also, for Leavis’s refusal to theorize his position or engage in ‘philosophical’ extrapolation). But there are two New Critical essays in particular which are overtly theoretical and which have become influential texts more generally in modern critical discourse: ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (1946) and ‘The Affective Fallacy’ (1949), written by W. K. Wimsatt – a professor of English at Yale University and author of the symptomatically titled book, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (1954) – in collaboration with Monroe C. Beardsley, a philosopher of aesthetics. Both essays, influenced by Eliot and Richards, engage with the ‘addresser’ (writer) –‘message’ (text) –‘addressee’ (reader) nexus outlined in the Introduction, in the pursuit of an ‘objective’ criticism which abjures both the personal input of the writer (‘intention’) and the emotional effect on the reader (‘affect’) in order purely to study the ‘words on the page’ and how the artefact ‘works’. The first essay argues that ‘the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art’; that a poem ‘goes about the world beyond [the author’s] power to intend about it or control it’ – it ‘belongs to the public’; that it should be understood in terms of the ‘dramatic speaker’ of the text, not the author; and be judged only by whether it ‘works’ or not.

Much critical debate has since raged about the place of intention in criticism, and continues to do so: Wimsatt and Beardsley’s position strikes a chord, for example, with poststructuralist notions of the ‘death of the author’ and with deconstruction’s freeing of the text from ‘presence’ and ‘meaning’. But there the resemblance ends, for the New Critics still basically insist that there is a determinate, ontologically stable ‘poem itself’, which is the ultimate arbiter of its own ‘statement’, and that an ‘objective’ criticism is possible. This runs quite counter to deconstruction’s notion of the ‘iterability’ of a text in its multiplex ‘positioned’ rereadings. This difference becomes very much clearer in the second essay, which argues that the ‘affective fallacy’ represents ‘a confusion between the poem and its results’: ‘trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem . . . ends in impressionism and relativism’.

Opposing the ‘classical objectivity’ of New Criticism to ‘romantic reader psychology’, it asserts that the outcome of both fallacies is that ‘the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgement, tends to disappear’. And the importance of a poem in classic New Critical terms is that by ‘fixing emotions and making them more permanently perceptible’, by the ‘survival’ of ‘its clear and nicely interrelated meanings, its completeness, balance, and tension’, it represents ‘the most precise emotive report on customs’: ‘In short, though cultures have changed, poems remain and explain.’ Poems, in other words, are our cultural heritage, permanent and valuable artefacts; and therein lies the crucial difference from more contemporary theoretical positions.

As we have noted, New Criticism focused principally on poetry, but two essays by Mark Schorer, ‘Technique as Discovery’ (1948) and ‘Fiction and the Analogical Matrix’ (1949), mark the attempt to deploy New Critical practice in relation to prose fiction. In the first of these, Schorer notes: ‘Modern criticism has shown us that to speak of content as such is not to speak of art at all, but of experience; and that it is only when we speak of the achieved content, the form, the work of art as a work of art, that we speak as critics. The difference between content, or experience, and achieved content, or art, is technique.’ This, he adds, has not been followed through in regard to the novel, whose own ‘technique’ is language, and whose own ‘achieved content’ – or ‘discovery’ of what it is saying – can only, as with a poem, be analysed in terms of that ‘technique’. In the second essay, Schorer extends his analysis of the language of fiction by revealing the unconscious patterns of imagery and symbolism (way beyond the author’s ‘intention’) present in all forms of fiction and not just those which foreground a ‘poetic’ discourse. He shows how the author’s ‘meaning’, often contradicting the surface sense, is embedded in the matrix of linguistic analogues which constitute the text. In this we may see connections with later poststructuralist theories’ concern with the sub-texts, ‘silences’, ‘ruptures’, ‘raptures’ and ‘play’ inherent in all texts, however seemingly stable – although Schorer himself, as a good New Critic, does not deconstruct modern novels, but reiterates the coherence of their ‘technique’ in seeking to capture ‘the whole of the modern consciousness . . . the complexity of the modern spirit’. Perhaps it is, rather, that we should sense an affinity between the American New Critic, Schorer, and the English moral formalist, F. R. Leavis , some of whose most famous criticism of fiction in the 1930s and beyond presents ‘the Novel as Dramatic Poem’.

Finally, we should notice another American ‘movement’ of the midtwentieth century which was especially influential in the study of fiction: the so-called ‘Chicago School’ of ‘Neo-Aristotelians’. Theoretically offering a challenge to the New Critics but in fact often seen as only a New Critical ‘heresy’ in their analysis of formal structure and in their belief, with T. S. Eliot, that criticism should study ‘poetry as poetry and not another thing’, the Neo-Aristotelians were centred, from the later 1930s through the 1940s and 1950s, on R. S. Crane at the University of Chicago. Establishing a theoretical basis derived principally from Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics, Crane and his group sought to emulate the logic, lucidity and scrupulous concern with evidence found there; were worried by the limitations of New Critical practice (its rejection of historical analysis, its tendency to present subjective judgements as though they were objective, its concern primarily with poetry); and attempted therefore to develop a more inclusive and catholic criticism which would cover all genres and draw for its techniques, on a ‘pluralistic and instrumentalist’ basis, from whatever method seemed appropriate to a particular case. The anthology Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern (1952; abridged edition with Preface by Crane, 1957) contains many examples of their approach, including Crane’s own exemplary reading of Fielding’s Tom Jones, ‘The Concept of Plot and the Plot of Tom Jones’.

In effect, the Neo-Aristotelians were most influential in the study of narrative structure in the novel, and most particularly by way of the work of a slightly later critic, Wayne C. Booth, who nevertheless acknowledged that he was a Chicago Aristotelian. His book The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) has been widely read and highly regarded, although latterly contemporary critical theory has demonstrated its limitations and inadequacies . Booth’s project was to examine ‘the art of communicating with readers – the rhetorical resources available to the writer of epic, novel or short story as he tries, consciously or unconsciously, to impose his fictional world upon the reader’. Although accepting in New Critical terms that a novel is an ‘autonomous’ text, Booth develops a key concept with the notion that it nevertheless contains an authorial ‘voice’ – the ‘implied author’ (his or her ‘official scribe’ or ‘second self’) – whom the reader invents by deduction from the attitudes articulated in the fiction. Once this distinction between author and the ‘authorial voice’ is made, the way is open to analyse, in and for themselves, the many and various forms of narration which construct the text. A major legacy of Booth’s is his separating out of ‘reliable’ and ‘unreliable’ narrators – the former, usually in the third person, coming close to the values of the ‘implied author’; the latter, often a character within the story, a deviant from them. What Booth did was at once to enhance the formal equipment available for analysis of the ‘rhetoric of fiction’ and, paradoxically perhaps, to promote the belief that authors do mean to ‘impose’ their values on the reader and that ‘reliability’ is therefore a good thing. We may see here a consonance with the ‘moral formalism’ of Leavis, and the reason why poststructuralist narratology has gone beyond Booth.

 New Criticism Essay

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  1. New Criticism: An Essay | Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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