Chicago Critics

In 1937, John Crowe Ransom claimed that if the fledgling movement “for the erection of intelligent standards of criticism” were to succeed, “the credit would probably belong to Professor Ronald S. Crane, of the University of Chicago, more than to any other man. He is the first of the great professors to have advocated it as a major policy for departments of English. It is possible that he will have made some important academic history” (“Criticism Inc.”).

Chicago criticism can be said to begin in 1935 with “History versus Criticism in the Study of Literature” (Crane, Idea 2:3-24), the article in which Crane (1886- 1967) rejects the privileged position hitherto given to history in the study of literature and transfers it to criticism (explication and theory). Crane had previously established himself as a mainline philologist, historian of ideas, and bibliographer. “History versus Criticism” thus marked an important change for Crane, one that coincided with the arrival at Chicago of the philosopher Richard McKeon (1900-1985). McKeon’s commitment to philosophic pluralism and his reading of Aristotle (see “Literary Criticism and the Concept of Imitation in Antiquity,” 1936; “The Philosophic Bases of Art and Criticism,” 1943-44; and “Aristotle’s Conception of Language and the Arts of Language,” 1946-47, all in Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, 1952) provided the stimulus for the more literary theorizing of Crane and Elder Olson (1909-92), the two most articulate proponents of what came to be known as Chicago criticism. The sense of a collective school was firmly entrenched with the publication of Critics and Criticism by the first generation of Chicago critics: Crane, W. R. Keast (1914-1998), McKeon, Norman Maclean (1902-90), Olson, and Bernard Weinberg (1909-73).

By 1952 it was clear that while Crane and his colleagues continued to share with Ransom and the other New Critics a belief in the centrality of textual analysis in literary study, they had significant disagreements about the best way to perform that analysis based on differing theories of literature and literary language. After a decade of hostile polemics, and in the wake of the enormous popularity of the New Critics, Ransom wrote of the failure of the Chicago critics to realize their promise, a failure he attributed to their decision to use Aristotle’s Poetics as a “hand book” rather than tackle “the hard questions” for themselves (“Humanism at Chicago”). For Ransom, the Chicago critics had abandoned their place in the critical vanguard to join the forces of reaction. To put it another way, having failed in their challenge to the developing New Critical hegemony of the 1940s and 1950s, the Chicago critics remained at the margins of the dominant critical discourse of their time.

Ransom was probably right to attribute the failure of the Chicago critics to win wide support to their Aristotelian “hand book.” He was wrong, however, to assume that it was the Poetics that contributed most to Chicago criticism, since Aristotle’s analysis of literary texts was less important than his general method of inquiry. What Aristotle offered them was, as David H. Richter puts it, “a method similar to that of science…. [T]he critical aims of the Chicago School included the attainment of power through the successful search for objective truth” (732). Paul de Man describes the Chicago critics as a group like the more recent reception theorists of the Constance school, made up of “a liberal association of scholars, informally united by methodological concerns that allow for considerable diversity….” “The concerns of such groups,” he argues, “are methodological rather than, as in the case of the New Criticism or the Frankfurt school, cultural and ideological” (The Resistance to Theory, 1986, 54). It is hardly surprising, then, that these “displaced scientists,” as Richter calls them, failed to win the kind of support given to the New Critics, that far more inspirational group of “disappointed priests seeking in literature for a new Word to replace the one the world had lost.”

Chicago critics focused on critical methods for the study of literature, both their own and other critics’, both past and present, and on the application of those methods to particular works. Their efforts shared a desire to introduce more rigor and precision into critical discourse. Olson’s observation that “criticism in our time is a sort of Tower of Babel” is almost commonplace in twentieth-century criticism. What follows for him is not commonplace: “Moreover, it is not merely a linguistic but also a methodological Babel; yet, in the very pursuit of this analogy, it is well to remember that at Babel men did not begin to talk nonsense; they merely began to talk what seemed like nonsense to their fellows. A statement is not false merely because it is unintelligible; though it will have to be made intelligible before we can say whether it is true” (Critics 546). To make it intelligible requires, in Crane’s words, “a general critique of literary criticism … such as might yield objective criteria for interpreting the diversities and oppositions among critics and for judging the comparative merits of rival critical schools” (Critics 5). Such “objectivity” is possible only when the “basic principles” (Olson’s “semantic orientation”) and “methods” (Olson’s “propositional structures,” “truth value,” and “principles of validation”) (Crane, Languages 31; Olson, On Value 337) are understood. Crane concludes that if the critic understands a number of alternative systems, “critical approaches of the most diverse sorts can coexist without implying either contradiction or inconsistency” (Languages 31); or, in Olson’s terms, “once the subject of the arts has been described in these systems, it determines the solutions of all artistic problems” (On Value 353). “The moral,” Crane argues, “is surely that we ought to have at our command, collectively at least, as many different critical methods as there are distinguishable major aspects in the construction, appreciation, and use of literary works” (Languages 192). Such calls for critical pluralism form a recurring theme in Chicago criticism.

Chicago pluralism is but one of several critical alternatives. Olson points to three others, all of which reject the pluralistic view that “true interpretation is impossible when one system is examined in terms of another, as is true refutation when the refutative arguments are systematically different from those against which they are directed.” Each of Olson’s alternatives fails to meet his interpretive standards: “Dogmatism holds the truth of a single position and the falsity, in some degree at least, of all others; syncretism holds the partial falsity of all; skepticism the total falsity of all” (Critics 547). The interest in critical methodologies resulted in a number of pluralistic readings in the history of criticism. Critics and Criticism includes essays on Aristotle (by McKeon), LONGINUS (Olson), medieval poetics and rhetoric (McKeon), Robortello and Castelvetro (Weinberg), English neoclassical criticism (Crane), Samuel Johnson (Keast), and eighteenth- century theories of the lyric (Maclean). Other important work includes Olson on Aristotle and Reynolds, and Weinberg’s introduction to his Critical Prefaces of the French Renaissance and his two-volume History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance. The similar Chicago pattern is found throughout these essays: first the principles and methods of the criticism under discussion are determined, and then they are used to provide the basis for evaluating its strengths and weaknesses.

When the Chicago critics apply the same approach to the criticism of their contemporaries, the result is predictably more polemical and more contentious, often characterized by a stronger impatience with sloppy, dogmatic, or skeptical thinking. Criticism based on universal philosophic systems (from G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul l Sartre) is a special object of distrust in Chicago criticism, but the Chicago critics’ most extensive critique is reserved for the New Critics, whose exclusive concern with figurative language and irony they thought was limiting and reductive. The essays in Critics and Criticism on I. A. Richards (by Crane), William Empson (Olson), Cleanth Brooks (Crane), Robert B. Heilman (Keast), and Robert Penn Warren (Olson) represent the core of the Chicago critique of New Criticism.

The pluralism of the Chicago critics developed along with a special, though not exclusive, interest in the poetic method of Aristotle (who remains a “dogmatic” critic for Olson [On Value 347]), for Aristotle offers the most useful antecedent for their special version of formalism. In Crane’s words, “He grasped the distinctive nature of poetic works as synola, or concrete artistic wholes, and made available, though only in outline sketch, hypotheses and analytical devices for defining literally and inductively, and with a maximum degree of differentiation, the multiple causes operative in the construction of poetic wholes of various kinds and the criteria of excellence appropriate to each” (Critics 17). Much of the theoretical and practical criticism of the Chicago school consists in fleshing out the Aristotelian skeleton as they have reconstructed it. Their choice of Aristotle is thus “pragmatic”; their Aristotle differs from others’: “It may not, indeed, except in a general way, be Aristotle at all!” (Critics 12, 17); but it nevertheless provides a useful methodological basis for further critical inquiry. “Neo-Aristotelian” is thus a more accurate label for their work than “Aristotelian.”

Two of the concepts the Chicago critics return to repeatedly, namely, form and genre, developed from their reading of Aristotle. Literary works are imitations, objects made for the sake of their own power and beauty. Literary form becomes a “principle of construction, from which [the artist] infers, however instantaneously, what he must do in constituting and ordering the parts” (Crane, Idea 2:57). The task for the critic becomes one of reconstructing those parts as the author originally must have constructed them consciously or unconsciously, in order, logically, to create the whole work under discussion. The intentionalism of the Chicago critics, then, follows from their acceptance of Aristotelian mimesis.

Their Aristotelian concepts of form and genre follow naturally from their more general principles of form. Literary forms are “species of works, inductively known, and differentiated, more or less sharply, in terms of their artistic elements and principles of construction” (Crane, Idea 2:59). Genre for the Chicago critics is always a heuristic concept; attribution of membership in a generic class is conjectural, not prescriptive. Falsifiability remains a consistent requirement for hypotheses in literary studies. One of the more controversial consequences of their assumption that literary meaning is to be found in the (generic) intention of the text is that like Aristotle, they subordinate the function of literary language to the larger structure of the work as a whole: “The words must be explained in terms of something else, not the poem in terms of the words; and further, a principle must be a principle of something other than itself; hence the words cannot be a principle of their own arrangements” (Olson, On Value 13).

The Chicago focus on genre and method does not preclude an interest in historical analysis. The various studies of literary critics produced by Chicago critics form the basis for a history of criticism. And many of their genre studies—Olson on comedy and tragedy, Maclean on the lyric, Crane on eighteenth-century literature— are developed around hypotheses of historical change. Literary history for Crane is exemplified in a “narrative-causal” history of forms, a concept he explains in his “Critical and Historical Principles of Literary History” (in Idea).

Practical criticism is rarely noticed in considerations of the Chicago critics as a group, although many of their books and articles are well known to specialists and frequently anthologized. Particularly influential have been Crane’s essays “Suggestions toward a Genealogy of the ‘Man of Feeling,”‘ “The Houyhnhnms, the Yahoos, and the History of Ideas” (both in Idea), and “The Concept of Plot and the Plot of Tom Jones” (in Critics); Olson’s books on tragedy, comedy, and Dylan Thomas, as well as his essays “Rhetoric and the Appreciation of Pope” and “Hamlet and the Hermeneutics of Drama” (both in On Value); and Weinberg’s books on Racine and symbolism. As their subjects and titles indicate, Chicago critics rarely neglect theoretical concerns, even in so-called practical criticism.

The concerns of the Chicago critics have been developed by a second and third generation, many but not all of whom studied at Chicago. It is not surprising that as more and more critics apply Chicago methods to an ever larger number of critical questions and an ever-expanding canon, it becomes increasingly difficult to find shared conclusions. The general trend, influenced largely by Wayne C. Booth, has been from poetics to rhetoric and from an almost exclusive focus on text to an increasing interest in both author and reader (Sheldon Sacks and Ralph W. Rader playing a large role). More recent Chicago criticism has redefined pluralism (Booth and Walter Davis), broken down relatively rigid, mutually exclusive generic categories (Rader, Booth), and heightened the intentionalism always inherent in the constructionist model (Sacks, Rader). A partial list of more recent Chicago critics includes: Booth, Norman Friedman, Paul Goodman, Homer Goldberg, Phillip Harth, Arthur Heiserman, Walter J. Hippie, Gwin J. Kolb, Richard Levin, Robert Marsh, Moody E. Prior, Rader, Edward W. Rosenheim, Sacks, Mary Doyle Springer, Douglas H. White, and Austin Μ. Wright (the second generation); and Janet E. Aikins, James L. Battersby, Don Bialostosky, Michael Μ. Boardman, Walter A. Davis, Barbara Foley, Elizabeth Langland, Zahava K. McKeon, James S. Malek, James Phelan, Peter J. Rabinowitz, David H. Richter, Adena Rosmarin, and Howard D. Weinbrot (the third generation).

Wayne C. Booth, “Between Two Generations: The Heritage of the Chicago School,” Profession 82 (1982); Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (1945); Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1987); Vincent B. Leitch, American Literary Criticism from the Thirties to the Eighties (1988); Richard McKeon, “Criticism and the Liberal Arts: The Chicago School of Criticism,” Profession 82 (1982); John Crowe Ransom, “Humanism at Chicago,” Kenyon Review 14 (1952), The World’s Body (1938); David H. Richter, ed., The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends (1989); Hoyt Trowbridge, “Aristotle and the ‘New Criticism,'” Sewanee Review 52 (1944); Eliseo Vivas, “The Neo-Aristotelians of Chicago,” Sewanee Review 61 (1953); René Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, vol. 6, American Criticism, 1900-1950 (1986); William K. Wimsatt, Jr., The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (1954).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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