New Criticism is a movement in 20th-century literary criticism that arose in reaction to those traditional “extrinsic” approaches that saw a text as making a moral or philosophical statement or as an outcome of social, economic, political, historical, or biographical phenomena. New Criticism holds that a text must be evaluated apart from its context; failure to do so causes the Affective Fallacy, which confuses a text with the emotional or psychological response of its readers, or the Intentional Fallacy, which conflates textual impact and the objectives of the author.
New Criticism assumes that a text is an isolated entity that can be understood through the tools and techniques of close reading, maintains that each text has unique texture, and asserts that what a text says and how it says it are inseparable. The task of the New Critic is to show the way a reader can take the myriad and apparently discordant elements of a text and reconcile or resolve them into a harmonious, thematic whole. In sum, the objective is to unify the text or rather to recognize the inherent but obscured unity therein. The reader’s awareness of and attention to elements of the form of the work mean that a text eventually will yield to the analytical scrutiny and interpretive pressure that close reading provides. Simply put, close reading is the hallmark of New Criticism.
The genesis of New Criticism can be found in the early years of the 20th century in the work of the British philosopher I. A. Richards and his student William Empson. Another important fi gure in the beginnings of New Criticism was the American writer and critic T. S. Eliot. Later practitioners and proponents include John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Reni Wellek, and William Wimsatt. In many ways New Criticism runs in temporal parallel to the American modern period.
From the 1930s to the 1960s in the United States, New Criticism was the accepted approach to literary study and criticism in scholarly journals and in college and university English departments. Among the lasting legacies of New Criticism is the conviction that surface reading of literature is insufficient; a critic, to arrive at and make sense of the latent potency of a text, must explore very carefully its inner sanctum by noting the presence and the patterns of literary devices within the text. Only this, New Criticism asserts, enables one to decode completely.
New Criticism gave discipline and depth to literary scholarship through emphasis on the text and a close reading thereof. However, the analytic and interpretive moves made in the practice of New Criticism tend to be most effective in lyric and complex intellectual poetry. The inability to deal adequately with other kinds of texts proved to be a significant liability in this approach. Furthermore, the exclusion of writer, reader, and context from scholarly inquiry has made New Criticism vulnerable to serious objections.
Despite its radical origins, New Criticism was fundamentally a conservative enterprise. By the 1960s, its dominance began to erode, and eventually it ceded primacy to critical approaches that demanded examination of the realities of production and reception. Today, although New Criticism has few champions, in many respects it remains an approach to literature from which other critical modes depart or against which they militate.
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Lentricchia, Frank. After the New Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
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Spurland, William, and Michael Fischer, eds. The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory: Connections and Continuities. New York: Garland, 1995.
Willingham, John. “The New Criticism: Then and Now.” In Contemporary Literary Theory, edited by Douglas Atkins and Janice Morrow, 24–41. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.