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Rediscovering the New Critics Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism, edited by Garrick Davis

Spring 2010 - Vol. 52, No. 2

Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism,
edited by Garrick Davis (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008)

ARRON URBANCZYK is a scholar, critic, and writer residing in north Georgia. He has written several reviews for Modern Age and writes frequently on the subjects of American literature, literary theory, and modern Catholic fiction.

The field of literary criticism and theoryis certainly ripe for a change, ashift, at least something to shake it up abit. The one-time Yale professor WilliamDeresiewicz astutely diagnoses the stagnationin literary criticism in a 2008 articlein The Nation. Quoting Louis Menand,Deresiewicz articulates a fact of whichprofessors of literature across the countryare painfully aware: "our graduate studentsare writing the same dissertations, withthe same tools, as they were in 1990." Theacademic study of literature is still recyclingthe now-hackneyed orthodoxies ofidentity politics, deconstruction, and NewHistoricism, but without the sense of intellectualexcitement felt by many when thelikes of Derrida, Judith Butler, and StephenGreenblatt were, if nothing else, new andprovocative figures. As Deresiewicz aptlyputs it, "[t]here have always been trendsin literary criticism, but the major trendnow is trendiness itself," and the craze fortrendiness seems in the grip of what is evidentlya terminal illness. When the mostrecent edition of The Norton Anthology ofTheory and Criticism (a title conspicuouslylacking the term "Literary") has an essaycelebrating the advent of "Disability Studies"as a promising new paradigm for theliterary critic, one can say with some justicethat literary theory seems to have almostcompletely forgotten its object (howeveradmirable its interest in matters of socialjustice). In such a state of affairs, a hopefulsoul may recall the words of Edgar inKing Lear: "Ripeness is all." Garrick Davis,poet and founding editor of ContemporaryPoetry Review, may have had the words ofEdgar ringing in his ears when he set aboutediting Praising It New: The Best of the NewCriticism. The timing for reintroducing theNew Critics into the field of literary studiescouldn't be more opportune.

Organizing the heterogeneous crosssectionof poets, critics, and professorslumped under the term "New Critics" is adaunting task, but Davis is equal to it andhas succeeded admirably. Praising It Newonly deals with American figures, thus onewon't find selections from important non-American figures such as William Empsonor I. A. Richards. His selection of essaysis, however, widely representative andcoherently organized along thematic lines.The recognized giants associated with theNew Criticism are well and generouslyrepresented: the volume contains seminalessays from T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, AllenTate, John Crowe Ransom, Yvor Winters,Cleanth Brooks, Wimsatt and Beardsley,Kenneth Burke, and Robert Penn Warren.Further, Praising It New performsthe great service of popularizing severalexcellent critical essays from lesser-knownfigures influenced by the New Criticism,including R. P. Blackmur, J. V. Cunningham(Yvor Winters's protégé at Stanford),Randall Jarrell (a student of Ransom andWarren's at Vanderbilt), Hugh Kenner(Cleanth Brooks's student at Yale), andDelmore Schwartz.

Praising It New revolves around twocentral preoccupations of the New Critics:the need to treat literature as a distinctmode of aesthetic expression andthe responsibility of the critic to make ajudgment of the aesthetic object accordingto rational standards. The New Criticsbegan their rise to prominence in the earlytwentieth century (e.g. Eliot publishedhis widely influential collection of criticalessays, The Sacred Wood, in 1920), andthey would come to dominate the field ofliterary criticism well into the early 1960s.Indeed, the measure of their success iswitnessed by the fact that the textbookswritten by Cleanth Brooks and RobertPenn Warren (Understanding Poetry andUnderstanding Fiction) became the standardtool for generations of college Englishprofessors in the undergraduate classroom.Yet, initially, the New Critics tookthe stance of opposition to popular criticismand academic English studies. Theysought to create a space in universities andcolleges for aesthetic criticism (as opposedto leaving it solely to magazine reviewers),and believed teachers and professorsshould provide such criticism (particularlyfor the emerging Modernist school ofpoets). Thus they strongly challenged thetwo reigning forms of literary analysis intheir day: academic "scholarship" (whichwas mostly historical and philological) and"impressionistic" criticism (the critic registeringhis psychological and emotionalresponses to a literary work as a mode ofevaluation). Critics such as Ransom andTate perceived a deeply troubling stateof affairs: academic professors of Englishwere trained exclusively as literaryhistorians and actively discouraged fromwriting "criticism," while many of thepopular "critics" (i.e. impressionist critics)were merely eloquently articulating theirpsychological experiences of reading literature.The conventional wisdom wasthat real scholars didn't trifle with treatingliterature as an aesthetic object, becausedoing so was unscientific. In "CriticismInc.," John Crowe Ransom reports thatone of his contemporaries, head of a graduateEnglish department, flatly asserted,"This is a place for exact scholarship. . . we don't allow criticism here, becausethat is something which anybody can do."Further, Tate laments in "Miss Emily andthe Bibliographer" that if a young student"goes to graduate school, he comesout incapacitated for criticism; if he triesto be a critic he is not unlike the ignorantimpressionist who did not go to thegraduate school. He cannot discuss the literaryobject in terms of its specific form;all that he can do is to give you its historyor tell you how he feels about it."While the orthodoxies have changed abit, this diagnosis sounds strangely likeour own era. While the "old historicism"is out of fashion, the "New Historicism"has risen to take its place (the ideologicalstudy of history and culture as a matrixof the struggle for power and dominationà la Foucault, Greenblatt, et al). In factthe New Historicism, coupled with theubiquitous influence of identity politics ingraduate literary study, has collapsed bothof Tate's vices into the modern graduatestudent: he is both incapacitated for criticism(by the New Historicism) and tendsto indulge widely on how he feels abouta text (according to race, class, gender,sexual orientation, etc.).

Yet the New Critics were not merelyastute diagnosticians of the dearth ofsound aesthetic criticism in their day. Theywere some of the most lucid purveyors ofrational principles for evaluating the literarywork of art in the history of literarytheory. The literary work of art is first ofall an object, a "form" in its own right.In "The Formalist Critic," Cleanth Brooksobserved with remarkable clarity that"form is meaning" in literature, and thatform is the proper concern of the critic.Thus the literary critic must begin with hisobject, and not such extra-literary issues asauthorial intent (see Wimsatt and Beardsleyon "The Intentional Fallacy"), emotionalresponse (Wimsatt and Beardsley on"The Affective Fallacy"), or literary biography.Praising It New includes numerousseminal essays wherein the rational principlesof formalist criticism are articulated(e.g. Pound's distinction of poetry intomelopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia in"How to Read"; Eliot's famous doctrineof the "objective correlative" in "Hamletand His Problems"; the "dissociation ofsensibility" in "The Metaphysical Poets";and Warren's doctrine of "pure poetry" in"Pure and Impure Poetry"). Yet literarycriticism, like all forms of praxis, is bestlearned through watching the masters atwork. On this score, too, Davis has chosenwisely, for Praising It New contains not onlyworks that are primarily theoretical, butalso numerous essays containing the typeof "close readings" (primarily of poetry)that made the New Critics famous. It isa delight to read Randall Jarrell's analysisof Housman, Cleanth Brooks' magisterialstudy of Eliot, R. P. Blackmur on Americanreligious verse, Eliot on the Metaphysicalpoets, and the many snippets of closereadings peppering the essays throughoutthe anthology. Such intelligent, eloquent,and precise literary criticism is a refreshing,though rare, commodity in the grovesof academic "scholarship" these days.

The New Critics also vociferouslyinsisted that aesthetic criticism is not onlythe proper job of the critic—it is in facthis moral obligation. Tate and Wintersinsisted upon this obligation so stronglythat one gets the impression that not to doso, in their eyes, was a type of betrayal ofhumanistic learning itself. Yet the moraljudgment of the literary work is not thetype with which we are acquainted today.For decades ideological theorists and critics,giving in to the impulse of the socialengineer, have denounced the racism, sexism,homophobia, classism, and other suchreal or perceived faults in literary texts.If the professor can ferret out the alleged"-isms" in great (or not so great) works ofliterature, the hope is he can reprogram theminds and hearts of his students accordingto his ideological code. The concern,much like the Marxism that inspires mostof these readings, is with changing society,not with understanding literature.

The New Critics' notion of the judgmentinvolved in literary criticism has itsroots in the very origin of literary theoryitself (which is to say, in Aristotle). In"Miss Emily and the Bibliographer" Tatespeaks of the critic's "obligation to judge,"and the failure to render criticism of theliterature of the day he calls the "GreatRefusal." Indeed, the unwillingness to beattentive to literary form was an indicationto Tate that the literary establishmentof his day, much as our own, "no longerbelieve[s] in literature" or its vital connectionto culture.

Further, in the selection from The Anatomyof Nonsense, Yvor Winters insists literarycriticism is inherently "an act of moraljudgment," yet moral in a specific fashion.Winters is no naive moralist, suggestingthe critic should applaud "good" deeds inart and deplore "wickedness." Rather, hereturns literary theory to the context ofAristotle's Poetics. Winters reminds us thatthe critic must evaluate literary form inthe broad context of anthropology (hence,his evocation of Aristotle and St. ThomasAquinas). Is the crafted literary form, whatWinters would call the "adjustment of feelingto motive" in language, doing justice tohuman nature as it really is? In the face ofsuch a question, the critic must judge, andhis judgment cannot but be "moral" insofaras the approximation to human natureis involved. Thus we find deep in the heartof the New Criticism a re-emergence ofAristotle: literature is imitation (or mimesis),and what is imitated through languageis human action (and Aristotle never tiresof reminding us that it is action that manifestshuman nature). The critic must notonly judge the technical virtuosity of theliterary form, he must also accept the invitationto and obligation of moral criticism:he must judge whether the aesthetic objectdoes justice to human experience and thetruth about human nature.

Perhaps Praising It New will mark thebeginning of a renewed interest among literaryscholars in the criminally neglectedwork of the New Critics. Perhaps this volumemay be instrumental in a renascenceof aesthetic criticism among professors andcritics. Or perhaps this volume will simplyrescue the brilliance of the New Criticsfrom the nearly complete cultural amnesiato which they have been subjected bythe "advances" in academic criticism of thelast four decades. Whatever its impact, themoment is right for this volume to appear."Ripeness is all," and Garrick Davis hashappened upon the perfect time to reacquaintus with what his subtitle justly heraldsas The Best of the New Criticism.