Brooks, Cleanth (Vol. 110)
Cleanth Brooks 1906–1994
American critic and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Brooks's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 24 and 86.
Considered one of the most influential critics of the twentieth century, Brooks, along with John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, was a principal proponent of the "New Criticism," a critical method that stressed analysis of a work based solely on the work itself, without consideration of the author's circumstances or previous writings. The subject of a book by Ransom (The New Criticism, 1941), this method was a radical departure from contemporary schools of criticism, which held that a work could only be properly interpreted in the context of the writer's life and times.
Brooks was born October 16, 1906, in Murray, Kentucky. The son of a Methodist minister, he attended McTyeire School, a small Methodist preparatory school in McKenzie, Tennessee. Brooks continued his education at Vanderbilt University and Tulane University, and attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1934, he married Edith Amy Blanchard. Brooks began his career as an educator in 1932 at Louisiana State University; he moved to Yale University in 1947, from which he retired in 1975. While at Louisiana State, Brooks edited the Louisiana Review with Warren from 1935 to 1941. From 1964 to 1966, Brooks served as the cultural attaché at the United States Embassy in London. He was also a Jefferson Lecturer at the Library of Congress and a member of the Library's council of scholars. Brooks also taught at the University of Texas, the University of Michigan, and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Brooks was widowed in 1986 and died on May 10, 1996, at his home in New Haven, Connecticut.
Many of Brooks's writings were extensions of the critical philosophy he presented to his students. His first book of criticism, a college text co-edited with Warren and titled Understanding Poetry (1938), is considered part of the foundation of the New Criticism. His next book, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), explained his philosophy of evaluating poetry in the context of its place in the larger literary tradition. He expanded on the idea in The Well Wrought Urn (1947) and A Shaping Joy (1971), explaining and demonstrating a poem's "internal unity"—how well it succeeds in a unification of its forms and content as well as how it fits into the larger literary tradition. A controversial aspect of Brooks's critical theory, expounded in The Hidden God (1963), was the idea that the critic also had the responsibility of evaluating the moral aspect of a poem, taking a stand on the spiritual validity of a writer's work. Although Brooks developed his theory of criticism to further the understanding of poetry, he was also able to apply it to prose, principally in the study of William Faulkner. Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963), William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978), William Faulkner: First Encounters (1983), and On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner (1987) are listed among the most thorough and insightful critiques of Faulkner's work. Because Brooks stressed that a close reading and examination of the internal structure of a poem was the best evidence of the author's intent, and that criticism did not require an investigation of the poet's life, he was frequently accused of being oblivious to the historical significance of events which affected the poet. Partly in reply to this charge, Brooks wrote Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry (1991). In this work, Brooks shows how the historical context of a poem can be used to uncover meanings which might be hidden by changes in the usage of words over time.
The critical theory identified as the "New Criticism" was not initially well-received by the academic world. The individuals most closely associated with the "movement"—Brooks, Ransom, Tate, and Warren, did not see themselves as sharing a common theory of criticism. What they did share, according to Roger Kimball, "was a concern with the integrity of the literary object as such." The New Critics, as Allen Tate put it, were against "using social theories to prove something about poetry … trying to make an art respectable by showing that after all it is something else. Just this won them the undying hostility of the academic establishment." Kimball added, "What unites them is an insistence on the irreducibility of the aesthetic object: an insistence that literature, for example, is literature, not a covert species of politics." Other critics, however, saw the exclusion of the analysis of historical and social aspects of the writer's life as reactionary. They argued that keeping the focus within the poem itself, and ignoring the writer external to the work was a subtle means of preventing the examination of the effects of race, class, and gender on the arts. They also suggested that Brooks's focus on how a poem fits into the tradition—into the larger historical body of literature—emphasizes white male Europeans to the exclusion of newer, more diverse voices. Critics such as John N. Duvall said that Brooks's examination of the "inclusiveness" of a poem, the degree to which it participates in the literary and spiritual tradition, is in fact exclusive. "In his effort to discover the hidden unity of works and the tradition, Brooks's literary history omitted texts that were tainted with the secularization of politics. Thus Joyce and Faulkner are prized but not Dos Passos: Eliot and Yeats, but not Zukofsky (to say nothing of the proletarian poets from the 1930s). New Criticism was too ready to excuse the excesses either in a text's rhetoric or in the social system that a text represented, if one could read that text in a way that discovered unity or that celebrated community." Other critics acknowledged the spiritual component of Brooks's criticism, but did not see it as constraining. William Bedford Clark, comparing Brooks and Eliot, wrote, "Like Eliot, Brooks knows that literature inevitably reflects the values and beliefs, however implicit, of the author. Yet, once again in full accord with Eliot, Brooks would not make the reader's adherence to the author's values and beliefs a basis for experiencing or evaluating the work itself." In one area both champions and detractors of the New Criticism concurred: It is considered a foundation for all current forms of criticism. Anthony Tassin wrote, "Although a variety of new philosophies of literary criticism have come forward since the mid-century, the New Criticism is alive and well. For all purposes it has become a standard approach to teaching literature and is currently accepted by professors and students alike. When they speak of criticism, it is substantially the New Criticism to which they refer."
The Relation of the Alabama-Georgia Dialect to the Provincial Dialects of Great Britain (nonfiction) 1935
Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students [editor with Robert Penn Warren] (criticism) 1938; enlarged and revised edition, 1950
Modern Poetry and the Tradition (criticism) 1939
∗Understanding Fiction [editor with Robert Penn Warren] (criticism) 1943
Understanding Drama [editor with Robert B. Heilman] (criticism) 1945; enlarged edition, 1948
The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (criticism) 1947; revised edition, 1968
Modern Rhetoric [with Robert Penn Warren] (nonfiction) 1949
Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric [with Robert Penn Warren] (nonfiction) 1950
†Literary Criticism: A Short History [with William K. Wimsatt] (criticism) 1957
The Hidden God: Studies in Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Eliot, and Warren (criticism) 1963
William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (criticism) 1963
A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Writer's Craft (criticism) 1971
William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (criticism) 1978
William Faulkner: First Encounters (criticism) 1983
The Language of the American South (nonfiction) 1985
On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner (criticism)...
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SOURCE: A review of Modern Poetry and the Tradition, in Sewanee Review, Vol. 48, 1940, pp. 419-24.
[In the following review, Daniel explains Brooks's theory of the evolution of poetic style.]
In keeping with the critical principles that underlie Understanding Poetry, Cleanth Brooks makes in Modern Poetry and the Tradition a clear statement of the fundamental similarities between modernist verse and the metaphysical verse of the seventeenth century. "Modern poetry" means of course the work of Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Tate, and the others who have participated in the revolution that commenced about 1912 with the change in Yeats's style and the emergence of Pound—a revolution, Brooks maintains, comparable in importance to that which began in 1798 with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads.
The need for a new definition of metaphysical poetry has become apparent in the loose and conflicting usages of the term in much recent criticism, and in the application of it to modern poetry by such critics as John Crowe Ransom. Brooks's description of the metaphysical mode is exhaustive. Taking up one of the stock definitions, "the poetry of wit", he shows how it fits the work of Donne and his fellows on two levels. Wit in its present sense operates not only in the minor poetry of the time but in that of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton—as is shown by their common fondness...
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SOURCE: "The Southern Community," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 73, No. 1, January/March, 1965, pp. 119-24.
[Below, Daniel favorably reviews Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. Brooks's own southern heritage, Daniel argues, gives added clarity to his interpretations of Faulkner.]
Faulkner's novels and stories have evoked studies the length of books by Campbell and Foster, Howe, O'Connor, Mrs. Vickery, Slatoff, Swiggart, Longley, and now Cleanth Brooks. (I may have overlooked a few, and on various grounds I have omitted Miner, Malin, Cooper, Coughlan, Meriwether, etc.) Despite the competition, Brooks's work has in general been well received—except by such implacable curmudgeons as Marvin Mudrick. Its admirers have had all sorts of reasons for admiring it, one of the most provocative being that it is the first such book to be written by "one who can speak from intimate but dispassionate knowledge of [Faulkner's] milieu": a point to which I must return. The reviews and the sales must be making the publisher look forward to bringing out the companion volume, which will be concerned with Faulkner's style and fictional technique, especially as analysis of his revisions may illuminate these.
It is a pleasure to agree with the praise that William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country has called forth. Brooks has indeed produced a most valuable guide to the meaning of...
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SOURCE: "Cleanth Brooks: Mr. Eliot's Christian Critic," in Southern Review, 1982, pp. 73-83.
[In the following review, Clark examines several books and essays by Brooks, illustrating Brooks's belief that religion and art are complementary in man's search for truth and meaning.]
An especially persuasive reading of the concluding lines of Pope's The Dunciad stresses the apocalyptic nature of the poet's gloomy account of the collapse of the Republic of Letters, and, by extension, of the imminent extinction of enlightened civilization itself:
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine,
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries All.
Such a reading no doubt derives much of its force from the modern reader's awareness of the accelerated fragmentation of Western tradition in our own century, and, accordingly, I should like to suggest that there is something of the same sense of apocalyptic gloom...
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SOURCE: "Formalistic Criticism," in Critical Survey of Poetry, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, 1992, pp. 3973-80.
[In the following essay, Calhoun gives a concise history of the development of Formalistic Criticism, especially the New Criticism of Brooks and others.]
The formalist approach to poetry was the one most influential in American criticism during the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's, and it is still the one most often practiced in literature courses in American colleges and universities. Its popularity was not limited to American literary criticism. In France, formalism has long been employed as a pedagogical exercise in reading literature in the universities and in the lycées. In England in the 1940's and in the 1950's, formalism was associated with an influential group of critics writing for a significant critical periodical, Scrutiny, the most prominent of whom was F.R. Leavis. There was also a notable formalist movement in the Soviet Union in the 1920's, and, although championed by René Wellek in the United States, its influence at that time was primarily limited to Slavic countries.
The formalist approach in America was popularized by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks, all four Southerners, all graduates of Vanderbilt University, and all, in varying degrees, receptive to the indirections and complexities of the modernism of...
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SOURCE: "Well Wrought Facts," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 100, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. xxxviii-xli.
[In the following review, Hall favorably reviews the content and structure of Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry.]
Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry will be especially rewarding, as the title suggests, for readers interested in the good minor poetry of the seventeenth century. Some familiarity with the poets collected by H. J. C. Grierson and Geoffrey Bullough in their once standard Oxford Book of Seventeenth-Century Verse (1934), a book earlier generations of English doctoral students studied in preparation for oral qualifying examinations, would be helpful, but is not essential. The more general sort of educated readers will be happy to learn, however, that with Historical Evidence Cleanth Brooks also continues his lifelong project of teaching us how to read, understand, and appreciate literature.
Most obviously Historical Evidence may be approached as the demonstration Brooks claims it is of a method of reading old poems. In his introduction he remarks that his choice of seventeenth-century poetry was somewhat arbitrary, that he might just as well have performed his demonstrations with poems of a different period. He says he was "seriously tempted to choose poems printed between 1840 and 1890." He...
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SOURCE: A review of Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry, in ANQ, University of Kentucky Press, April-July, 1992, pp. 143-46.
[In the following review, Freer contrasts Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry with earlier writings by Brooks, asserting that "one of the chief subjects of this book is actually the evolution of Brooks's thought."]
A collection of readings of ten poems by eight seventeenth-century poets, this volume [Historical Evidence and the Reading of Seventeenth-Century Poetry] brings together a number of essays that have appeared in various other collections and journals. Essays on King's "The Exequy," Corbett's "The Faeryes Farewell," Shirley's lyric beginning "The glories of our blood and state," Townshend's "To the Countess of Salisbury," Fanshawe's "The Fall," Herbert of Cherbury's "Ode upon a Question Moved," Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and "The Garden," Lovelace's "The Grasse-Hopper," and Marvell's "Horatian Ode" make up the body of the book; a brief Introduction and Epilogue tie these together.
Unfortunately there is no preface or acknowledgement page to indicate where and when the essays first appeared, and this is of more importance than it might seem at first. The book treats some familiar lyric poems that respond particularly well to the kind of close study that Brooks and others...
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SOURCE: "Cleanth Brooks and the Endurance of the New Criticism," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 33-43.
[In the following essay, Tassin suggests that the New Criticism endures in its own right and as the bedrock upon which other schools of criticism are constructed.]
The New Deal. The New Frontier. The New Criticism. They are not longer new, but each of these concepts in its day caught the attention of the public under the aegis of newness. In each case it was one man who conferred the name on the concept: Roosevelt, Kennedy, Ransom. And while these men have passed away, each has left his mark. Although a variety of new philosophies of literary criticism have come forward since the mid-century, the New Criticism is alive and well. For all purposes it has become a standard approach to teaching literature and is currently accepted by professors and students alike. When they speak of criticism, it is substantially the New Criticism to which they refer.
An inquiry into the literary criticism of every decade of the twentieth century reveals a constant re-examination of theory and methodology, new ways of thinking and talking about literature. In the early decades of our century, from various camps came new outlooks as scholars began seeking a study focused on the art object itself as opposed to the historical and genre approaches then in vogue. Rebels of...
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SOURCE: "Faulkner Criticism: Will It Ever End?," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 183-92.
[In the following excerpt, Lyday presents mixed opinions of Brooks's ideas.]
Cleanth Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963) and William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978) have recently been reissued in twin paperback editions by Louisiana State University Press. The former volume was a kind of culmination of the literary wars between the Southern New Critics and the New York Intellectuals, who never really buried their differences as much as Schwartz implies. How does The Yoknapatawpha Country hold up after nearly thirty years? It has probably been the single most influential critical work on Faulkner ever published. It has certainly drawn more vigorous dissent than any other work on Faulkner, but that is largely because it refuses to fade into oblivion, as so many lesser books have done. It seems sentimental and backward-looking to many progressive-minded critics, yet it may provide more insight into the future than those critics would care to recognize. Indeed, some of those critics display more than a little of the "American innocence" that Brooks finds central to the meaning of one of Faulkner's greatest novels. Brooks's central theme in The Yoknapatawpha Country is the need for community. He argues that Faulkner's rural...
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SOURCE: "Eliot's Modernism and Brooks's New Criticism: Poetic and Religious Thinking," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter, 1992/93, pp. 23-37.
[In the following essay, Duvall argues that the spiritual values required by Eliot's Modernism and Brooks's New Criticism are fraught with contradiction and lead to a static literature.]
Emerging as the dominant critical methodology in America after World War II during a time of enormous expansion in the American university, New Criticism apparently exemplified a democratic pedagogy: any student could learn the skills to become a close reader of literary works. Today, though, it might seem perverse to investigate a movement that repeatedly has been declared passe for at least twenty-five years. William Cain reminds us, however, that no matter what contemporary theoretical perspective from which one works, few would seriously question the usefulness of close reading as a tool of analysis: "So deeply ingrained in English studies are New Critical attitudes, values and emphases that we do not even perceive them as the legacy of a particular movement." In this regard, although Cleanth Brooks is no longer at the center of debates about theory and pedagogy, there are still things to learn from historical reflection on the role he played in popularizing T. S. Eliot's modernist poetics. Such reflection, for me, points to an intriguing intersection between two...
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SOURCE: "Apoligia Pro Vita Litteraria," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 27, Nos. 1 & 2, Fall 1994–Spring 1995, p. 375.
[In the following review, Rollin praises Brooks's body of work and its impact on criticism.]
This will be a personal kind of review. The news of Cleanth Brooks's death came while I was reading his book. I was surprised as well as saddened because I had seen him recently at two different professional meetings, looking fit and still wonderfully full of zest for the life of letters. The announcement of his passing reminded me how much my own life of letters owed to him. My undergraduate professors (I later came to understand) were New Critics, and their focus on the text not only taught me how to read but fired me with renewed enthusiasm for literature itself. (Years later, as a brand new assistant prof, and anxious to learn the trade, I asked a veteran English Ed professor how he would teach "L'Allegro/Il Penseroso"; when he replied, "First, I'd draw a map of Asia Minor on the blackboard," my heart sank, and I realized what had been wrong with my English education—and English education generally—prior to Cleanth Brooks.) In graduate school, I had the opportunity to take a seminar in Romantic Poetry with Professor Brooks, and on the first day he announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, I really don't know anything about Romantic Poetry, but we're going to learn together." That was...
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SOURCE: "'Stanley Fish Was My Reader': Cleanth Brooks, the New Criticism, and Reader-Response Theory," in The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory, edited by William J. Spurlin and Michael Fisher, Garland Publishing, New York City, 1995, pp. 211-26.
[Below, Beck and Rhoades compare Brooks's New Criticism and Stanley Fish's Reader-Response theory.]
The method of literary analysis which became known as the New Criticism began in meetings of the Nashville Fugitives during the 1920s, when John Crowe Ransom dominated the group. Between 1921 and 1925–1926, Ransom's students included Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, who were to codify the "method" for use, first in their classes at LSU, and then in their critical essays and textbooks. Brooks, never a Fugitive and connected only briefly with Agrarianism, began to work out his own approaches to reading. He credits not only Ransom but also I. A. Richards and T. S. Eliot with having influenced him in the formulation of his critical theories (Interview). Like Ransom and Richards, Brooks used the classroom as a laboratory before codifying his methods in two collections of essays, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) and The Well Wrought Urn (1947). Along with Warren, Brooks also combined theory with classroom experience in the structuring of textbooks which were to dominate literary pedagogy in the United States for the greater part...
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Unfortunately, Cleanth Brooks was unable to recall how Stanley Fish developed critical acumen during his graduate student days, when he for a time served as Brooks's assistant. Brooks remembered Fish as "an excellent reader, highly intelligent, [who] worked carefully and thoroughly. I have only commendation for what he did for me. But the little human interest things about him, quirks, special happenings, particular sayings—of these I have no record whatsoever" (letter to Beck, May 1990). Fish's fondest recollection of "Mr. Brooks" is of seeing him walk down the street with William Wimsatt "whom as you probably know was seven feet tall. Mr. Brooks was a low key and gentle instructor who exerted authority through his person and academic stature" (letter to Beck, May 1990). No doubt Fish was quietly formulating his own attitudes toward—or perhaps more accurately, against—what Brooks had theorized, since, like most post-structuralists, he defines his critical stance in large part as a reaction against the New Critics.
No subsequent interaction between Brooks and Fish appears to have been documented, except, in 1979, when they met at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. This encounter occurred, significantly, just before the 1980 publication of Is There a Text in This Class?. The occasion was a symposium entitled "Three Critics/Three Poems," featuring Brooks, speaking on Thomas Hardy's "Channel Firing"; Hugh...
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SOURCE: "Afterword: An Interview with Cleanth Brooks," in The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory, edited by William J. Spurlin and Michael Fisher, Garland Publishing, New York City, 1995, pp. 365-83.
[In the following interview, Brooks and Spurlin discuss the response of other writers to the New Criticism.]
The following conversation was conducted in the home of Cleanth Brooks in New Haven, Connecticut in October 1993. Prior to the meeting, Professor Brooks read the essays in Part III of this volume. Professor Brooks, after a distinguished writing and teaching career, died on May 10, 1994 at the age of eighty-seven. I am grateful for his comments and suggestions on the final draft of this interview.
[Spurlin:] Professor Brooks, your work and the work of your fellow New Critics has not only influenced other literary critics, theorists, and scholars, but generations of literature students and teachers; indeed, the close reading of texts is a method that many of us have grown up with. But at the same time, you, René Wellek, and others have expressed concern about the difficulty of grouping together the New Critics as a monolithic group. For instance, you have pointed out that Allen Tate was interested in literary history and biography and I. A. Richards paid a great deal of attention to the reader. How did the New Criticism get its name? Could you talk about how it...
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Drake, Robert. "Cleanth Brooks." Modern Age, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Winter 1995): 166-68.
Drake recounts a meeting and Brooks's comments on the state of criticism.
Gollin, James. "Cleanth Brooks Remembered." The American Scholar, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 257-63.
Personal recollections of Brooks are combined with a history of his writing.
McSween, Harold. "Cleanth Brooks, LSU, and the Southern Review." Sewanee Review, Vol. 104, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 274-86.
A concise history of Brooks's time at Louisiana State University and the political climate affecting the rise and fall of the Southern Review.
Rawson, Claude. "Cleanth Brooks: Some Personal Recollections." Southern Review (Spring 1995): 251-55.
Rawson fondly remembers Brooks as a soft-spoken, consummate gentleman.
Simpson, Lewis P. "Cleanth Brooks: The Long Conversation," Southern Review (Spring 1995): 224-38.
Simpson provides a record of some of the pivotal points in Brooks's life and career.
Bush, Douglas. "Marvell's 'Horatian Ode.'"...
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