R(onald) S(almon) Crane Essay - Critical Essays

Crane, R(onald) S(almon)


R(onald) S(almon) Crane 1886–1967

American literary critic, editor, and professor.

Crane's renown as a critic derives primarily from his astute defenses of pluralism, a critical approach whose basic premise is that "of the truth about literature, no critical language can ever have a monopoly." In contrast to critics who divide over the question of whether a work of literature should be studied as a self-contained aesthetic object or as one related to and affected by the world which surrounds it, Crane believed that valuable observations about a given work can be made from both perspectives. Basing his own criticism on the Aristotelian assumption that art is a representation of human experience, Crane was concerned with revealing in a work of literature "what kind of human experience is being imitated, by the use of what possibilities of the poetic medium, through what mode of representation, and for the sake of evoking and resolving what particular sequence of expectations and emotions relative to the successive parts of the imitated object." These critical aims are central to the work of a group of Neo-Aristotelians known as the "Chicago Critics," whose major figures, along with Crane, include Wayne C. Booth and Elder Olson.

Crane's best known and most influential works are The Language of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (1953) and The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical (1967). These works contain the core of the thought and beliefs of the Chicago Critics and have been closely read by scholars and critical theorists. Both books are highly esteemed, even by some critics who do not share Crane's views. They are particularly acclaimed for their well-executed defenses of pluralism.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Randall Jarrell

[The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry consists of] lectures about the two most influential sorts of contemporary criticism, and about a very different kind, an Aristotelian kind, which would supplement and counteract these.

This word Aristotelian will make some of us grunt, some of us beam, and some of us exclaim, "Oh yes, now I remember—Crane's the man that's been starting that neo-Aristotelian school of criticism." So far as most of us are concerned, to hear of such a project is to hate it. We feel, more or less: "If it's a good thing to do, surely in all this time somebody would have done it"; and we remember that during a surprisingly large proportion of that time somebody was doing it. Mr. Crane's school of criticism comes to bat with, so to speak, two millennia against it.

But as we read we see that Mr. Crane is persuasive and judicious and reasonable, that his arguments aren't lofty sneers, or rhetoric, or appeals to prejudice, but real arguments; we dismiss this general prejudice of ours, and try to make specific judgments worthy of Mr. Crane and of ourselves. Most of us will be pleased when he warns us of his anti-Hegelian turn of mind, delighted when we see that he really does believe in seeing what great artists did, rather than in saying what they should have done. He is, most of the time, empirical. And he does not believe in some ideal form of criticism which has the virtues of all and the vices of none, but sees that the different ways of criticizing, languages of criticism, are themselves as different and contradictory as works of art are....

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The Times Literary Supplement

[Crane's main subjects of inquiry are suggested by the title of his book, The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry.] In the phrase "the languages of criticism" he refers to the different methods of critical investigation, which (as he insists) are necessarily limited in their usefulness and their results by the terms in which they work. He begins by proclaiming himself a "pluralist" in this matter: it is not his view that any one sort of criticism is right, other sorts wrong…. [Crane's] interest in distinguishing between different sorts of criticism, different critical "languages," is one of the threads that run through the book….

To a reader of Critics and Criticism it will come as no surprise that the critic to whom Mr. Crane and his friends most often look for guidance is Aristotle; and the second of his lectures is devoted to "Poetic Structure in the Language of Aristotle."… For Mr. Crane, interpreting the Poetics in terms of his own interests and needs, Aristotle is important primarily because he is concerned with "the structure of poetry"; more than any other critic, he believes, Aristotle avoids dealing with bits of poetry, and concerns himself with poems as organic wholes. No feature of this book, or of the writings of these critics as a school, is more welcome than this insistence on studying works of art separately, as things-in-themselves, in which no part can usefully be analysed without reference to the nature of the whole in which it occurs….

Mr. Crane's insistence on criticizing a work of art as an organic whole is to be understood as a reaction against other kinds of criticism. One of these, of which he says little, seems to be incidental to the academic study of literature—the tendency to concentrate on one aspect of a thing at a time; which often leads to the critic's losing sight of the whole in terms of which alone this aspect has any meaning. An example, unfashionable at present, is the old-fashioned History of Versification, in which such entities as the Heroic Couplet, Rhyme Royal and the Alexandrine take on a strange phantom-life of their own, independent of the poems in which they occur. The study...

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Northrop Frye

[In The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry] Mr. Crane speaks as though he were presenting a distinctive kind of criticism, recoverable from Aristotle, which has been submerged, practically since Aristotle's day, by the domination of rhetorical values. We are thus led to expect a fairly specific methodology in the last lecture; yet, on the other hand, we wonder how this can be consistent with his argument that all methodologies can find in poetry only what they have previously determined to look for. Much is claimed for his own method: it is even advertised with guarantees. "We can do all these things," he says, meaning the things other critics do; "but we can also do more, and as a consequence be able to do these things with greater precision and intelligibility. For we possess what these other methods have conspicuously lacked…." But the principles, as well as the sparse examples from Macbeth and Gray's Elegy, remain very general in formulation. With the best will in the world it is difficult to see the practical application of, for instance, "the shaping principle of form and emotional 'power' without which no poem could come into existence as a beautiful and effective whole of a determinate kind," or "the assumption that the poet's end—the end which makes him a poet—is simply the perfecting of the poem as a beautiful or intrinsically excellent thing." (p. 94)

The fact is, I think, that what Mr. Crane is expounding is the norm of critical procedure, and his method is an exhortation to the critic to keep his mind on his job. He is urging the central and primary importance of the unbiased reading of the poem, and of the framing of critical hypotheses about it analogous, in what they stress and subordinate, to the actual proportions of the poem as a "concrete whole." He says, as clearly as his pythonic sentence structure will allow him to do, that the poem is its own object: that there is no end outside it, morality, truth, religion, or even beauty, to which it is finally to be related. In short, he is defining the aims and methods of the central practical activity of reading, studying, and evaluating poems which every sensible critic bases all his work on, whatever his special interests may be.

In revealing the conceptual barrenness, the circular arguing, and the errors of taste and perspective that result from neglecting this central activity, Mr. Crane has not only fully established his own point but performed a real service for all serious critics. I suspect, however, that the dialectic necessity of first defining an abstract "poetry," deducing a priori characteristics or values, and then making all poems the shadows of a Platonic Form, is in large part illusory—the illusion being not in Mr. Crane's mind but in the structures of what critics write. As I am included in the mythological group, I...

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Lawrence Lipking

The Idea of the Humanities has been designed to do justice to Crane as a humanist—a scholar not limited to any particular subject matter or set of problems. The range of the book is immense. First of all, it spans three (or four) separate fields: the humanities, the history of ideas, and literary criticism and literary history. Its essays (themselves written over a third of a century) travel in time from ancient Greece to the immediate past…. We see Crane in many fields, in many moods, in many circumstances. (pp. 455-56)

[The] exploratory nature of Crane's work along with its abundance, is the main lesson this book has to teach. When we add Crane's various eminence as an editor, a...

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Bert O. States

[The Idea of the Humanities] is perhaps the best argument in support of dogmatism (I would prefer another word) as a natural force in humanistic pursuits. Take, for instance, [Crane's] case against its most virulent form—"dialectical criticism," or any criticism which sets up a "more or less elaborate pattern of logically contrary terms unified by a single principle of classification," such things as poetic versus logical discourse, the symbolic versus the realistic, the ironical versus the simple, and so on. It needn't even be an antithesis; any a priori premise will do because literature is "ambiguous" and will support even the most absurd hypothesis…. What this kind of criticism ignores, says Crane, is...

(The entire section is 1328 words.)