Selected Essays of John Crowe Ransom
John Crowe Ransom, poet, teacher, and literary critic, became known as the father of the New Criticism. The primary formative influences upon his attitudes and thought appear to have been his Southern background and his education at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar studying classics of philosophy and literature. His career spanned sixty years, first at Vanderbilt University, where he had been an undergraduate, and later at Kenyon College, where he edited the Kenyon Review. Thomas Daniel Young and John Hindle have selected twenty-four pieces, including addresses, articles, and chapters from books, to represent Ransom’s critical thought; they have also added portions of a letter as an appendix and have provided an introduction. Presented chronologically and ranging over a period of thirty-five years, the selections reveal Ransom’s development as a critic and thinker and illuminate the changes in his opinions. Among the subjects treated in the collection are social criticism, theory of criticism, analyses of particular poems or passages, and evaluations of individual poets.
In reading through Ransom’s work, one is struck by a mental cast resembling that of two important predecessors in both poetry and literary criticism, John Dryden and Matthew Arnold, whom he sometimes echoes. Like them, he thinks largely in polarities or dichotomies, expressed in opposing terms which are encountered in abundance: art-science, classic-Romantic, poetry-prose, texture-structure, intension-extension, tenor-vehicle, ego-id. Even some of his essay titles—“Forms and Citizens,” “Honey and Gall,” “New Poets and Old Muses”—reflect his penchant for dichotomies. Closely allied to this inclination is a generous use of analogies: the poem to the human body, to music, or to architecture. A critic who uses this approach to analysis sharply delineates his basic terms, creating powerful and clear differences between them, and he is able to organize ideas and value judgments around a simple framework, but a major weakness arises when the writer is tempted to oversimplify one of the juxtaposed terms, as Ransom does, for example, with science, which he defines as “the mind devoting itself exclusively to the attainment of a practical purpose.” A further weakness may be a degree of instability in the structures, leading those who think in dichotomies to change their views, as Ransom did about his social and literary criticism and, more frequently, his evaluations of other poets.
A second prominent feature of his thought is the pervasive influence of philosophy from many sources. At Oxford, where he studied under F. H. Bradley, Ransom was steeped in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his followers, especially Arthur Schopenhauer and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Their influence is apparent in his quest for philosophical bases for aesthetic judgments. Ransom accepts as basic the Kantian distinction between the interior moral life and the external world of objects, of those things-in-themselves which cannot be fully understood, and like the philosopher, Ransom frequently chooses to create his own terms, although they are not so esoteric as those found in philosophical treatises. In these and in numerous other ways, the reader is reminded that the aesthetic ideas of Ransom emerge from and are weighed against a philosophical background.
Although the selections include little of Ransom’s social and economic criticism, the portion that is there reveals something significant about his thought—his inclination to abandon previously held views. He belonged to a group centered in Nashville, Tennessee, known as the Southern Agrarians, who flourished in the 1920’s and 1930’s. They held the view that man lived the best life in harmony with nature in a rural agrarian setting that provided economic self-sufficiency and promoted the extension of aesthetic values to work as well as leisure. Their ideas are outlined in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930), the opening chapter of which, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” was Ransom’s contribution. In “The Aesthetic of Regionalism,” included by Young and Hindle among their selections, Ransom applies similar values and insights to the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, praising their culture for its economic success despite a harsh environment and for its aesthetics in the form of rituals. He believed that aesthetic sense emerges naturally in a society once the people have established a harmonious relationship with their surroundings. It is worth noting that Ransom developed his economic and social ideas in a book-length manuscript entitled “Land!,” a work he destroyed when it failed to find a publisher, but perhaps by then he had changed his views. In the essay “Art and the Human Economy,” he refers to his previously held views as agrarian nostalgia, and he expresses an attitude far different from his earlier one on industrialization: “Without consenting to a division of labor, and hence modern society, we should have not only no effective science, invention, and scholarship, but nothing to speak of in art.” Writing of a plan by the Allies to turn Germany into an agrarian nation following...
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