According to the New Critics, the task of criticism is to give an account of literature’s “special character”. With reference to this statement, discuss the main tenets of Anglo-American New...

According to the New Critics, the task of criticism is to give an account of literature’s “special character”. With reference to this statement, discuss the main tenets of Anglo-American New Criticism.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Prior to the Anglo- American articulation of New Criticism, literary criticism sought to explore more of the conditions that surrounded the work than the work itself.  Literary Criticism focused its efforts on "the study of ethical values and philosophical issues through literature, the tracing of literary history, and . . . political criticism."  The emphasis on history and political criticism often dwarfed the work, itself.  The "words on the page" seemed to dwindle in the face of the conditions surrounding them.  It is in this regard where the New Criticism focused emphasized the "special character" of a particular work.

New Critics argued that a position of "art for artsake" needs to be adopted when engaging in literary criticism.  The New Critics advocated a "cutting itself off from all discourse except the poetic." The meaning in poetry, for example, was seen as something that could be better understood through analysis of the work, itself.  The New Critics argued that the words on the page were key to unlocking "the special character" of specific texts.  Close Reading of texts could help to better capture the meaning of a work than focusing on elements outside of that work.  New Critics believed that infusing "beauties" and "morally elevating qualities of the text" took away from the work's original meaning.  At the same time, they advocated that infusion of political constructs took away from the authorial construction of words and their artistic quality.  It is was in this that the New Critics demanded for a form of explication that made the work centrally important:  "The ideal poem in New Critical terms was self-contained, refined, precisely formed, detached, and difficult in the sense that it required, and rewarded, careful study."  There was a "correct" way of reading a text and this manner was critical to emphasizing the "special character" of work. While this can be applied to different genres, it became clear that the primary focus of New Criticism was poetry, which it saw as "the ultimate form of communication, complete in meaning and form in itself."  Since poetry was seen as totalizing, then there did not need to be focus on other aspects of a work in order to bring out its "special character."  The path to understanding this character was through embracing close reading of the text and appreciating the literary merits it demonstrates.

Close Reading of a text and appreciation of its nuanced and refined literary elements help to illuminate the "special character" of literature.  For the New Critic, the author constructs their work with this "special character" in mind. Literary criticism should be geared towards understanding this element in its own right, devoid of external realities that might detract from this distinctive condition of "special character."  In being able to illuminate a special character of literature, there was a clear and "objective nature" that can be relayed to others in appreciation. The New Critic believed that discovery of this "special character" does justice to the work. Focusing on the work itself in an appreciation of the art for its own sake can reveal such a reality.

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