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."