Cleanth Brooks Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)...

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Robert Daniel (review date 1940)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Daniel (review date January/March 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Bedford Clark (review date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard S. Calhoun (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael L. Hall (review date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Coburn Freer (review date April-July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Anthony Tassin (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lance Lyday (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John N. Duvall (essay date Winter 1992/93)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Roger B. Rollin (review date Fall 1994–Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Charlotte H. Beck and John P. Rhoades (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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II. "Stanley Fish was My Reader" (interview)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Cleanth Brooks with William J. Spurlin (interview date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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