Mark Royden Winchell’s Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism is both a biography and a work of intellectual history dealing with Cleanth Brooks’s central role in the rise—and fall—of the New Criticism. There are few biographies about literary critics or teachers, so this book, along with its mixture of literary history, is unusual. The life of Cleanth Brooks, Jr., however, was not marked by very much drama or even crisis; it was a serene and largely untroubled life. Biographers seldom choose such a subject.
The book begins with biography as it traces the background and parentage of Brooks. Cleanth Brooks, Sr., was a Methodist minister based in Memphis around the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and, although he worked hard, he was made redundant by a somewhat heartless church. Both Christian ideas and the South figure prominently in the thought of his son, Cleanth Brooks, Jr.
Cleanth Brooks, Jr., was born on October 16, 1906, in the town of Murray, Kentucky. Because his father often changed his residence as he moved from one Methodist church to another, young Cleanth lived in various towns in Kentucky and Tennessee in his early years. He attended the McTyerie school in Henry County, Tennessee, and he later became a student at the most prestigious college in the South, Vanderbilt University, in 1924. At Vanderbilt, Brooks received a traditional education in English and American literature; the emphasis was on philology and history. There was little discussion of a literary criticism or any analysis of poems in detail. Brooks’s later career was, of course, based on such an analysis. Brooks took a class from John Crowe Ransom, the poet and critic then teaching at Vanderbilt, although he was not influenced by Ransom’s critical views until later. Another critic and poet at Vanderbilt during these years was Brooks’s fellow student, Robert Penn Warren. The careers and critical views of the two were to be linked in future years. Warren’s life and career, however, was very different from Brooks. He was primarily a poet and only incidentally a critic, and there was enough drama and trouble in his life to fill a few biographies.
While Brooks’s critical view were still unshaped, he did imbibe some of the Agrarian and Fugitive ideas that were prominent during his time at Vanderbilt. The Agrarian movement began in reaction to the urban and Northern dominance of American culture. In I’ll Take My Stand (1924), a number of Southern intellectuals, including Warren, Ransom, Stark Young, and Allen Tate, declared their allegiance to the traditional and rural South against the urban and industrialized North. The “Fugitives” also dissented from the Northern and Eastern establishment. Their journal, The Fugitive: A Journal of Poetry, was the organ of traditional Southern and rural views. Winchell places a great deal of emphasis upon this movement and the influence of the South upon Brooks. At times, this seems to be excessive since Brooks spent at least half of his life out of the South and he never took part in any specifically Southern movement. He did edit the Southern Review at Louisiana State University, but the emphasis of that journal is more New Criticism than Agrarian. So Winchell seems to overrate the influence of the South on Brooks’s criticism. One reason is that the book is part of the New Minds of the South series.
Brooks then went to Tulane University, where he was a graduate student in English and received a master of arts degree; the move was also intended to put him in a better position for a Rhodes scholarship. He did receive a Rhodes award in 1929. When he was at Oxford, Brooks attended lectures by one of the earliest New Critics, I. A. Richards. Brooks was not very interested in Richards’ seminal book Principles of Literary Criticism since it stressed the psychological effects of literature upon a read, and it was theoretical. Yet the more pedagogical text of Richards, Practical Criticism, which taught readers to avoid stock responses, was to become a key text for him. It stressed the close reading of literary works, especially poetry.
After completing his studies at Oxford, Brooks took a teaching position at Louisiana State University in 1934 and was then able to marry his lifetime love, Tinkum. During their marriage, Brooks’s parents continued to live with them, and the older man was very dependent on his more successful son. Brooks was joined at Louisiana State by his fellow student, Robert Penn Warren, a few years later. Louisiana State University was a backwater school at the time, although Huey Long, the notorious governor of Louisiana, did put a considerable amount of funding into the school. Also attending the university as a graduate student in English was the important American poet, Robert Lowell, and his wife, the...
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