Cleanth October Brooks Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cleanth Brooks October 16, 1906–May 10, 1994

American critic and nonfiction writer.

For further information on Brooks's life and works, see CLC, Volume 24.

One of the most influential of the World War II era "New Critics," Brooks championed a critical method characterized by a close reading of texts in which an individual work is evaluated solely on the basis of its internal components. Brooks was initially recognized as a critic of poetry, and his first major book, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), presents his critical method through detailed analyses of several poems. In The Well Wrought Urn, originally published in 1947, he solidified his premises by arguing that poetry can be judged by the same criteria during any era. As John Paul Pritchard has noted, according to Brooks's theory, "[the] poet does not analyze actual experience like the historian; he synthesizes out of experience a simulacrum of reality that is in fact a new experience." This was a radical departure from the tenets of many literary historians and scholars who believed that the correct interpretation of a poem could only be obtained through an understanding of the social and political contexts of a poet's life. Likewise, biographers who considered the poet's intentions the most important factors in the analysis of poetry were equally reluctant to accept Brooks's ideas. In addition to studies on poetry, Brooks is highly regarded for his works on language and his books on William Faulkner. In such volumes as The Relation of the Alabama-Georgia Dialect to the Provincial Dialects of Great Britain (1935) and The Language of the American South (1985), he stressed that language and literature are inseparable fields of study and not reducible to linguistics, semiotics, and literature. In the area of Faulkner studies, Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963) is considered one of the most influential studies of the American novelist's settings and ideologies. However, numerous critics now question the merit of Brooks's work on Faulkner, arguing that Brooks's interest in validating conservative values of patriarchal and agrarian society unduly influenced his critical judgment. Highly controversial upon publication, Brooks's works continue to generate debate, with proponents lauding his penetrating exposition of literature and opponents charging that his emphasis on the text is too limiting.