Cultural Criticism

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The humanist and moralist tradition

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Arnold’s ideas had great influence in shaping both literary study and broader discussions of culture both in Great Britain and in the United States. The first notable American disciples were a group of writers known as the New Humanists. Chief among the group are Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and Stuart Sherman.

Dedicated to the promotion of so-called high culture, these writers evaluated poetry using Arnoldian standards. In a number of writings Babbitt attacks the Romantics for their emotional excess and for promoting what he describes as the celebration of the “native” over the more refined civilization that in his view marks humankind’s greatest achievements. More, in his Shelburne Essays (1904-1921; 11 vols.), insists that great poetry can be appreciated only when readers have a highly developed historic sense. More also devoted considerable energy to rehabilitating the neoclassic poet Alexander Pope, whose satires depend on readers’ knowledge of the social and political milieu to be fully effective. For More, Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735) is substantially more valuable than any work by the Romantics because it treats great human themes with exceptional insight and skill. Although not a New Humanist, the critic Edmund Wilson also contributed to cultural criticism in essays and collections that stress the social dimensions of literature, especially modern literature.

The successors of the New Humanists were the New York Intellectuals, a group of more than two dozen philosophers, sociologists, historians, and literary critics, including the influential writer-critic Lionel Trilling. Throughout his career Trilling expressed interest in the way literature reflects social values and simultaneously shapes them. Trilling tends to value literature that reflects qualities such as sincerity and authenticity, although he frequently found merit in the more experimental work produced by his contemporaries.

One of the most influential and controversial cultural critics of the first decades of the twentieth century was Cambridge scholar F. R. Leavis. As a critic of culture, Leavis railed against modernist trends toward mass production and democratization that emphasized a “watering down” of intellectual accomplishments. Committed to developing an antidote to this trend, Leavis offers in several works a program for the establishment of a university curriculum that would prepare a small group of intellectuals to resist and reverse trends toward what he saw as insidious proletarian standards of intellectual attainment and moral conduct. Leavis sees the study of literature as central to that education, because literature provides a vehicle for understanding and appreciating the moral dimension of humankind. Literature can also serve as a check against any ideology—especially Marxism—that promotes notions of equality based on economic measures at the expense of intellectual advancement. Hence, for Leavis the study of poetry becomes part of a moral imperative to preserve civilization. The best poems are those with discernible social context; these poems can help people understand what is valuable to them personally and to society as a whole.

In New Bearings in English Poetry: A Study of the Contemporary Situation (1932), Leavis takes great pains to show the reciprocal effects of poets and the intellectual milieu in which they work. His review of William Butler Yeats’s career and his commentary on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) reveal his bias for poetry that reflects the age in which it is written, even when the poet was highly critical of his times, as was Eliot.

Beginning in the 1920’s, a major challenge to the hegemony of cultural criticism was mounted both in Europe and in the United States. Led by the Russian formalists, European critics developed the practice of structural criticism, arguing that the primary role of the critic is to understand...

(This entire section contains 792 words.)

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the ways in which literature is crafted and the ways its construction (both form and rhetoric) works to influence readers.

In the United States, the principal challenge to cultural criticism came from the New Critics, a group that advocated an apolitical, atemporal reading of literature, especially poetry, and which stressed its formal and aesthetic qualities. New Critics insisted that truly great poetry was timeless and self-referential, and that it did not necessarily depend on the milieu in which it was composed for its meaning. New Criticism became the dominant mode of critical inquiry during the 1940’s in the United States and England and maintained its place of prominence for several decades. It was celebrated as an effective counter to the cultural critics’ approach to literature, which the New Critics believed was not sufficiently detached from social, political, or ideological matters.

In the 1990’s, however, a number of studies, such as Mark Jancovich’s The Cultural Politics of the New Criticism (1993), revealed the biases of the New Critics, whose promotion of political and moral detachment in the study of literature reflects attitudes consistent with American political ideology at the time.


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Berger, Arthur Asa. Cultural Criticism: A Primer of Key Concepts. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1995. Provides useful discussions of the way various literary, psychological, sociological, and political theories may be employed by those who practice cultural criticism. Offers succinct definitions of many terms used by cultural critics.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America. New York: Routledge, 1990. Studies the growth of cultural studies as an academic practice, describing its links with leftist ideologies, feminism, and other poststructuralist methodologies. Explains the significance of cultural studies to the practice of literary criticism.

Eagleton, Terry. The Idea of Culture. 2000. Reprint. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005. Examines the phenomenon of postmodern cultural criticism, providing a brief history of the development of cultural studies and exploring the competing ideologies that have appropriated the term “culture” to privilege their value systems.

Haslett, Moyra. Marxist Literary and Cultural Theories. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Discusses the ways a variety of Marxist analyses of literature and culture work to offer a critique of individual works, including poems, and of the ideology they represent or refute. Includes an extended cultural critique of an eighteenth century poem as an example of these theories in practice.

Johnson, Lesley. The Cultural Critics: From Matthew Arnold to Raymond Williams. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. Explains the rise of modern cultural criticism and its links with literary studies. Provides summaries of the ideas of the most important British cultural theorists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Kaplan, Harold. Poetry, Politics, and Culture: Argument in the Work of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2006. Excellent example of contemporary cultural criticism. Examines methods used by four important American poets to shape the way poetry should be written so it could serve as a catalyst for defining, preserving, or reshaping social and moral value systems.

Leitch, Vincent B. Cultural Criticism, Literary Theory, Poststructuralism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Constructs a system for cultural criticism by employing techniques from poststructuralism and other new theories. Explains why cultural criticism is necessary because poetry is always engaged with cultural, political, moral, and sociological issues.

Lenhart, Gary. The Stamp of Class: Reflections on Poetry and Social Class. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006. A series of interconnected essays provide a cultural critique of the practice of poetry and the influence of class structure on the production of verse.

Rubin, Joan Shelby. Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007. Work by a cultural historian exploring the influence of poetry on the lives of Americans. Pays special attention to the social uses for which poetry has been employed, particularly poems included in school textbooks and anthologies for classroom use.

Said, Edward W. The World, the Text, and the Critic. 1983. Reprint. London: Vintage, 1991. Collection of essays by one of the first practitioners of postmodern cultural criticism and an acknowledged leading scholar of postcolonial studies. Individual essays demonstrate how cultural criticism is practiced in examining literary works.


Critical Essays