(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The New Criticism

A dominant Anglo-American critical theory that originated in the 1920s and 1930s, stressing the importance of reading a text as an independent and complete work of art.

One of the most influential movements in modern critical scholarship, the New Criticism is a philosophy of literary interpretation that stresses the importance of studying literary texts as complete works of art in themselves. Although the term New Criticism was first coined in the nineteenth century, it was not until American critic and poet John Crow Ransom, founder of the Kenyon Review wrote a book titled The New Criticism (1941), that it became established in common academic and literary usage. In essence, the New Critics were reacting against established trends in American criticism, arguing for the primacy of the literary text instead of focusing on interpretations based on context. However, as René Wellek has noted in various essays detailing the principles of New Criticism, proponents of this theory had many differences among them, and beyond the importance the New Critics afforded the literary text itself, there were many differences in the way they approached critical study of literary texts. Wellek writes that among the growing number of New Critics in the 1930s, there were few that could be easily grouped together. For example, he puts Ransom, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren among the leaders of what he calls the “Southern Critics.” Mostly, they are grouped together due to their reaction against previously established schools of criticism, such as impressionist criticism, the humanist movement, the naturalist movement, and the Marxists, and the fact that many of them taught at Southern universities at the time they created the theory of New Criticism. In addition to rallying against traditional modes of literary interpretations, the most significant contribution made by the New Critics, according to Wellek, was the success with which they established criticism itself as a major academic discipline.

The most simplistic definitions of New Criticism identify it as a critical movement that propagates the idea of “art for art's sake.” Yet, according to Gerald Graff, Wellek, and others, the New Critics did concern themselves with the history and context of a work of literature. For them, to truly understand a work of literature, it was important to “embrace a total historical scheme,” using it as the standard against which one judges a literary text. But in contrast to traditional literary criticism, which emphasized the context and background of a text almost as much as the text itself, the New Critics argued that literary texts were complete in and of themselves. Additionally, theories of New Criticism elevate the role of criticism in academics—according to them, criticism is crucial to help maintain poetry and language, and in aiding their development, the New Critics propose, criticism is really an integral part of social development. Most studies of New Criticism identify it as a formalist mode of critical interpretation, focusing on a close reading of the technicalities, structure, themes, and message of the literary text. Many of the literary qualities held in high esteem by the New Critics were first espoused in the prose works of Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the New Critics considered his work on critical theory as a fundamental starting point in their principles of literary criticism. One of the most well-known texts detailing New Criticism theory was published by Cleanth Brooks in 1947, titled The Well-Wrought Urn. In this work, Brooks, in addition to articulating the theories of New Criticism, also interprets many seminal poetic texts using the principles of the New Critics.

Although New Critics applied their principles of literary study to many genres in literature, they held poetry in high regard, viewing it as the best exemplification of the literary values they espoused. Among the American New Critics, a nucleus of writers and critics, including Penn Warren, Ransom, and Tate set about defining their notion of a literary aesthetic, especially as it related to poetry, during the 1920s. They published their views in a bi-monthly literary review called The Fugitive, and worked to create what they believed was a literary renaissance in the South, a view of writing and studying poetry that they saw as the essence of modernism, and a sustained and valid response to the traditionally sentimental literary conventions of the South. In later years, the New Critics expanded their definition of the poetic aesthetic, theorizing that poetry, as a work of art, is the ultimate form of communication, complete in meaning and form in itself. One of the most influential writers of New Criticism poetic theory was I. A. Richards—his book Practical Criticism (1929) detailed experiments in critical interpretations of poetry in which students were asked to study texts of poems with no accompanying information on the author, or even the title of the works. An unexpected result of the wide variety of student responses was a realization regarding the importance of teaching the act of critical thinking and interpretation. For later New Critics, including William Empson, it was this, the study of language and form that became the subject of his book Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), a work in which he explored the development of systematic modes of literary interpretation.

New Criticism continues to be studied as part of twentieth-century formalist theories of literature. In his essay outlining the history and development of the New Criticism, John R. Willingham points out that although the proponents of New Criticism are considered creators of a modernist mode of literary interpretation, many of their theories derive from earlier poetic principles, such as those articulated by Coleridge. As a literary movement, New Criticism achieved its most popularity in the 1940s, and a large number of periodicals espousing these ideas began to be published at that time, including Southern Review, Kenyon Review, and others. Established journals also eagerly accepted many New Critics as contributors, making criticism itself a dominant field of study in the classroom. In a few decades, however, especially in the 1970s, the New Criticism began waning in popularity, and in fact, was rejected as being “intellectually naïve and methodologically fruitless” writes Willingham. The main charge against the New Critics was their insistence on disregarding historical and biographical information in the study of a literary text, and the stress they placed on the “correct” reading of a text. Their method of critical study was perceived as being too restrictive, and their demands on the reader seen as too authoritarian. More recent evaluations of the New Criticism have defended their original intent—to refocus attention on the literary work itself, rather than the writer or even the reader. In this, concludes Willingham, the sustaining principle advocated by the New Critics was their insistence that “literature requires and deserves responsible reading and readable response.”

Representative Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

R. P. Blackmur
The Lion and the Honeycomb (essays) 1955
Form and Value in Modern Poetry (essays) 1957
Lectures in Criticism (essays) 1961
Eleven Essays in the European Novel (essays) 1964
New Criticism in the United States (essays) 1977

Cleanth Brooks
An Approach to Literature [with R. W. B. Lewis and Robert Penn Warren] (essays) 1936
Understanding Poetry [with Robert Penn Warren] (essays) 1938
Modern Poetry and the Tradition (essays) 1939
Understanding Fiction [with Robert Penn Warren] (essays) 1943
The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (essays) 1947
Modern Rhetoric [with Robert Penn Warren] (essays) 1949

T. S. Eliot
“Tradition and the Individual Talent” (essay) 1919

William Empson
Seven Types of Ambiguity (essays) 1930

John Crowe Ransom
The World's Body (essays) 1938
The New Criticism (essays) 1941
Beating the Bushes: Selected Essays, 1941-1970 (essays) 1972

I. A. Richards
Principles of Literary Criticism (essays) 1924
Science and Poetry (essays) 1926
Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement (nonfiction) 1929

Allen Tate
Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (essays) 1936
Essay of Four Decades (essay) 1970

Robert Penn Warren
An Approach to Literature [with Cleanth Brooks and R. W. B. Lewis] (essays) 1936
Understanding Poetry [with Cleanth Brooks] (essays) 1938
Understanding Fiction [with Cleanth Brooks] (essays) 1943
Modern Rhetoric [with Cleanth Brooks] (essays) 1949

William K. Wimsatt
The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry [with Monroe Beardsley] (essays) 1954
Literary Criticism: A Short History [with Cleanth Brooks] (essays) 1957

Yvor Winters
Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry (essays) 1937
In Defense of Reason (essays) 1947

Gerald Graff (essay date summer-fall 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Graff, Gerald. “What Was New Criticism? Literary Interpretations and Scientific Objectivity.” Salmagundi 27, no. 27 (summer-fall 1974): 72-93.

[In the following essay, Graff traces various academic interpretations of New Criticism, proposing that in order to fully understand the theories espoused by New Critics, it is absolutely necessary to understand the complex cultural, educational, and historical considerations that led to the creation of this mode of literary interpretation.]

Not so very many years ago, the New Critics were academic radicals challenging the hegemony of the philological scholars, the literary and intellectual historians, and the...

(The entire section is 8175 words.)

René Wellek (essay date summer 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wellek, René. “The New Criticism: Pro and Contra.” Critical Inquiry 4, no. 4 (summer 1978): 611-24.

[In the following essay, Wellek defends the theories of New Criticism against its critics who dismiss it as an isolated method of interpretation that reduces the interpretation of a literary text to a science. Wellek counters these arguments, and writes that New Criticism is a method of literary study that will exist as a valid mode of study as long as scholars continue to think about the “nature and function of literature and poetry.”]

Today the New Criticism is considered not only superseded, obsolete, and dead but somehow mistaken and wrong. Four...

(The entire section is 6587 words.)

Patricia Gerhard (essay date winter 1963)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gerhard, Patricia. “The New Criticism as an Aesthetic Theory.” Western Humanities Review 17, no. 1 (winter 1963): 155-60.

[In the following essay, Gerhard defines the function and place of the aesthetic object, namely the poem, in the context of New Criticism and its theories, writing that according to the New Critics, the poem or work of art must be treated as an object complete in itself. Although knowledge about both the artist and the historical circumstances under which the piece was created may aid in the understanding of a poem, these criteria do not belong in the realm of true critical inquiry.]

Not only do the individual works of art of the...

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Jeffrey M. Perl (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Perl, Jeffrey M. “Passing the Time: Modernism versus New Criticism.” In The Future of Modernism, Hugh Witemeyer, pp. 33-48. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Perl studies the relationship between modernism and New Criticism, focusing on the use of these theories by academic institutions in both England and the United States.]

If modernism—“palaeomodernism” in Frank Kermode's vocabulary, “The Pound Era” in Hugh Kenner's, “The Kenner Canon” in Carolyn Heilbrun's—is to have a future, it will need to be freed from the embrace of loved ones. The New Critics portrayed themselves as friends of the aesthetics...

(The entire section is 5617 words.)

John Henry Raleigh (essay date winter 1959)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Raleigh, John Henry. “The New Criticism as an Historical Phenomenon.” Comparative Literature 11, no. 1 (winter 1959): 21-28.

[In the following essay, Raleigh comments how New Criticism as a historical phenomena was composed of contradictions, and a great part of its success arose precisely out of this many-sidedness, which lent to the whole movement complexity and power.]

The era of the New Criticism, everyone agrees, is over. Its beneficial effects, which are many, will we hope be permanent—its sins interred with its bones. One of the founders, T. S. Eliot, has already written an apologia and an historical analysis of the movement as a whole.1...

(The entire section is 3307 words.)

David Robey (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Robey, David. “Anglo-American New Criticism.” In Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction, Ann Jefferson and David Robey, pp. 65-83. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982.

[In the following essay, Robey offers an overview of New Criticism, including an explanation of the theories of I. A. Richards, as well as the development of New Criticism in England and the United States, focusing specifically on the study of poetry.]

The term ‘New Criticism’ is usually used for the literary theory and criticism that began with the work of I. A. Richards and T. S. Eliot before the war in England, and was continued by figures such as John Crowe...

(The entire section is 9264 words.)

John R. Willingham (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Willingham, John R. “The New Criticism: Then and Now.” In Contemporary Literary Theory, G. Douglas Atkins and Laura Morrow, pp. 24-41. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Willingham follows the development of New Criticism from its earliest proponents in the 1930s to the later 1900s, detailing the evolution of the theory from its early days to the present, and offering a summary of the place New Criticism holds in modern literary studies.]

The term formalism, broad if not ambiguous, refers to the many critical dogmas and related “practical criticism” that accompanied the sea change from Anglo-American...

(The entire section is 7585 words.)

David Pole (essay date July 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pole, David. “Cleanth Brooks and the New Criticism.” British Journal of Aesthetics 9, no. 3 (July 1969): 285-97.

[In the following essay, Pole surveys Brooks's work on critical interpretation of poetry.]

There are two reasons that might serve as justifying the close study of a particular thinker; either his weight and importance in himself or the width of his influence on others. And both, I suggest, are relevant to some special examination of the critical theorizing of Mr. Cleanth Brooks. Brooks has been ungenerously characterized—I recall seeing the phrase somewhere—as a man with a keen nose for a fashionable idea—which is, if you like, true enough....

(The entire section is 5785 words.)

Sergio Perosa (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Perosa, Sergio. “R.P. Blackmur: The Break-down of New Criticism.” In Cross-Cultural Studies: American, Canadian, and European Literatures, 1945-1985, edited by Mirko Jurak, pp. 15-18. Ljubljana, Slovenija: Filozofska Fakulteta, 1988.

[In the following essay, Perosa describes Blackmur's theories of poetry criticism, tracing its evolution from the early tenets of New Criticism to what Perosa terms as a later “break-down” of that mode of interpretation.]

If R. P. Blackmur's criticism of poetry can be considered “new-critical”, his criticism of fiction shows the break-down of that attitude.1 This shift in attitude is in many ways typical of...

(The entire section is 2141 words.)

Mark Jancovich (essay date fall 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jancovich, Mark. “Robert Penn Warren as New Critic: Against Propaganda and Irresponsibility.” Southern Literary Journal 24, no. 1 (fall 1991): 53-65.

[In the following essay, Jancovich concentrates on the work of Robert Penn Warren, writing that in contrast to many interpretations of New Critical theories as bourgeois. In fact, Warren and his interest in literature and theory was closely linked to a concern with social and economic development and the poet defined the writing of literature “as a form of social engagement.”]

In recent years there has been a concerted attack upon the American New Criticism as a movement,1 and this attack has...

(The entire section is 5711 words.)

Anthony Tassin (essay date fall 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tassin, Anthony. “Cleanth Brooks and the Endurance of the New Criticism.” The South Carolina Review 25, no. 1 (fall 1992): 33-43.

[In the following essay, Tassin evaluates Brooks's ideas regarding New Criticism, concluding that as a literary theory, it continues to endure.]

Today the New Criticism is considered not only superseded, obsolete, and dead but somehow mistaken and wrong. … Still I think that much of what the New Criticism taught is valid and will be valid as long as people think about the nature and function of literature and poetry.

—Rene Wellek, “The New Criticism: Pro and Contra”...

(The entire section is 4883 words.)

Kenneth Asher (essay date fall 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Asher, Kenneth. “T. S. Eliot and the New Criticism.” Essays in Literature 20, no. 2 (fall 1993): 292-309.

[In the following essay, Asher explores the relationship between the New Critics and T. S. Eliot.]

Nearly everyone who considers the history of modern literary criticism regards T. S. Eliot as one of the progenitors of the New Criticism. Typically, it will be pointed out that Eliot's theory of impersonality paved the way for the formalism of the New Critics and that his elevation of Donne and the metaphysical poets led to the New Critical valorization of wit and irony. Yet these lines of connection, accurate enough on the most general level, fail to...

(The entire section is 8448 words.)

József Szili (essay date 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Szili, József. “Poetry as Cognition and as Structure-The Views of Ransom, Rate and Brooks.” In Literature and Its Interpretation, S. Simon, pp. 113-62. The Hague, Hungary: Mouton Publishers, 1979.

[In the following essay, Szili focuses on the critical theories proposed by Ransom, Crowe, and Tate, particularly their concepts regarding poetry.]

Croce considered his own critical tenets as the new criticism, and Joel Elias Spingarn, a historian of literary criticism and student of the Renaissance, gave this title, The New Criticism, to a lecture inspired by Crocean ideas. He demanded a purely aesthetic approach to literary works and rejected...

(The entire section is 17595 words.)

Stephen Burt Jennifer Lewin (essay date 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burt, Stephen Jennifer Lewin. “Poetry and the New Criticism.” In A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, Neil Roberts, pp. 153-67. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

[In the following essay, Burt and Lewin provide brief literary histories of poets and critics such as Tate, Ransom, and Warren, as well as later New Critics such as Empson, Winters and Blackmur, evaluating their poetry in light of their theories of New Criticism.]

‘Never have poetry and criticism in English been so close together’, Allen Tate wrote in 1955, as they were at the height of the largely American movement now called the New Criticism (Tate, 1968, p. 214). In the late...

(The entire section is 6018 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Arc, Jonathan. “Repetition and Exclusion: Coleridge and New Criticism Reconsidered.” boundary 2 8, no. 1 (fall 1979): 261-73.

Discussion of Robert Penn Warren's reading of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner as an exercise that helped establish criticism as a major scholarly activity.

Core, George. “Southern Letters and the New Criticism.” Georgia Review 24, no. 4 (winter 1970): 413-31.

A defense of New Criticism, lauding the connection the New Critics helped establish between art and society.

Day, Douglas. “The Background of the New Criticism.” Journal of...

(The entire section is 451 words.)