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.”