René Wellek Essay - Critical Essays

Wellek, René


René Wellek 1903–

Austrian-born American critic and essayist.

Wellek's reputation as an important critic is based largely on the theories propounded in his two most significant works: Theory of Literature, with Austin Warren (1949) and A History of Modern Criticism (1955, 1966). At the center of Wellek's theories lies a differentiation between an "intrinsic" and an "extrinsic" approach to critical analysis. Wellek maintains the necessity of viewing a work of art as an entity in and of itself rather than as the result of properties extrinsic to the work, such as the social or cultural environment in which it is created. Wellek examines qualities intrinsic to the work, relying on qualitative judgments which are based on what he calls "an internal history of the art and tradition of literature," which in turn assumes an intrinsic structure of value or "literariness" of the text. These critical viewpoints, expounded most notably in Theory of Literature, have evoked heated controversy among Wellek's contemporaries, many of whom believe that a work of literature cannot be studied without examining the sociopolitical conditions under which it was written.

A History of Modern Criticism, an ambitious, four-volume set, traces the history of literary theory from the mid-eighteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century. In this work Wellek displays his erudition by recounting and evaluating the views of numerous international critics.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed. and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8.)

W. K. Wimsatt, Jr.

["Theory of Literature"] discusses aims and methods in the expansive field of literary study. It observes and assesses both "extrinsic" and "intrinsic" avenues of approach to literature, the ways of getting at a poem, novel, or play for its own sake or for something else.

The peculiar success of the book lies in a harmony of powers often mutually restrictive: clear theoretical vision and diverse learning. There is a sense in which "Theory of Literature" may be said to recapitulate an era of revolutionary scholarship and criticism, but it is a sense which may easily be overstressed, for if properly used the book should be less a chronicle than a charter. The authors make the justifiable claim that it "lacks any close parallel." Certainly none in English comes to mind. (p. 180)

Obviously [Wellek and Warren's] book transcends the immediate needs of that perhaps mythical person, the "ordinary reader" of serious literature. The authors address themselves to theory of literature as a form of knowledge the worth of which is not to be reckoned by its simplicity or its easy applications. The no doubt difficult inquiries of literary philosophy, the whole undertaking asserts, are desirable and admirable in themselves. The ultimate bearing of these inquiries on the ordinary reader—or at least their ideal and possible bearing—will scarcely be questioned by anybody who believes that reading is an intellectual activity rather than an aid to daydreaming.

Wellek and Warren are able to see literature from any number of angles and yet realize that if the term "literature" has any meaning,...

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Eliseo Vivas

[Theory of Literature contains a discussion of the quarrel between scholarship and criticism which] leaves nothing to be desired; it makes clear the way in which each is relatively autonomous and yet dependent on the other. On the conflict between the "extrinsic" and the "intrinsic" interests in literature it throws a good deal of light. The upshot cannot be an irrefragable solution of these problems, for each of them would require a book to explore with adequacy; but it is a well balanced statement of the points at issue. If the book had no other virtues its authors could justly claim to have made an important contribution. But it does more: the book is equipped with a very extensive bibliography which represents the catholic erudition of the writers. And above all, the learning displayed is controlled by a discriminating taste.

Given these virtues, why does the book fail to sustain upon study the excellent impression that it makes on first reading? The reason is, I suggest, that the authors do not really have a fully worked out and consistent aesthetic of their own. Just as the critic needs a consistent "theory of literature" if his work is to stand up under scrutiny, so do the proponents of a "theory of literature" need a controlling aesthetic. It does not seem unfair to ask that theorists be theoretical. I do not mean that they ought to have made their aesthetic explicit any more than the critic or scholar needs to make his theory of literature explicit every time that he practices his art. It could have functioned as a set of deeply implicit, perhaps even instinctive presuppositions, controlling their speculation unconsciously. All I mean is that somehow they ought to have avoided mutually incompatible assumptions and ought to have based their speculations on defensible and coherent foundations. Unfortunately limitations of space do not allow me to do more than present a rough sketch of a few of the important points at which the absence of a coherent aesthetic betrays them.

The authors' conceptions of the nature and function of literature seem to me intrinsically bewildering although I am in sympathy with the purpose that controls them and with the conclusions that they reach. The nature of literature—or "poetry" in its widest sense—is defined in terms of the poetic use of language, as distinguished from the scientific and the every-day use. And the function or use of poetry is defined in terms of its nature. This would cause no genuine difficulty if the authors had shown that poetic language involves the employment of certain devices or elements which are not found either in ordinary or in scientific language. In Chapter II, entitled "The Nature of Literature," expression, exploitation of medium, lack of practical purpose and fictionality are said to mark the distinction between poetry and non-poetry. Part IV, entitled "The Intrinsic Study of Literature" studies euphony, rhythm and meter in one chapter, image, metaphor, symbol and myth in another, and the genres of literature in a third. Now I do not doubt that these analyses constitute valuable efforts to approach the nature of poetry. But it is not sufficient to point out that we find these elements or devices in poetry. Since they are to some extent also found in practical language, in rhetoric and in the inexact sciences, it is necessary to show also that they function in poetry in a unique way, or the distinction breaks down…. What is needed in addition to what we are given is a study of the way in which the elements discriminated interpenetrate to endow the object with the organic integration and the artistic intensity that, according to the authors, give the poem its intrinsic poetic value.

Lack of fundamental coherence also vitiates the important distinction which the authors correctly...

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Mark Schorer

In these first two volumes of his projected four-volume history ["A History of Modern Criticism: 1750–1950"], René Wellek, Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale, has undertaken an enormous project for which every literary student has long felt the need but which no other has had the courage to attempt.

The only work of comparable range on this subject is George Saintsbury's three-volume "History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe," and the limitations of that book have, after fifty years, rendered it nearly useless. It is a work that criticism, scholarship and literary education could hardly have done without, but it is no longer so much a history of criticism as it is a part of the history of criticism.

In the fifty years since Saintsbury's work an enormous amount of European and American scholarship has gone into the exploration of the details of this whole large subject. What has been needed is a man with the linguistic skill, intellectual scope, scholarly discipline and independence of mind necessary to bring all this material together, to correct it where he should and use it when he could, and then to frame it all within his method, his interpretation and the "international perspective." Even in an age of great scholars such a man is not commonly come by….

The intellectual challenge is not only to a thorough knowledge of world literature but to that of history, esthetics and...

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David Daiches

The first two volumes of René Wellek's projected four-volume "History of Modern Criticism" carries the story from the later eighteenth century through the Romantic Age. By "modern" Mr. Wellek means criticism which is close enough to us still to have some relevance to our present way (or ways) of looking at literature. (p. 24)

I can think of no one better qualified than Mr. Wellek for the task of writing the history of modern European criticism. In the first place, he knows the languages and the literatures at first hand, and he is at home in the whole European literary scene in a way that few contemporary English or American scholars can claim to be. Whether he quotes from Wackenroder,...

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Sven Eric Molin

Professor René Wellek's A History of Modern Criticism: 1750–1950 … stands fair to become an important history of criticism, replacing its now half-century old predecessor by George Saintsbury which has long been felt to be inadequate on a number of grounds, including its excessive impressionism and its undue neglect of Continental critics. Both of these faults Professor Wellek abundantly corrects by his own practice, which is true to its announced intention of being written from a consistent point of view and which, if it errs, does so, perhaps, in the opposite direction by giving almost total credit for originality to the Continental—particularly German—critics. In addition to Professor Wellek's great...

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Laurence Lerner

Professor Wellek is perhaps the most learned man now writing on literature—he has read, it seems, all European literature (in the original languages) and all the criticism on it—and it is humiliating to read his [Concepts of Criticism]. You may have thought, for instance, that you knew what 'baroque' meant—but you didn't. After you've read his essay 'The Concept of Baroque in Literary Scholarship' you will know about the history of the term (it appears there are two separate etymologies: baroco, a type of syllogism in scholastic logic, as well as the better known suggestion of barroco, an odd-shaped pearl); the sense in which every important critic has used it; and the arguments for and...

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Monroe K. Spears

[For] more than a quarter-century Mr. Wellek has been both teacher and intellectual physician for critics, theorists, and historians of literature. Most Americans who aspire to criticism have learned from him, and many of us feel that literary studies would be in a healthier condition if we had learned more. His role has been unique and indispensable. As critic of critics, he has striven not to propagate any dogma in terms of which other dogmas are to be judged, but rather to remind those who practice criticism that their vision of the truth is partial, their assumptions and methods not forever valid but limited and imperfect. Against all varieties of parochialism, patriotism, and dogmatic complacency, he has...

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Wolfgang Bernard Fleischmann

[Confrontations: Studies in the Intellectual and Literary Relations between Germany, England, and the United States during the Nineteenth Century, a] miscellany from the study of a very great scholar, has all the virtues which collections of a similar nature tend often to lack: a lucid and readable style artfully concealing mountainous learning, consistent evidence of original thought, and, in spite of being a collection of essays and reviews written over a thirty-five year period, real organic unity.

Reading Confrontations means encountering René Wellek as a literary historian at important focal points mid-way between his work in the history of ideas, as exemplified by Immanuel...

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Robie Macauley

Is ["A History of Modern Criticism"] possible? Can even such a brave and erudite man as René Wellek put the vast and heterogeneous writings of modern literary criticism from 1750 to 1950 in an orderly historical form? Certain critics, for instance, belong more to the history of esthetics than anything else; others border on sociology, psychology, politics, or general cultural observation; and—most baffling of all—literary theory seems to coincide seldom with the kind of literature actually being written in its own time.

It is even difficult to find very many critics who will agree on what criticism is or what purpose it is supposed to serve….

Whatever the critics have lacked...

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Ronald Hafter

René Wellek's massive study [A History of Modern Criticism] has already gained wide acceptance as the best survey of its kind to be produced in our century; despite its narrow scope it is far superior to George Saintsbury's erudite but rambling History of Criticism, the only work by a single author with which it might be legitimately compared, in its incisive analysis of the grounds on which literary judgments have been made and in its dispassionate appraisals of individual critics and movements. But if it is an essential text for the student of literature it is no less so for one interested in the history of ideas, for Wellek discusses criticism within the wider context of the movement of ideas and...

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Roger Sale

In the last fifteen years, René Wellek has become established as the premier historian of modern literary criticism. Before this, though he always spoke mildly and judiciously, Wellek seemed to have an eager eye out for enemies of his favorite ideas: that criticism needs a coherent philosophical base from which to work, that impressionistic criticism and historical relativism are dangerous, and that extrinsic material is usually irrelevant in the understanding of a given work. But since he began work on his massive A History of Modern Criticism, the third and fourth volumes of which are now at hand, Wellek has slowly become convinced that he is really unopposed, and so he has ascended to a height from which he...

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Denis Donoghue

The new volumes [of A History of Modern Criticism 1750–1950, Vol. III: The Age of Transition and Vol. IV: The Later Nineteenth Century] are even wider in scope than the old, annexing America and Russia as countries of the critical mind. There is the same evidence of erudition, intelligence, concern. There is also evidence of great structural power. The new volumes are organised according to nationality; criticism in France, Italy, England, America, Germany, Russia, and Denmark (Georg Brandes the Great Dane). (p. 80)

Mr. Wellek is the most patient of scholars, but he is often irritated, it seems, by the fumbling critics, their gaucherie, playing games without learning the rules....

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J. D. O'Hara

"There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless." The stoic, melancholy tone is that of Jorge Luis Borges, of course….

We live in a terminal ward; the air our minds breathe is sighed out by dying ideas. Ecology demands that they be sanitarily interred; piety prays that we revere them. In the history of ideas, especially literary ideas, no embalmer is more industrious than René Wellek. Discriminations is the latest in his collection of amber-tinted antiques: It includes essays on the terms comparative literature, classicism, and symbolism, and surveys of Kant's aesthetics, of English literary historiography, of genre theory, and of Dostoevsky...

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Emerson R. Marks

Wellek's book [Discriminations] is admirably named. Here again, as so often before, his astonishing erudition is put to the service of discrimination, of elucidating terms and ideas and making needed distinctions, not as a lexicographical exercise but to the end of sounder literary history and theory than we have generally had. Given such an aim, much of Wellek's reasoning is necessarily in refutation of other theorists, whose views he is at pains to expose as partial or extreme, views usually involving one or another misconception of the literary work. Among such are the attempts of some comparatists to divorce history and criticism, or to set barriers between the study of past and contemporary literature. (p....

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Martin Bucco

[While] René Wellek called for intense critical exploration of the text, he never abandoned the historical method embodied in his Kant in England and The Rise of English Literary History. His synthesis of theory, criticism, and history reflects a passionate dedication to literary studies as a humane discipline, its standards derived not from "personal" taste or "impersonal science," but from the norms of history. For Wellek, the literary work is no simple verbal construct and no mere reflection of society: it is a phenomenological aesthetic object. Thus criticism means concern for values and qualities. Understanding—adequate analysis, interpretation, and evaluation—requires theory. Adequate theory...

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A. R. Louch

Literature, you might think, is to be enjoyed, and criticism concerned with the quality and criteria of that enjoyment. Wellek's critics will have none of that. Their perspective is totally different. For them books, pictures, compositions, like the phenomena of biological speciation or the refraction of light, are objects to subsume under theory. It is not surprising that a critic with such a motive will sooner or later attack literature. After all, the exciting business is theorizing, mere imaginative writing is only the matter on which critics build. Does one remember a particular light beam, or does one celebrate Planck, Einstein, Rutherford? So, who should remember poets and novelists? But alas, critics discover...

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Kathleen Burke

Wellek is the kind of critic and theorist to whom one listens closely, even when not always agreeing; usually there is little to disagree about, because Wellek is the paramount example of a critic who's intent upon explaining simply and disinterestedly others' criticism. He takes his own positions, but only after a fair account of the subject. My particular fondness for Wellek lies in his introducing me to the Russian Formalists in his Concepts of Criticism. Not only did he discuss the Formalists, and not only did he record their views accurately, but he also agreed with much of what they said. Only a handful of critics can be found about whom the same might be said. Wellek saw the Formalists' thought as still...

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