René Wellek Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)