I. A. Richards

Rigorous theoreticians of literature are exceedingly rare. The virtual explosion in literary theory since the 1960’s has tended to obscure the fact that comparatively few fundamental advances have been achieved in literary science since the 1920’s and 1930’s. This is especially true in the Anglophone world. With the possible exception of the subdiscipline of narratology, only Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957) comes immediately to mind as a major, original work of theoretical synthesis. Not for nothing did the late Paul de Man consistently refuse the honorific label of theoretician. Theory imposes a discipline and a constraint upon thinking that is most often at odds with the norms of literary critical writing.

John Paul Russo is therefore prudent to emphasize repeatedly I. A. Richards’ vocation as a critic of literature “the most representative critic in the English-speaking world in this century,” Russo avers in the preface. Despite Richards’ longstanding interest in the natural sciences and his commitment to method in interpreting texts, and notwithstanding the subsequent reputation of Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), Richards never produced a theory of literature in the strong sense, in the sense, say, that the Russian Formalists and Prague Structuralists did. Indeed, if Richards was a theorist at all, it was not literature as such that was the object of his theorizing, but the broader field of human communication, of which literature is but one, although an important, instance. The famous shift in his career from teaching and writing about poetry and criticism to an almost exclusive focus on promulgating C. K. Ogden’s Basic English can thus be seen, as Russo plausibly argues, as a continuation of the interests that dominated Richards’ mind from his final years as a Cambridge undergraduate.

Russo is so intent on making this point that he introduces references to Richards’ critical doctrines in the first chapter, which treats Richards’ boyhood in Wales. It is as if the chief exponent of techniques of close reading and the investigator of the semantics of literature were already germinating in the frail, sickly Ivor Armstrong who was nearly felled by tuberculosis. Among the several faults exhibited by Russo’s biography, perhaps none is more troublesome than this tendency to cut back and forth from one period of Richards’ writing to another, claiming that the work was all of a piece, with later texts such as Beyond (1974) prefigured in The Meaning of Meaning (1924). Not that there are no connections between the different periods in Richards’ work and career, but the seamless web Russo attempts to weave often obscures the real tensions—one might even say contradictions—between the different aspects of Richards’ thought. These cannot be so easily reconciled as Russo believes.

Richards’ project can be characterized as an attempt to salvage the value of art for a modern world where technological progress would seem on the verge of rendering aesthetic production supernumerary. As Russo puts it, “More than any other twentieth-century critic in the English-speaking world, he is associated with an attempt to bridge the chasm between science and art, and moreover, to do so by establishing a ’science’ of criticism.” Putting aside the dubious claim for Richards’ preeminence (is he really more central in this respect than Frye?), the passage gets to the core of the Ricardian problematic: distinguishing between science and art while subjecting the latter to procedures of investigation that will yield objective, empirically verifiable knowledge of it. The culmination of this project was Practical Criticism, which established what would become the norm in both scholarship and pedagogy for the next thirty years and more: the technique of close reading.

Richards believed that the careful, attentive study of literature was not an end in itself but was, rather, a means for improving the general condition of society. This Arnoldian faith in the mission of culture was to become equally important

perhaps even more so—to the subsequent history of literary studies in Britain and the United States, for it was until quite recently that about which virtually everyone engaged in the academic pursuit of literary scholarship could agree. Voices as otherwise diverse as R. S. Crane, F. R. Leavis, W. K. Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, R. P. Blackmur, and Lionel Trilling could commonly affirm the value of a literary education to the functioning of a free and democratic society. In their more messianic moments—some, like Leavis, were more prone to indulge this inclination than others; Wimsatt, by contrast, was customarily rather reserved on this score, his engaging irony tending to mute his quite sincere...

(The entire section is 1989 words.)


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Library Journal. CXIV, February 1, 1989, p.65.

London Review of Books. XI, December 21, 1989, p.10.

The New Republic. CC, June 19, 1989, p.45.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, April 27, 1989, p.44.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXIV, November 25, 1988, p.60.

The Village Voice. June 13, 1989, p.23.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, March 19, 1989, p.4.

Washington Times. March 13, 1989, p. E7.