New Criticism: A Primer
New Criticism is a type of formalist literary criticism that reached its height during the 1940-50s, receiving its name from John Crowe Ransom’s 1941 book The New Criticism. New Critics treat a work of literature as if it were a self-contained, self-referential object and do not believe in interpreting texts based on the author’s stated or imagined intentions, reader responses/feelings or historical/biographical context. Widely influential, New Criticism’s reading of texts became standard in American college and even high school curricula through the 1960s and well into the 1970s..
As far as I know, this cultural elitist movement emphasized mainly the study of ‘canonical’ works and largely ignored non Western literature or minority literature. Here is a quick Q & A on New Criticism.
So what do practitioners of New Criticism examine when looking at a text?
For New Critics, the structure of the text cannot be separated from its meaning, and so special attention is paid to repetition, particularly of images or symbols, but also of sound effects and rhythms in poetry. New Critics especially appreciate the use of literary devices, such as irony, to achieve a balance or reconciliation between dissimilar, even conflicting, elements in a text.
What are some of the key principles or concepts of New Criticism?
Reading or interpretation is concentrated on the technical/stylistic use of style and the internal structure of relationships within the text.
Intentional Fallacy – equating the meaning of a poem with the author's intentions.
Affective Fallacy – confusing the meaning of a text with how it makes the reader feel. A reader's emotional response to a text generally does not produce a reliable interpretation.
Heresy of Paraphrase – assuming that an interpretation of a literary work could consist of a detailed summary or paraphrase.
What led to the birth of New Criticism?
Some have said that it was developed partly as a defense against new forms of mass literature and literacy, an increasingly consumerist society and the mass media. In other words, as a response to common literature gaining ground in the sacred space of the literary appreciation.
Generally southern, religious, and culturally conservative, some have claimed that the New Critics advocated the inherent value of literary works (particularly of literary works regarded as beautiful art objects) because they were sick of the growing ugliness of modern life and contemporary events.
Who were the main practitioners of New Criticism?
I. A. Richards (Practical Criticism ), William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity ), and T. S. Eliot ("The Function of Criticism" ) and P. Blackmur, Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and William K. Wimsatt.
What are some of the criticisms concerning New Criticism?
It makes the Western tradition seem more unified than it is by ignoring diversity and contradictory forces within it. Edward Said in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, had a particularly fiery critique of New Criticism's overriding emphasis on the tradition of a Western Canon, which excludes the literature of ethnic minorities as well as important literary exchanges between East and West.
Other common criticisms:
- New Criticism emphasis on technique works best on the lyric poem, but has problems with larger, more historically recent forms like the novel.
- Artistic standards of value are variable and posterity is fickle.
- Values New Critics celebrated reflected their own, historically and experientially specific concerns, values and ambitions.
While there has been a general consensus that the method and ideology of New Criticism have outlived their usefulness, there is small circle of academics who point to an mis-reading of New Criticism theories. More posts from this perspective in the future. I'm also planning to do a direct reading of some original New Criticism texts so there'll be more thoughts on that too.
- "New Criticism Explained" by Dr. Warren Hedges (Southern Oregon University)
- "Definition of the New Criticism" – virtuaLit (Beford-St. Martin's Resource)