New Criticism, the
New Criticism, the: Named after John Crowe Ransom’s book The New Criticism (1941), a type of formalist literary criticism characterized by close textual analysis that reached its height in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s. The New Critics treated literary works, which they viewed as carefully crafted, orderly objects containing observable formal patterns, as self-contained and self-referential and thus based their interpretations on elements within the text rather than on external factors such as the effects of a work or biographical and historical materials. Ransom, for instance, asserted in “Criticism, Inc.” (1937) that the “first law” of criticism was to “be objective, [to] cite the nature of the object rather than its effects upon the subject.” In analyzing texts, New Critics performed close readings, concentrating on the relationships among elements such as images, rhythm, and symbols and paying special attention to repetition. They also emphasized that the structure of a text should not be divorced from its meaning and praised the use of literary devices such as irony and paradox to harmonize dissimilar, even conflicting, elements.
The foundations of the New Criticism were laid in books and essays written during the 1920s and 1930s by theorists in England, notably I. A. Richards (Practical Criticism ), William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity ), and T. S. Eliot (“The Function of Criticism” ). The approach was significantly developed, however, by a group of American poets and critics — with whom the term New Critics is most often associated — including Ransom, R. P. Blackmur, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and William K. Wimsatt. Generally Southern, religious, and culturally conservative, these critics argued that literature has its own mode of language, in contradistinction to the logical and scientific, such that a literary work exists in its own world and has inherent worth. As Tate asserted in “Literature as Knowledge” (1941), poetry “is neither the world of verifiable science nor a projection of ourselves; yet it is complete.” The New Criticism quickly gained ascendancy in American academia, with textbooks such as Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry (1938) becoming standard in college and even high school courses well into the 1970s; in their introductory “Letter to the Teacher,” Brooks and Warren opened with the assertion that “if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry,” emphasizing the importance of treating the poem “as a literary construct,” “as an object in itself.”
Given its focus on the text, the New Criticism has often been seen as an attack on romanticism and impressionism, particularly impressionistic criticism, which centers on the critic’s subjective impressions of a literary work. The New Critics believed that it was erroneous to interpret texts according to the psychological responses of readers, a practice they termed the affective fallacy. They also rejected the practice of basing interpretation on an author’s intentions, which they called the intentional fallacy. By the 1970s, the New Criticism came under increasing attack with the advent of reader-response criticism and poststructuralist approaches such as deconstruction. Yet many of its emphases and procedures, particularly close reading and the accompanying explication of literary texts, have survived and thrived.