New Criticism  

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New Criticism was the dominant trend in Anglo-American literary criticism of the mid twentieth century, from the 1920s to the early 1960s. Its adherents were emphatic in their advocacy of close reading and attention to texts themselves, and their rejection of criticism based on extra-textual sources, especially biography. At their best, New Critical readings were brilliant, articulately argued, and broad in scope, but sometimes they were idiosyncratic and moralistic.


Key concepts

New Criticism is a type of formalist literary criticism that developed in the 1920s-30s and peaked in the 1940s-50s. The movement is named after John Crowe Ransom's 1941 book The New Criticism. New Critics treat a work of literature as if it were self contained. They do not consider the reader's response, author's intention, or historical and cultural contexts. New Critics perform a close reading of the text, and believe the structure and meaning of the text should not be examined separately. New Critics especially appreciate the use of literary devices in a text. The New Criticism has sometimes been called an objective approach to literature, similar to the approach students in public schools are taught to take. The notion of ambiguity is an important concept within New Criticism; several prominent New Critics have been enamored above all else with the way that a text can display multiple simultaneous meanings. In the 1930s, I. A. Richards borrowed Sigmund Freud's term "overdetermination" (which Louis Althusser would later revive in Marxist political theory) to refer to the multiple meanings which he believed were always simultaneously present in language. To Richards, claiming that a work has "One And Only One True Meaning" is an act of superstition (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 39).

In 1954, William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published an essay entitled "The intentional fallacy", in which they argued strongly against any discussion of an author's intention, or "intended meaning." For Wimsatt and Beardsley, the words on the page were all that mattered; importation of meanings from outside the text was quite irrelevant, and potentially distracting. This became a central tenet of the second generation of New Criticism.

On the other side of the page, so to speak, Wimsatt proposed an "affective fallacy", discounting the reader's peculiar reaction (or violence of reaction) as a valid measure of a text ("what it is" vs. "what it does"). This has wide-ranging implications, going back to the catharsis and cathexis of the Ancient Greeks, but also serves to exclude trivial but deeply affective advertisements and propaganda from the artistic canon.

Taken together, these fallacies might compel one to refer to a text and its functioning as an autonomous entity, intimate with but independent of both author and reader. This reflects the earlier attitude of Russian formalism and its attempt to describe poetry in mechanistic and then organic terms. (Both schools of thought might be said to anticipate the 21st century interest in electronic artificial intelligence, and perhaps lead researchers in that field to underestimate the difficulty of that undertaking.)

The basic orientation and modes of analysis in the New Criticism were adapted to the contextual criticism of Eliseo Visas and Marry Kriger.

Studying a passage of prose or poetry in New Critical style requires careful, exacting scrutiny of the passage itself. Formal elements such as rhyme, meter, setting, characterization, and plot were used to identify the theme of the text. In addition to the theme, the New Critics also looked for paradox, ambiguity, irony, and tension to help establish the single best interpretation of the text. Such an approach may be criticized as constituting a conservative attempt to isolate the text as a solid, immutable entity, shielded from any external influences such as those of race, class, and gender. On the other hand, the New Critical emphasis on irony and the search for contradiction and tension in language so central to New Criticism may suggest the politics of suspicion and mistrust of authority, one that persisted throughout the cold war years within New Criticism's popularity. The Southern Agrarians, for instance, enfolded New Criticism's emphasis on irony into their anti-authoritarianism and criticism of the emerging culture of spending, consumption, and progress but — in the view of such writers as Robert Penn Warren — authoritarian populism early in the 20th century. Perhaps because of its usefulness as an unassuming but concise tool of political critique, New Criticism persisted through the Cold War years and immanent reading or close reading is now a fundamental tool of literary criticism, even underpinning poststructuralism with its associated radical criticisms of political culture. New Critical reading places great emphasis on the particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read. They look at, for example, imagery, metaphor, rhythm, meter, etc.

Besides the names mentioned above, other prominent New Critical figures include the following:

Not all the thoughts and works stemming from these individuals fall within the New Critical camp. For example, Eliot’s relationship with New Criticism was rather complicated. In 1956, he claimed that he failed to see any school of criticism which can be said to derive from himself, referring to the New Criticism as “the lemon-squeezer school of criticism." He never understood the ways that the New Critics had come to interpret The Waste Land, noting in "Thoughts after Lambeth" (1931), "When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the ‘disillusionment of a generation,’ which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention." Of course, Eliot's commentary would be largely irrelevant to a New Critic's close reading of his work. (Furthermore — and in the first place — New Criticism ought to take a dim view of socio-historic contextualization embodied in phrases like "disillusionment of a generation".)

Empson, too, attempted to distance himself from the New Criticism, and was particularly critical of Wimsatt. His last book, Using Biography, was largely an attempt to refute the doctrine of the "intentional fallacy".


  • Eliot's essays, such as "Tradition and the Individual Talent", provide some of the foundational texts for New Criticism, although Eliot himself had a more ambiguous relationship with the school, as evidenced in later works such as The Frontiers of Criticism.
  • Ransom's 1941 essay "The New Criticism," from which the movement received its name. (Note that this essay was not the first work published that can be identified as existing within the field of "New Criticism" — rather, it was the article that gave the movement, including earlier documents, its current identity.)
  • Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral are among the preeminent New Critical works. Their broad taxonomic ambition, in both cases, ranges over a good portion of the literary canon in an attempt to define a literary device or trope.
  • Richards's Practical Criticism is one of the most "theoretical" works of the New Criticism; that is, it is a reflection on critical method.
  • Wimsatt and Beardsley concisely defined the two anathemas of the New Criticism in their well-known essays "The Intentional Fallacy" and "The Affective Fallacy."
  • Brooks's The Well-Wrought Urn is among the best-known examples of New Critical poetry explication, the essay "The Heresy of Paraphrase" frequently cited for its discussion of paradox in literature.


One of the most common grievances, iterated in numerous ways, is an objection to the idea of the text as autonomous; detractors react against a perceived anti-historicism, accusing the New Critics of divorcing literature from its place in history by emphasizing the text as autonomous. New Criticism is frequently seen as “uninterested in the human meaning, the social function and effect of literature” and as “unhistorical,” for “it isolates the work of art from its past and its context.” (Wellek, René. “The New Criticism: Pro and Contra.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 4. (Summer, 1978), pp. 611-624.) To the same ends, Terry Eagleton takes issue with the attention paid by New Criticism “to the ‘words on the page,’ rather than to the contexts which produced and surrounded them.”

Robert Scholes argues that the New Critics fail, unlike the formalists, to work on identifying the criteria of the prosaic and poetic rather than specific instances of prose or poems; that they emphasize the works over the idea of textuality.

Another common critique of the New Criticism is how ill-adapted the method is to certain types of writing. Russell Reising, for example, argues that the New Criticism devalues literature that is representational or realist. Likewise, Scholes accuses the methodology as denying any text of "cognitive quality" - that is, "denying that literature can offer any form of knowledge."

Jonathan Culler’s argument illustrates a shift to a critique of the interpretive process itself. Culler writes that close reading fails not only to analyze the literary system, but in so doing, it regards reading as “natural and unproblematic.” In the same vein, critic Terrence Hawkes writes that the fundamental close reading technique is based on the assumption that “the subject and the object of study—the reader and the text—are stable and independent forms, rather than products of the unconscious process of signification, an assumption which he identifies as the "ideology of liberal humanism,” which is attributed to the New Critics who are “accused of attempting to disguise the interests at work in their critical processes.” For Hawkes, ideally, a critic ought to be considered to “[create] the finished work by his reading of it, and [not to] remain simply an inert consumer of a ‘ready-made’ product.”

Yet another objection to the New Criticism is that it is thought to aim at making criticism scientific, or at least “bringing literary study to a condition rivaling that of science.” This charge may go hand in hand with another, in which “the New Criticism is being dismissed as a mere pedagogical device, a version of the French explication de texte, useful at most for American college students who must learn to read and to read poetry in particular.”

See also

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