Clanth Brooks

Essay by yamnovbloom November 2014

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American New Criticism is named after John Crowe Ransom's 1941 book The New Criticism. The movement focused on the text of a work of literature and excluded the reader's response, the author's intentions, historical and cultural contexts and moralistic bias from their analysis. It was the equivalent of the new professional criticism established in the emerging discipline of 'English' in Britain during the inter-war period. The reasons why it rose to almost hegemonic proportions are complex and many. The most significant of these reasons trace an outline of the movement. First, a number of key figures of the movement were part of another literary movement called the 'Fugitives' or the Southern Agrarians, including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. There was an inherent hostility to the industrialism and materialism of a United States dominated by the 'North'.

This Southern-oriented movement thus has consanguinity with Arnold, Eliot and Leavis, in opposing the modern 'inorganic' civilization. Second, the high point of influence for the movement was during the Second World War and the Cold War. There were whole hosts of alienated intellectuals and quietist students for whom the privileging of the 'order', 'harmony' and 'transcendence' of the text of a work of literature would represent a haven. The 'impersonal' analysis practiced in New Criticism would have attracted them as well. Third, the masses of individuals who had no 'history' in common found the ahistorical and neutral nature - the study only of the words on the page - equalizing and democratic. Fourth, with it being unconcerned about context, uninterested about the 'Fallacies' (Wimsatt and Beardsley) and a text's meaning (A poem must not mean/ But be), New Criticism proved to be a pedagogically economic tool of criticism.

Studying a...