Over at the Witherspoon Institute’s excellent online journal Public Discourse, I have a short piece pushing back against Peter Quartermain’s critique of New Criticism in (the otherwise highly recommended) Poetry:
In the October issue of Poetry, Peter Quartermain offers what is billed as a new critique of New Criticism. New Criticism came to dominate English departments in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Reacting to critics such as Irving Babbitt, who, John Crowe Ransom argued, viewed literature primarily as an expression of morality, the New Critics argued that the principal goal of the critic was to make sense of the aesthetic values of a literary work through a close examination of its words and form. In Understanding Poetry, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren write that “if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry,” and not “logical and narrative materials,” “biographical and historical materials,” or “didactic” document.
Quartermain writes that New Criticism’s practice of “identifying the tensions and paradoxes” of “self-sufficient, ahistorical, and atemporal” texts was unable to make sense of the New Poetry (Williams, Stein, Olson) because it wrongly limited the value of poetry to meaning. As poets turned away from the richly symbolic classicism of Eliot toward mere surface verbal play, New Criticism was rendered useless and obsolete—and it has remained so, at least according to Quartermain.
This isn’t a new critique, and Quartermain’s characterization of New Criticism as “ahistorical” is more than a little misleading. Writing in 1978 in response to the charge that New Criticism is “obsolete and dead and … wrong,” René Wellek argued in Critical Inquiry that New Criticism, rightly understood, is neither reductive nor ahistorical. He points out that the New Critics did not reject history itself, but history (and psychology for that matter) as the primary source of evidence for a literary work’s value and meaning. Brooks, for example, remarks that the critic “must know what the words of the poem mean, something which immediately puts him in debt to the linguist … and since many of the words are proper nouns, in debt to the historian as well.” Wellek writes: “In order to interpret the ‘Horatian Ode’ of Andrew Marvell correctly we must obviously know something of Cromwell and Charles I and the particular historical situation in the summer of 1650 to which the poem refers.” Furthermore, not only did the New Critics use history in understanding literary texts, they reinterpreted and revalued “the whole history of English poetry.” While not perfect, Wellek argues that New Criticism is nevertheless an effective, pragmatic tool for understanding “the specific nature of the aesthetic transaction,” “the implied attitudes of the author,” and “the resolved or unresolved tensions and contradictions” of a work.
The odd thing about Quartermain’s essay is that it actually proves Wellek right, for Quartermain relies on the very tools of New Criticism to show that New Criticism is useless. I would like to suggest that not only is New Criticism up to the task of engaging the avant-garde, it is also much needed in the classroom today, where students could benefit from its rigor and the value it places on objectivity and nuance.
I think that the “close reading” is used regularly by most professors, whatever they may think of the New Critics, because it is simply good reading codified. Some professors teach their students how to read directly, some indirectly, and some not at all. However, given that we seem to be reading more quickly and less carefully, it might be helpful to unearth those codified techniques rather than bury them further.
I offer a few other reasons why returning to the New Critics could be a good thing. Read the rest if you’re interested.