When Lit Crit Mattered

At a time when newspapers across the country are laying off book critics and cutting back on–or eliminating altogether–their book sections, does anyone read books of literary criticism any more? I do, from time to time, but it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most dedicated lit crit nerd picking up a volume of writings by the New Critics. Praising It New is a new volume of mid-century modern literary criticism, edited by Garrick Davis. That the volume should be regarded with such wistful admiration in the pages of the Wall Street Journal has some delicious New Critical irony: the "dissociation of sensibility" that T.S. Eliot spoke of was perpetuated and intensified by the ruthless economic interests so faithfully documented in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

In his WSJ review, James Seaton presents a familiar, and tired, narrative: Academic literary criticism thrived in the interwar years, when two percent of the white American male population graduated from college. The great canonical works and the fancy new modernist experiments alike enjoyed the guardianship of critics who worked "within a broad humanistic tradition that viewed literature as a source of both wisdom and delight." Then French structuralism and the GI Bill came along and ruined everything.

Critics of post war literary theory, Seaton included, often vastly oversimplify a complex debate within post-structuralism itself. For instance, contrary to what Seaton claims, Roland Barthes’ essay "The Death of the Author" has long been regarded as a provocative but incomplete contribution to the history of authorship. It’s never been "much revered," although its author certainly is. And Seaton is right when he points out that the New Critics have been unjustly maligned by the post-structuralists. 

Seaton contrasts Barthes’ work with W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s seminal essay, "The Intentional Fallacy." Wimsatt and Beardsley’s prohibition against reading for an author’s intent is still scrupulously followed more than sixty years later. But their rule was one of many proposed by the New Critics. Later Post-structuralism greatly expanded our store of critical techniques and opened up vast areas of writing to serious critical study. However, post-structuralism also superimposed  its own set of prohibitions, rules, guidelines, and prejudices onto New Critical strictures. Wimsatt, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Yvor Winters wrote at a time when the rules were vague enough (literature should "delight") to allow room for personal, idiosyncratic responses to literary works. One of the frustrations of working within a post-structuralist approach is that critical theory imposes so many recondite rules even as post-structuralism privileged the novel for its discursive freedom. Post-structuralist criticism regards the literary work as just another text, akin to shopping lists and Wall Street Journal articles. But at the same time, post-structuralists regard literature as a special case because it has the fewest prohibitions of any form of writing. In fact, it’s the richness of literary language that made it so attractive to post-structuralist theorists.

The New Criticism thrived because its practitioners shared a set of basic assumptions about the value and efficacy of literary language. Post-war critics, influenced by Continental philosophy, rejected those assumptions, with admittedly mixed results. But the fundamental belief system shared by the New Critics–their sense that literary criticism mattered–was torpedoed by forces from the Right as well as from the Left. From aggressive anti-intellectualism to systematic attacks on public sphere discourse ("death taxes" and "global climate change" are just two of the neologisms concocted by the Right), Conservatives have dumped Trilling’s humanism in favor of scorched-earth polemics. With all the shouting going on in the American public sphere, Cleanth Brooks is struggling to be heard.  Which is too had, because Seaton is right about one thing: the New Critics still have something to teach us.

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