New Criticism Introduction
In a Nutshell
New Criticism is all about the text. No need to read hundreds of pages of history or dig up evidence of Jane Austen's love life. In fact, forget about when and where the author lived, and whether the author was rich or poor, man or woman.
What's that, you say? You have the author's very private personal journal? The New Critics don't care. It's the text that matters. They're not interested in reading every writer's innermost personal musings—that kind of navel gazing is best reserved for yo' momma—and they're not going to call the psychic hotline to figure out what some poet meant to say.
Their motto is: If the poem is good, if the book is well written, it'll say everything.
See, many of the New Critics took a hard line against studying anything "outside" the literary work. But these guys and gals weren't totally banishing history, biography, and politics. It's not like they don't think those things are important. It's just that they believe the text—and nothing but the text—should be the main focus of literary study.
But there's really no "just" involved in New Critics' readings. That's not giving them enough credit. They close read every word in order to gain insight into the work's form, literary devices, technique, and so on. They were all about studying the poem as a poem, the play as a play, and the novel as a novel.
Given that you're reading this page, we bet you're already a bit of a New Critic yourself. New Criticism was developed in the early 20th century, and really got rolling in the 1930s and '40s when more people started attending college. That's when close reading became a skill that everyone could practice and apply—regardless of background or politics.
Suddenly, people didn't need to wear a tweed coat and study history and the classics in order to read poetry and novels closely. Which was really kind of liberating. The New Critics were a great democratizing force that said: you, too, can know everything there is to know about Shakespeare.
Unlike many theories that seem to have been developed for the sole purpose of stumping newcomers, New Criticism is actually pretty welcoming. So get your magnifying glasses ready, Shmoopers. The New Critics want you to out how this text functions. And… go.
Why Should I Care?
Why Should Readers Care?
New Criticism tried to lay down some laws for reading and interpreting texts. They wanted to make the whole activity more systematic—scientific, even. And in the process, New Criticism made literary analysis more democratic, too; power to the (book-lovin') people, man.
To talk about Keats's poems, you don't need to get dusty comparing different manuscript versions. You don't even need to spend years reading the history of England. Or researching different styles of 19th-century vases hoping to stumble across the model for Keats's Grecian urn.
Nope, you just need to get really up close and personal with the poems. New Criticism demands you ask yourself questions like: What ingredients make his poems good? Is it the paradoxes? The tension between different ideas? The sound of the meter and rhyme? That whole "unravish'd bride of quietness" bit?
The New Critics made it easier to talk clearly about literature and about how it works its intellectual and emotional magic on us. That's because all it demanded of readers was to, well, read. To pay attention to what was on the page (and what was markedly missing from it).
But that handy dandy New Criticism toolbox allows us to discuss why Pride and Prejudice reads so well, in a pithy and understandable fashion. You know, who doesn't love the irony, the misunderstandings, and the marriage plots? Ladies, grab your knitting gear, let's talk some lit.
Why Should Theorists Care?
Before the New Critics arrived on the scene, English literature studies were all about history. All the great thinkers believed that in order to truly dig into a book's themes, you had to know the history of the language the work was written in, how it got written, what the author's life was like. And so on and so forth.
In fact, folks back then even maintained a strict division between being a critic and being a scholar. Critics were supposedly amateurs who just read literature for fun. Scholars were supposed to be the real professionals—the professors who knew every nit-picky detail, like how Shakespeare signed his name, and what sort of paperweights Dickens kept on his desk.
These two different camps—the amateur critics and the professional scholars—asked very different questions. If you were a critic, you tried to answer questions about quality: which poems were good or bad? Which novels were just so-so, and which were sparkling and brilliant? On the other hand, if you were a scholar, you kept your nose to the grindstone. You studied facts and spewed literary history.
Imagine we gave an apple to one old-school critic and one old-school scholar. The scholar would tell you all about the history of apple trees and maybe even about how this particular apple traveled from an orchard in Washington to our little neighborhood market. But the critic would bite into it, and tell you whether it was a perfectly tart and crisp apple or kind of sad and mealy.
Yum. So what did New Criticism do? Combined the two, of course. If we gave a New Critic an apple, she would closely examine it, then eat it slowly, and then explain why it was good or bad.
New Critics wanted to create a whole system for appreciating and criticizing literature. These critics didn't simply gush praise for a poem; they tried to explain why it was an extraordinary example of the poetic form. They asked questions like: What's going on with language in the poem? Where do the line breaks fall? How do all of these formal elements contribute to the poem's major themes?
If it weren't for New Criticism, we might still be studying literature by tracking down every allusion to astronomy in John Donne. Or imagine some future scholar starts reading Harry Potter in order to deduce what we thought about magic and science in the 21st century. Yikes.
As interesting as those studies might be, they're not really about the text: they're about 17th-century astronomy and 21st-century make-believe. They take us further and further away from the text itself—which, when you think about it, is where all of the text's meaning actually lives.