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In our era of feminist criticism and multicultural criticism and queer theory and Marxist readings, it's hard to imagine ever reading a text as, well, a text—and not as a declaration of identity, or politics, or identity politics.
My contribution to letters should not be underestimated: I made the poem matter again. I breathed new life into the thrashing, gasping body of the poem. I said, "Hey, we care about aesthetics! We care about iambic pentameter! We care about abba abba rhyme schemes!" And throughout the 1940s and 1950s, my ideas dominated the academy. I was a name to contend with. With Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom by my side, New Criticism was a juggernaut.
Believe it or not, the study of literature in an English department didn't really happen until the early 20th century. Before that, people studied classics or philology or philosophy. So I really caught the wave and contributed to the rise of the English Department by saying, "Darn it, poems matter!"
Ever written a last-minute paper on the "seafarers," "sunlit cliffs," and "looming headlands" in Beowulf? You have me to thank for that. Ever pulled your hair out trying to do a 5-paragraph essay on motifs, paradoxes, structural patterns, narrative perspective, oppositions, metaphors, symbols, and irony in Uncle Tom's Cabin? Me again. I'm the one who tossed history and politics aside and told readers that what mattered was the text itself.