Study Guide

New Criticism Basics

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  • Beginnings

    New Criticism wasn't the most organized of movements. Different groups of critics in the U.S. and in Britain were blazing trails on their own, and they hadn't exactly sat down to figure out a road map. So we can't point to one manifesto that shook everything up.

    But we can find a whole bunch of sparks that fed the fire—sparks like T.S. Eliot's introduction to The Sacred Wood (1920), Ezra Pound's Pavannes and Divisions (1918), I.A. Richards's Practical Criticism (1929), and John Crowe Ransom's The New Criticism (1941). They all had their own individual foci, but they were all a call to readerly action. These writers believed it was time for a new and practical approach to analyzing literature—as well as discriminating between "good" and "bad" literary works.

    These New Critics all believed in a close analysis of form, literary devices, and technique. Their new emphasis on the text was a reaction to the old style of scholarship, which was all about history and the evolution of languages—stuff that took you outside of a poem into whole other worlds of information. The New Critics wanted to stay inside the poem, and to explain why it was good or bad.

  • Big Players

    New Criticism's heavy hitters primarily batted for two teams: Team U.S.A. and Team U.K. On the U.S. side, we have John Crowe Ransom, who was a professor at Vanderbilt University, and who gave New Criticism its name with the title of one of his books. His students ended up being some of the most important new voices on the block (and since this was back in the 1930s, we're afraid these guys' names really do read like a boy band): Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks.

    Warren and Brooks wrote the book that actually became the textbook for college students studying poetry. Their Understanding Poetry (1938) taught the techniques that students would need if they were going to study the poem, the whole poem, and nothing but the poem.

    As it turns out, if you want to get a theory off the ground, it's a good idea to get your book in the backpacks of English majors everywhere. (Take note, Shmoopers.)

    Other key players in the U.S. are Yvor Winters—who used New Criticism to give moral readings of literature—Kenneth Burke, R.P. Blackmur, William K. Wimsatt, and Monroe Beardsley. Wimsatt and Beardsley became famous for their intense hatred of critics who talked about authors' personal lives; for a dose of this medicine, check out their essay, "The Intentional Fallacy."

    Over on the other side of the pond, I.A. Richards was leading the charge in his own classroom. He was interested in how people interpret literature. So he got scientific about the problem: he handed out thirteen poems, without so much as telling his students the names of the authors. And then he asked students to analyze them—What do the poems mean? How do you know?

    Not surprisingly, this little experiment showed how very difficult it was to analyze a poem without any context, even if you were at the top of your class at Cambridge. One of Richards's students, William Empson, went on to offer an answer to this difficulty: his Seven Types of Ambiguity is a tour de force of ways to read closely, without any history books on your desk.

    All of these critics actually had a lot in common—and not just how quickly they'd roll their eyes if you argued that Shakespeare left clues in The Tempest to explain why he left his second best bed to his wife. The New Critics all wanted to spend days picking apart a text word by word. And they all had poetry in common: they analyzed it, and wrote quite a bit of it too.

    It's probably not a coincidence that so many of the New Critics were hard-writin' poets themselves, not just poetry scholars. Part of why they could so closely analyze the devices in a poem was because they were thinking like writers. John Crowe Ransom, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, I. A. Richards, William Empson, and Yvor Winters all published poetry. How do you like them apples?

  • Key Debates

    The New Critics weren't afraid of controversy. Really, the whole movement arose because they wanted to contradict the methods of previous critics, and forge a new path. This Crew o' Lyrical Superheroes believed that literature wasn't getting enough attention as literature, and it was time to put the lit first.

    But what about everything else that scholars had been busying themselves with for centuries? Like, um, the bearing of the whole of human history on a given text? So, a lot of the New Critics' big debates revolved around how much they were willing to abandon in their pursuit of a purely text-based method for literary analysis. The usual debates went something like this…

    You Gotta Put Your Behind in the Past

    "Old" criticism was all about history. First, people would study the history of how the words in a given text were used way back when—etymologies up the wazoo, without the convenience of your up-to-date Oxford English Dictionary. Then there was the history of the work. Who was the first to read it? What did its early drafts look like? Sigh.

    And finally, there was the history of the author. Like: Did he like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when he was little? Can you see evidence of his youthful peanut butter and jelly fanaticism, even in this late-career poem of his? And so on.

    The "old" critics would gather all of this information together, mix it up in a great big bowl o' analysis, and offer up an understanding of a text's major themes. Now, even though the New Critics didn't sign a manifesto in blood saying they'd never consider anything outside of the text ever again, they did agree that history had become a major distraction.

    The New Critics wanted to set history aside for a moment and just look at the lit. What would happen, they wondered, if you put the text first—and everything else second?

    Now, despite some extremists' interpretation of this move, the New Critics didn't want to throw out all of history with the bathwater. They didn't shy away from using extra-textual facts to make a point. But they always made everything outside of the text take a backseat to the text itself.

    For example, if you read "They Flee from Me," the real intellectual and emotional payoff isn't learning more about Anne Boleyn's love life. Though obvi, we're always interested in other people's love lives. The really cool part is figuring out how Wyatt's sonnet works to create meaning—from its metaphors and paradoxes, to its meter and rhyme.

    What About That Closeted Love of Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches?

    Remember when we said that "old" critics were really into reading every fact about an author into her work? Well, nothing riles up a New Critic like one of those biographically driven analyses. The New Critics believed that the author's life just isn't that important compared to the text itself, because the text will always transcend the author.

    Let's say we suddenly unearthed more of Jane Austen's letters. Even if we found real-life equivalents for every single character in Sense and Sensibility, would that really help us read Sense and Sensibility in a more sophisticated way? Probably not.

    These insights into authors' lives are just like tabloid gems about our favorite celebrities; they're delicious little "human interest" treats, but they're neither particularly meaningful nor particularly enduring. And a text will be around long after the author's death.

    Wimsatt and Beardsley took a special beef with people who studied authorial intent in "The Intentional Fallacy." They argue against studying what the author intended to say, in favor of just sticking to what they actually said. After all, there's likely a lot of stuff in the text that the author wasn't even consciously aware of writing.

    (As writers ourselves here, we at Shmoop have to admit: we end up writing a lot of stuff that we don't even mean to. It happens. We'd like to call it "accidental genius," but we'll allow you your own readings.)

    A key example from Wimsatt and Beardsely's essay relies on John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." W&B quote a couple lines of the poem in which the speaker wonders why people get so scared of earthquakes ("moving of th' earth"). After all, they never bother to think about how the entire universe is full of planets on the move (the "trepidation of the spheres/ Though greater far, is innocent").

    Then W&B take down the latest, scholarly analysis of the text. Some Poor Professor Who Shall Not Be Named had tracked down all of Donne's references to astronomy. And That Dude said something like: "Guys! Look here! Donne was reading Kepler and Galileo when he wrote 'A Valediction.' So he must have been trying to make some commentary about the progress of astronomy as a science in this piece, right?"

    Wrong. W&B were having none of that. Sure, these New Critics wrote, we could reconstruct an author's reading list and go crazy reading between its lines. Maybe we could even rebuild their library.

    But after all that work, we'd just add "another shade of meaning, an overtone to the stanza in question." In other words, that sort of criticism isn't really helping us to understand the poem better. Biography-driven analyses are often just a series of fanciful, improvable insights—fun to make, but usually frivolous.

    Bells and whistles are, in the end, just bells and whistles.

    That Little Thing Called "Relevance" 

    Some critics were worried about paying too much attention to the text. If you were reading literature purely as literature, were you relegating potentially revolution-starting works to the dusty shelves of mere "art"?

    And what if a good poem contains a terribly immoral message? Should we still ask whole classrooms of students to read it—and tell them to just ignore the moral of the story? These are the kinds of questions that kept our beloved New Critics up at night. (They clearly never had Werner Herzog read them a bedtime story.)

    To be honest, though, a lot of their concerns were directed more at straw men than at any practicing New Critic. Most New Critics didn't want to entirely ignore social relevance, ethics, and politics—though some of their detractors accused them of desiring exactly this.

    In fact, one critic associated with the movement, Yvor Winters, was committed to closely analyzing literature and morality (or: the balance between reason and emotion). The thing was, he wasn't on an Easter egg hunt for a moral that could be conveniently lifted out of a poem and applied elsewhere. Instead, he wanted to explain how a whole poem—from its meter to its rhyme to its word choices—was working to construct a particular brand of morality.

  • State of the Theory

    From New To Outmoded

    New Criticism fell out of favor in the 1960s and '70s, as other theories stepped up to the lit crit plate. Sure, many of these theories would use the same analytic tools as New Criticism, but to different ends. Just like many other thinkers of the '60s and '70s, literary theorists in those days were lookin' to shake up the existing social order.

    So, feminist and new historical readings both wanted, once again, to widen the scope beyond the text. But this time, they wanted to incorporate more cultural context and information about society's changes over time into their analyses as a way of raising questions like: Hey, why does Western culture worship the phallus? Or, Why is the literary canon so dominated by white people?

    You catch our drift.

    There was also this other new movement, known as Reader-Response Theory, that put an analytic emphasis on readers. This group of scholars believed the key to a text's meaning lay in how different readers reacted to it. Because, unlike the New Critics—who thought that a text had inherent meaning, which could be uncovered through close reading—Reader-Response Theorists believed the text had no inherent meaning.

    A work's central themes, they thought, were really created in the dynamic interactions between the text and readers' subjective interpretations of that text.


    Now, even though just about all of these new theories used close reading to examine texts, they were all aiming at something bigger than literature. Their focus was broader. Post-New Criticism scholars wanted focus on the text and its context in order to see how each little work fit into a whole cultural network of people and philosophies.

    (Deconstruction opened a different can of worms altogether. That movement was all about destabilizing norms, and playing with readers' expectations of literature. These guys weren't as interested in uncovering texts' meanings as they were in proving that meaning itself was uncertain. But that's another story…)

    Retrofit New Crit—As Fashionable As Peg Leg Pants

    So some other theories became more popular than New Criticism in the '60s and '70s. That doesn't mean New Crit ever got shelved entirely. We still use a lot of the tools developed by the New Critics when we consider literary works today.

    Close reading is sort of like the Swiss army knife of literary theory. No matter what you analyze, young Shmoopers—a text in isolation, or a text in relation to the history of women's writing, or a text in relation to readers' interpretations of it—you're going to be working with the text's language and form.

    Plus, some critics are still writing about the way this movement has forever changed the way we read texts. To this end, a couple of books have come out that have tried to give New Critics their dues, including The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory (1995) and Praising it New: The Best of the New Criticism (2008).

    A "new" New Criticism, known as New Formalism, also emerged in the early 2000s. And you know that any time a movement enjoys a renaissance, that's because there was something great about it to begin with. Like, if pink is the new black, we know that little black dresses have always been pretty rad.

    New Formalism has gained some academic ground with today's professors, including Marjorie Levinson. In her 2007 article, "What is New Formalism?", Levinson surveyed this field and noted that all of its different brands "seek to reinstate close reading both at the circular center of our discipline and as the opening move."

    That is, the New Formalists (much like the New Critics, actually) don't want to ban history or culture from literary analysis. They just want to analyze the text first, before taking a critical stance on it. After that, everything's fair game.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    According to the New Critics, literature is something to be read closely. To be laboriously analyzed. To be pored over with a cappuccino in hand.

    See, a text is made up of form, words, and devices, and we can examine these things up-close in order to understand what makes a text great. We can look at a poem's ambiguities, paradoxes, ironies, tensions, harmonies, and more.

    All of these elements work together to make the text whole. But we must never forget that this whole is greater than its parts. Plus, not all literature is good; we have to compare an individual poem against humanity's long tradition of poetry, and figure out if it measures up to The Canon.

    What is an author?

    An author is a craftsman—sometimes a genius craftsman—who constructs works of art. These works are supposed to hold up across time and cultural contexts; we should be able to read them at any moment in history, and derive meaning from them.

    Crucial, however, is that to understand authors' work, we shouldn't have to consult the genius-oracles themselves. Each work of literature should have all the answers contained within its very lines, if only we read it closely enough.

    (Besides, we really can't trust the author to tell us what she meant when she wrote a poem. Maybe what she actually wrote is far smarter than what she thinks she wrote.)

    What is a reader?

    A reader puzzles out a piece of literature's many meanings, in all of their glorious complexities and ambiguities. The ideal reader gets up close and personal with each text. If poems were those Magic Eye illusions, New Critics would tell you to start out with your nose pressed up against 'em. Then slowly, very slowly, walk backwards until—bam. Suddenly, a whole new 3D meaning pops out at you.

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