New Criticism

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  1. New Criticism By Mehdi Hassanian esfahani (GS 22456) October 2008 Literary Theory (BBL 5201) Lecturer: Dr. Malachi Edwin Vethamani University Putra Malaysia
  2. Hassanian |2 Index Introduction ………………………………………………………………. 3 Historical background ……………………………………………………. 5 New Criticism V.S. Biographical and Traditional Historical criticism ……………….……………………………….. 9 What should we do in New Criticism? ….……………………………...... 11 What is close reading? …………………………………………..… 14 What should we look for in the close reading? …….……………... 14 The downfall ……………………………………………………….…..… 16 Influences of New Criticism ……………………………………………... 18
  3. Hassanian |3 Introduction The dominated literary theory in 1940s was New Criticism. It was almost a reaction toward Biographical and Traditional Historical criticism, which was focused on extra-text materials, such as the biography of the author. New Criticism claimed that the text, as a complete work of art, is adequate for interpretation, and one should look at the text, and only the text, in order to analyze it and get the true meaning of it. New Criticism is quite well connected with the term “close reading”, which means the careful analysis of a text with paying attention to its structure, syntax, figures of speech, and so one. In this way, a New Critic tries to examine the “formal elements” of the text, such as characterization, setting of time and place, point of view, plot, images, metaphors and symbols to interpret the text and find the theme. These formal elements, as well as linguistic elements (i.e., ambiguity, paradox, irony and tension) are the critic’s references to interpret and support the theme of a literary work. New Critics believe that there is a unique and universal theme in [great] works of art, which is timeless and independent of the reader or social, historical events. And these elements are the only true means by with a critic can understand and should interpret the text. Although New Criticism was once successful in a way to ask critics and readers for a change in their view point of evaluating a literary text, after a
  4. Hassanian |4 while it was accused of being too restrictive by denying the historical and biographical information, and too linguistic, and not universally practical, consequently it was replaced with other literary theories, such as Reader Response, New Historicism and Cultural Studies. New Criticism was practiced from 1920s to early 1960s, and can be considered a dead theory now. Affirming this, Tyson states that it is no longer in practice, but also comments that some of its features are still in use and important to observe, such as the notion of close reading. Thompson, also, believes that New Criticism has received a great attention and its popularity among literary publications and academic programs is because of its elusiveness. “It has never been a school in the sense Russian Formalism has and therefore its commentators could exercise pleasant freedom in singling out its characteristics and defining its boundaries” (33-34). This is the reason we can find different definitions and principles about New Criticism, and we cannot 100% agree on a particular group of people to call them the founders of New Criticism, although there are well-known advocators. It is worth mentioning that because New Critics tried to provide verbal or textual evidences for their claim, their approach is objective. They believe that the text provides a way to be interpreted, and formal elements help this to be done. That is why New Criticism is sometimes called objective criticism. It is also called an intrinsic criticism, because it is just concerned about the text itself (Tyson).
  5. Hassanian |5 Historical Background of Criticism in Nineteenth Century Back to nineteenth century and the first two decades of twentieth century, Biographical and Traditional Historical criticism was the dominated literary theory, which was practiced in academics and by critics. It had focused on all documents about or related to the text and the author. But it had gone to extreme, and had forgotten the original text itself. This (for New Critics, and for us a well,) negligence was academically accepted and so common that in a poetry class, students had expected the lecturer to talk about the poet and give “a description of poet’s personal and intellectual life: his family, friend, enemies, lovers, habits, education, beliefs and experiences” (Tyson 118), without analyzing or even reading the poem! T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was among the first ones who claimed that poetry stands for its own, and in his essays asked critics to pay attention to the poem, rather than the poet. He believed that “the poet does not influence the poem with his or her personality and emotions, but uses language in such a way as to incorporate within the poem the impersonal feelings and emotions common to all humankind” (Bressler, 57). And as a result, study of poet’s personal life is not useful. He, himself, examined Dryden’s poetry and that of Metaphysical poets of Donne’s school in the same way. Baldick explains that he attended to the poems, and analyzed those poems; he was concerned about the wit and the emotions presented in them. According to Thompson, Eliot, who asked for the
  6. Hassanian |6 new poetry, and the new poetry criticism, started his essays by attacking the past and current critics. He called them either historian, if they were interested in historical events, or philosophers, if they treated the work of art as a philosophical formulation. He attacked the poems at the same time. In his critical essays, he emphasized the text and found the faults within the text. Thompson believes that his collection of essays (and among them ‘Traditional and Individual Talent’) “is the first in the line of New Critical attempts, to demonstrate an impersonal non-biographical continuity which later were undertaken in regard to English poetry, by Leavis and Brooks” (41). In 1927, Laura Riding and Robert Graves in their book A Survey of Modernist Poetry examined the poems of T. S. Eliot and Cummings in a new way of criticism, too. This new way of criticism was paying attention to the text. Through their careful reading, they showed that a poem is more than some general ideas, and the concluded that “only those words in that exact order and arrangement could produce the precise effect intended; no simpler statements of an idea could be substituted for it” (Baldick, 79). I. A. Richards (1893-1979) also tried to differ between the traditional reading of a poem, which was similar to paraphrasing the text, and the modern view of poetry. He was less concerned about close reading, but “helpfully classified the numerous ways in which reading of poetry could go wrong” (Baldick, 79). He reinforced what Riding and Graves have claimed, that readers
  7. Hassanian |7 are dependent on poet, by examining a technique, known as practical criticism, in which he gave his students some untitled poems, without any reference to the poet, to analyze. The result was significantly unacceptable, and he claimed that the way of teaching criticism is not complete and proper, because students are dependent on the poet’s name or hints about the poet’s biography (Baldick). If we agree with Litz that Eliot wrote the first essays which became the “corpus of acceptable interpretive techniques by I. A. Richards” (7) we should name Richard’s student who followed the exercises of these techniques. He was William Empson. Another important figure in New Criticism was F. R. Leavis who claimed that the old way of looking at poetry is not sufficiently convincing and as a result contributed in making a new way of reading and looking at the poetry. Eventually in 1941 John Crowe Ransom, who is considered as the ‘Philosopher General of the New Criticism’ (Jancovich, 11), called this new formalist view of analyzing a text “New Criticism” and introduced it to American critics by his book New Criticism. Bressler explains that Ransom, before publishing his book, had made the Fugitives (a literary group including some other university professors and some of his students) where they could freely discuss about their new point of view, regarding literature and criticism, and practice it together. Then he tried to publish his ideas and explain his personal interpretative approach in New Criticism. He explained that a “poem
  8. Hassanian |8 (used as a synonym in New Criticism for any literary work) is a concrete entity … [and should] be analyzed to discover its true or correct meaning independent of its author’s intention or of the emotional state, values or beliefs of either its author or reader ” (Bressler, 55). However, according to Thompson, there is no fixed and unique definition for New Criticism. He believes that different people thinks of it in different way, as R. W. Stallman considers the concern with ‘the dissociation of modern sensibility’ to be the distinguishing mark of a New Critic. The growing disparity between scientific and aesthetic sensibility is, in his view, the fact which the New Critics attempt in various ways to construct, or at least vividly to record. David Daiches regards New Criticism as an American phenomenon which arose on the basis of contemporary interest ‘in myth and symbol’ and in high standards of professional criticism. He observes that it has developed ‘its own scholasticism’ and ‘its own technical jargon’ which limits its appeal considerably. Ransom himself (whose central position in New Criticism nobody questions) … grouped together such disparate people as T. S. Eliot and Ch. Morris. Walter Sutton sees as the distinguishing feature of the New Critics ‘their practice of close textual analysis’ and ‘the conservatism of their literary, social and political views’. (Thompson, 34)
  9. Hassanian |9 New Criticism V.S. Biographical and Traditional Historical criticism According to Tyson, in overcoming the Biographical and Traditional Historical criticism and replacing the extra-text materials with internal references to the text itself, New Criticism had to face “the authorial intention”. Traditional readers and critics believed that there is always an idea (or intention) behind every literary work which its author had in his mind, before writing. This is the reason he has written the book; to communicate it, implicitly or explicitly, with us. That’s why they studied the author’s biography, his life and time. But New Criticism rejected the authorial intention, by pointing out the intentional fallacy. They doubted if there is an authorial intention at all, when most of great authors of past are death and cannot come to tell us how their books are supposed to be read. And, based on New Criticism, even if there is such a claim, it may be just an intentional fallacy. Too many times an author wants to say something, but the result is different and it is possible if the poet is not aware of the intention of his poem at the first stage. Therefore, whatever an author says about his work is just an interpretation of it, like many other interpretations by its readers. When it is not supported by the text, it is not valuable.
  10. H a s s a n i a n | 10 New Critics also rejected any personal interpretation by referring it to the affective fallacy, which is an understanding or interpretation of a text, based on personal feelings, understanding or experiences which cannot be supported by the text. New Criticism admits that different readers may have different interpretations based on their personal backgrounds, but such an interpretation is not universally acceptable, and is not the true interpretation of the text. It may be suitable for a particular critic, but is not for others. It is made by a personal reading of a text, and contrasts the universal theme of it. New Critics claimed that the text itself is the only source or evidence that a critic should focus on. As a result, New Criticism stated that the text is our sole evidence or reference, not the author’s claim and the only important materials are the printed words on the page. Based on fundamental principles of New Criticism, in order to find the universal theme of the text, a critic should avoid his subjective personal interpretations, called affective fallacy. On the other hand, New Criticism never fully ignored the reader’s response or the author’s intention. They rejected the judgment or the criticism solely based on these interpretations. In a New Critic analysis of a literary text, any interpretation which may help to find or develop the connection between the formal elements of the text and its theme is welcomed. Therefore a New Critic may concern about the authorial intention, but just as much as he concerns about other interpretations.
  11. H a s s a n i a n | 11 What should we do in New Criticism? New Criticism searches for meaning within the structure of the text, and finds it by examining the text though the close reading and analyzing the formal elements (elements that form the text) within the text. That is why New Criticism seems to be a kind of new formalism, although the purpose is different here. In New Criticism, one may examine “all the evidence provided by the language of the text itself: its images, symbols, metaphors, rhyme, meter, point of view, setting, characterization, plot and so forth” (Tyson 119), to find their relationship with the theme, in a way that confirms the single best interpretation of the text, because New Criticism believes that there is such a single complete interpretation, which is timeless and is not related to individual readers or social events. Accordingly “the critic’s job … is to ascertain the structure of the poem, to see how it operates to achieve its unity and to discover how meaning evolves directly from the poem itself” (Bressler, 60). This process of analyzing the text is more fitted to short texts like poems, as New Critics are mostly interested in lyrical poetry too, but if the literary work is too long, one can explain just some aspects of its form, like setting or imagery of the text. To analyze the text closely, New Critics first need to examine the words, and may need to trace back the meaning(s) of individual words to the time the
  12. H a s s a n i a n | 12 literary text was written as well. Bressler mentions that for example “if a fifteenth-century poet called someone a ‘nice person,’ the New Critics would investigate the meaning of the word nice in the fifteenth century, discovering that at that time nice meant foolish” (60). Looking carefully at the words, New Critics would find both connotations and denotations for each one. Different literal and implied meanings create “ambiguity”. Ambiguity is “language’s capacity to sustain multiple meanings” (Bressler, 62) which intensifies the complexity of the language. This complexity, which is made by organic unity of the text, is a positive characteristic of a text, but should be resolved by the critics. “If a text has an organic unity, then all of its formal elements work together to establish its theme, or the meaning of the work as a whole. ... A literary work must have [complexity] if it is to adequately represent the complexity of human life” (Tyson, 121). Tyson maintains that multiple meaning of the text is the results of four linguistic elements: paradox, irony, ambiguity and tension. Paradox means a statement which seems to be self-contradictory. At the first sight, it contradicts or conflicts itself, but when analyzed deep, it intensifies the meaning by suggesting broader areas to the statement. Irony is also a statement or an event which seems to be contrary to its literal sense; an ironic statement, most of the time, presents a meaning which is opposite of the intended meaning. And tension, in New Criticism, means the conflicts within the text. Bressler defines
  13. H a s s a n i a n | 13 it as “the conflicts between a word’s denotation and its connotation, between a literal detail and a figurative one, and between an abstract and a concrete detail” (63). These four linguistic devices, as well as other figurative devices such as images, symbols, similes and metaphors control the poems structure. Tyson argues that if they are all harmonized to the theme of the literary work, they make a great work of art. She suggests that a New Critic should first try to discover the theme and then analyze the ways these formal elements establish or contribute to the theme. New Critics “were concerned with the universal aspects of human experience” (Ryan, 3); they believed that a great work of art will definitely have a theme of ‘universal human significance’. Thompson claims that New Critics “do not merely investigate the ambiguities of language, but also try to relate them to what is permanent and essential about man” (38). Ryan also explains that for New Criticism “literary form is welded to content or meaning in an organic unity” (3). Meaning that in a great work of art, in which there is an organic unity among its elements, meaning and form are fused together. A New Critic, therefore, should discuss both. He can find form with the help of ambiguity, paradox, irony or tension. On the other hand, finding formal and verbal elements, by supporting the theme or the meaning of it, leads to a better understanding and interpretation of the text.
  14. H a s s a n i a n | 14 What is close reading? Kain explains that for a close reading of a text, whether the aim is to point out rhetorical features, structural elements, or cultural references, one should observe carefully particular details and facts within the text. She offers a three- step procedure, in which the first step is to read carefully and underline or highlight keywords that are significant or causes doubts or questions. It may be the ambiguity of the text, or a something related to the characterization; it can be anything! Next step is to “look for patterns in the things you've noticed about the text—repetitions, contradictions, similarities”. And the last step asks the questions of “why” and “how”. These questions should be related to the preview data, and may make the reader look back again to the text, in order to find more references and reasons. Interpreting these keywords, which brings about the result of our close reading, is a kind of inductive reasoning, “moving from the observation of particular facts and details to a conclusion, or interpretation, based on those observations” (Kain, 1). What should we look for in the close reading? To briefly explain the process of New Critic interpretation of a literary text, Tyson says that “New Criticism seeks to reveal how the text works as a unified whole, by showing how its main theme is established by the text’s formal, or stylistic elements” (253), like point of view, imagery, setting or
  15. H a s s a n i a n | 15 symbolism. So the first thing is to find the tension within the text, the conflict between different parts or ideas presented in the text. Then, a New Critic would try to establish the theme, and find out the relationship between formal elements and the theme. This detailed analysis of tensions and reconciliations of formal elements or verbal components is the important part of the process of close reading. The formal elements of the text should contribute to the theme, and the theme should be supported if there are any devices like tension, irony, ambiguity and paradox. “All of these qualities must serve the unifying purpose of supporting the text’s main theme … so that the whole text can be seen to achieve its artistic purpose smoothly and completely” (Tyson, 254). But a New Critic should always be aware of subjectivity in his interpretation. Imagination and emotion has nothing to do in the judgment. According to Graff, the theory of imagination “which the New Critics took over and adapted largely from Coleridge … was a vehicle by which distinctions between opposites were transcended and the logical, analytical view of the world overcome … but this philosophical monism at the center of organicist poetics was necessarily fatal to the New Critical attempt to establish the objectivity either of textual interpretation or of the literary work's reference to the outer world” (84).
  16. H a s s a n i a n | 16 The downfall In the history of literary movements and critical approaches, there is almost always another opposite reaction for every critical approach, and New Criticism faced the same trouble. Jancovich implies that two major controversial issues of New Criticism were its fully dependence on the text, and its rejection of extra-text materials, which went to extreme. According to Graff this text-isolation was not acceptable for some who thought that New Criticism have “trivialized literature and literary study by turning critical interpretation into an over-intellectualized game whose object was the solution of interpretive puzzles. [Because] this way of viewing literature tended to ignore or destroy the moral, political, and personal impact that literature might possess” (72). When New Critics considered a poem an objective work of art, they ceased unrelated interpretations to exist, but on the other hand, they ignored all other areas as well. They ignored external influences to be studied, such as gender, race or the social class. Subjectivity and emotion were among the things they tried to ignore. Basically speaking, New Criticism attempted to settle a scientific method of interpretation and evaluation literary texts. Eliot’s criticism is among the first examples, which “was ostensibly formalist, insisting on the recognition of literature as an object of study on its own term; it was anti-impressionistic … it had the look of being theoretical” (Litz, 10).
  17. H a s s a n i a n | 17 New Criticism separates the text from its author and the readers, to analyze it closely in an objective academic isolation. New Critics claim that “literature can only be discussed in terms of its intrinsic qualities--language and structure” (Wallace, 7). This isolation was not tolerable to proceeding critics who spoke of interactions between the text and the reader. This scientific objectivity was the same as dehumanization of a voice of the text which was once narrated from a human being to share knowledge. The knowledge which should be discussed in regards to other social, historical and cultural issues. Opposes to New Criticism claims that poetry (or any kind of literary work) is different from a scientific report, and should not be observed in the same manner. Graff quotes from Richard Palmer's Hermeneutics, that this objectivity was so emphasized that students were told in literature classes to avoid from any personal interpretation of a poem because it was sure an irrelevant fallacy to their interpretation and analysis. Palmer was among the people who criticized New Criticism because of its fundamental principle of objectivity. He believed that there should be an interaction or “a loving union between the text and the interpreter” (Graff, 74). According to Wellek, New Criticism “is considered not only superseded, obsolete, and dead but somehow mistaken and wrong” (611). He strongly rejects theory of New Criticism, and believes that it is “uninterested in the human meaning, the social function and effect of literature” (611), and is
  18. H a s s a n i a n | 18 “unhistorical” because it ignores the historical context of the text, influences of past or its influences on the future. Wallace also states that for New Critics, “the socio- subjective content of literature is either ignored or mystified in critical practice” (101). Other critics have also accused New Criticism of paying too much attention to the text, as if worshiping or placing it on a pedestal, and ignoring all other areas, such as history, sociology, psychoanalysis and subjective responses of the readers, which could be relevant or necessary in interpretation of a particular text. Jancovich maintains that “rescuing the text from author and reader went hand in hand with disentangling it from any social or historical context” (6). Influences of New Criticism Although, as we saw, New Criticism is considered by some critics as a dead theory today, but it had a great influence on its following literary theories, and still is useful in order to explore a text and interpret its elements for a better understanding. Litz believes that comparing to modernism, New Criticism is “a more systematic, more philosophical or more academic articulation of formalist undercurrents within modernism” (3). Close reading or close analysis of a text is what New Criticism introduced and is a fundamental tool in today’s modern literary criticism. Some of the New Criticism’s “most important concepts,
  19. H a s s a n i a n | 19 concerning the nature and importance of textual evidence-the use of concrete, specific examples from the text itself to validate our interpretations-have been incorporated into the way most literary critics today, regardless of their theoretical persuasion, support their readings of literature” (Tyson, 117). Tyson explains that even today, close reading is the predominant and standard method of instruction in high schools and colleges for students of English Literature. There are also professors and literature teachers who believe that New Criticism, by paying much more attention to the text, is a helpful device in teaching literature, if it is not to ignore other eras as well. Combination of New Criticism and the suitable theory (for example feminism, psychoanalysis and etc.) for a particular text, leads to a careful analysis of the text and strong support for the theory.
  20. H a s s a n i a n | 20 Works Cited Baldick, Chris. Criticism and Literary Theory 1890 to the Present. New York: Longman, 1996. Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: an Introduction to Theory and Practice. New Jersey: Upper Saddle River, 2007. Graff, Gerald. “The New Criticism” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Linda Pavlovski, Vol. 146 (summer-fall 1974). Gale Cengage, 2004. < gerald-graff-essay-date-summer-fall-1974> Jancovich , Mark . The Cultural Politics of the New Criticism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. < al+Politics+of+the+New+Criticism&source=gbs_summary_s&cad=0> Kain, Patricia. How to Do a Close Reading. Writing Center: Harvard University, 1998. <>
  21. H a s s a n i a n | 21 Litz , A. Walton, Louis Menand, Lawrence Rainey. “Modernism and the New Criticism” The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism (No. 7) Princeton University, New Jersey. <> Ryan, Michael. Literary Theory: a Practical Introduction. UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Thompson, Ewa M. Russian Formalism and Anglo-American New Criticism: A Comparative Study. The Netherlands: The Hague, 1971. Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. USA: Garland Publishing, 1999. Wallace, David M. (1970) Literary Criticism as Ideology: A critique of New Criticism. Master thesis. Unpublished. University of British Columbia. Wellek, René. “The New Criticism: Pro and Contra.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 4. (Summer, 1978), pp. 611-624. < C611%3ATNCPAC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-L>.