Cleanth Brooks | Critical Essay by Anthony Tassin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of Cleanth Brooks.
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Critical Essay by Anthony Tassin

SOURCE: "Cleanth Brooks and the Endurance of the New Criticism," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 33-43.

In the following essay, Tassin suggests that the New Criticism endures in its own right and as the bedrock upon which other schools of criticism are constructed.

The New Deal. The New Frontier. The New Criticism. They are not longer new, but each of these concepts in its day caught the attention of the public under the aegis of newness. In each case it was one man who conferred the name on the concept: Roosevelt, Kennedy, Ransom. And while these men have passed away, each has left his mark. Although a variety of new philosophies of literary criticism have come forward since the mid-century, the New Criticism is alive and well. For all purposes it has become a standard approach to teaching literature and is currently accepted by professors and students alike. When they speak of criticism, it is substantially the New Criticism to which they refer.

An inquiry into the literary criticism of every decade of the twentieth century reveals a constant re-examination of theory and methodology, new ways of thinking and talking about literature. In the early decades of our century, from various camps came new outlooks as scholars began seeking a study focused on the art object itself as opposed to the historical and genre approaches then in vogue. Rebels of a sort, the New Critics (broadly understood) rejected a number of criteria formerly espoused by earlier scholars. It was from such turmoil that the New Criticism took its origin. A 1941 book by John Crowe Ransom inadvertently bestowed a name upon the new trend, or at least provided a label whereby certain patterns of thinking might be referred to. As discussion and published essays manifested a certain new—though by no means homogeneous—philosophy, the movement came to be called (after the title of Ransom's book) the New Criticism. Among the pioneers of these new approaches to literature were poets, novelists, journalists, and critics. As time went on, most writers in the early group of Southern New Critics centered their efforts on poetry and fiction rather than criticism; thus, by the late 1940's, one of their number, Cleanth Brooks, came to be regarded as their primary critical spokesman.

The theory and criticism of which we speak has the firm foundation of a history reaching back more than seventy years. Indeed, its roots extend to a yet more distant past, to thinkers such as Coleridge, Hegel, Kant, and Kierkegaard. Therefore, it would seem that the phenomenon we are discussing deserves not only attention but a respect born of a wholesome maturation. Nevertheless, in the 1970's the prominence of the New Criticism waned. How did this come about? Some say the movement had run its course, delivered its message, and needed to retire to the wings. Perhaps a more accurate perception is not so much that the New Criticism had declined but that it had been upstaged by new ideologies, mostly European-born, which caught the fancy of some academic scholars. Upon the scene came structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, semiotics, and reader response—all postmodern developments.

Now we must ask: What indeed is the status of the New Criticism in the decade of the 1990's? Is it altogether a thing of the past or is it alive and well? Anyone aware of the status of literary criticism in the past three decades knows that many scholars share the view cited by Rene Wellek that the New Criticism is "superseded, obsolete and dead" ("Pro and Contra" 87). Already thirty years ago, we were told "on all sides that the New Criticism is dead, that a reaction has set in against it" (Krieger 107). By 1981, the "New Criticism had been dead,… for a decade or more" (Higgins and Parker 27). H. M. Richmond, writing in College English in 1972, chose to title his essay "The Dead Albatross: 'New Criticism' as a Humanist Fallacy." Obviously, these voices strongly suggest a demise. But there are others who are equally strong in their conviction that the New Criticism lives on.

Critics of more recent decades tend to react with a certain skepticism toward the writing of the New Critics. It is interesting that two reviewers of Cleanth Brooks's A Shaping Joy (1971) declared that they experienced a generation gap in reading the essays in that anthology. The reviewer for Choice says, "For someone who attended graduate school and studied English after World War II and into the 1950's, this book of twenty-two essays of recent years will give pause,… a pang of nostalgia. Meaning, significance, form—what did they all amount to?… It all seems so worn out." The author of the Times Literary Supplement review of August 20, 1971, argues that "the shift of a decade … has left these essays high and dry." If Brooks's book gave the reviewer pause, the reviewer himself gives his readers pause. Granted that each age has a style and an ambience of its own, do we throw away the books of poetry and fiction we read twenty or forty years ago? Do we not name the time-tested works "classics" for the very reason that they have endured?

One of the major strengths of the New Criticism, which has ensured its continuation, is that its prominent exponents taught students the methodology in such well-known textbooks as An Approach to Literature, Understanding Poetry, Understanding Fiction, and Understanding Drama. It should be noted further "that despite pleas from the social, psychological, and historical critics for greater recognition," the calls have gone unanswered in large measure because their proponents have failed to establish some form of practical pedagogy (Ray 1). Structuralism and Deconstruction have yet to produce their Understanding Poetry. Given the nature of their theory, it is hardly likely ever to come out in textbook form, with a specific set of dogmatic principles.

When Claire Hahn wrote her review of A Shaping Joy, she stated that "There are so many new-new critics hacking away at the giant [Cleanth Brooks]. It is a sheer delight to see that [he] still stands, that his principles are just, that they can and do 'expose once more the living fibers of the imagination so that men might once again see who they are and where they were'" (91).

Just ten years ago Louis D. Rubin, Jr., re-affirmed the identity between the prime elements of the New Criticism and "criticism" in general, indicating a strength that many critics take for granted and leave unsaid. Rubin writes:

If the New Criticism as a movement is concluded, it is because its job had been done: it had made us read poems closely and in their own right, so that we could gain access to poetry written in English during the first half of the twentieth century. But I remain convinced that it is not kaput, because I don't see its job as having been done. Certainly its faddishness is over; it is no longer a novelty. But in ceasing to be New it has not thereby become Old Criticism. Instead it has become simply criticism. (204)

It is most striking to note that in 1991, long after a number of American critics pronounced the demise of the New Criticism, an anthology of more than a dozen essays about Cleanth Brooks and his work was published in India. All of these essays are favorable and speak highly of Brooks's achievements. Perhaps a special note of integrity is to be found in the one essay by Bhagwati Singh dealing with Brooks's writings on Faulkner. Unlike many foreigners, or even non-Southerners in the U.S., Professor Singh has captured an accurate picture of the art and craft of Faulkner through Brooks's critical essays.

There is yet another voice to be heard in the current controversy—that of Brooks himself. We find a strong defense of the contemporary relevance of the New Criticism in the three lectures Brooks delivered in April 1982 at the University of Missouri. They are entitled "The Primacy of the Author," "The Primacy of the Reader," and "The Primacy of the Linguistic Medium." Why should these essays be considered relevant to the current status of the New Criticism? For several reasons. First of all, among the more recent writings of Cleanth Brooks, they are probably the most crucial in assessing Brooks's teaching on the nature of literature in our time. Secondly, the tripartite division of this series of essays—focused upon the author, the reader, and the linguistic medium—parallels the focal points of reference adopted by prominent theoreticians in the past three decades. In concentrating upon the author, we think of Harold Bloom. In focusing upon the text, we are reminded of Roman Jakobson. In placing the critical analysis with the reader, we come into the arena of Stanley Fish or perhaps Norman Holland.

In the first of these essays, "The Primacy of the Author," Brooks registers his earnest concern over the "disintegration of the very concept of literature." At this point he recalls that in his earlier days "the attack on literature came particularly from the historian and the biographer, who seemed bent on making literature simply the expression of the author or, more drastically, an expression through the author of a particular culture or a special climate of ideas" (Rich Manifold 29). Brooks's objection to the historian and the biographer usurping the role of literature is that history and biography deal with human actions more directly and factually than does literature, which is much more indirect and has the option of fictional content. Brooks goes on to cite Aristotle's dictum that literature is more philosophical than history because literature provides a more universal knowledge than does history. Brooks underscores the distinction between the factual, literal content of history and the freely organized, fictional, non-factual account rendered by literature. (Because the poet can "better observe the actual laws of human experience" Brooks concludes that literature is guaranteed an important humanistic role.) Next, Brooks recalls Descartes's "distinction between the truth that could be told about the spatio-temporal world in which man lives and that other world inside his own skull" (31). The matter here is one of objective truth and subjective truth.

Early in the second essay of this trilogy, "The Primacy of the Reader," Brooks indicates that even today there is a trend to see the literary work as "primarily the expression of its author" and cites Harold Bloom's last several books as presenting a renewed emphasis on the author in its most striking form. Noting Bloom's "intense interest in the writer as a man struggling to free himself from both literary conventions and the benumbing effects of an established tradition" (42), Brooks cites a statement from Dennis Donoghue: "Bloom's practical criticism is indifferent to the structure, internal relations, of the poem, or to its diction, syntax, meters, rhythm, or tone: it is chiefly concerned to isolate the primal gesture which the critical paradigm has predicted" (42).

Then Brooks turns "to an incursion into literary criticism from the other side—from an exaltation of the reader" by "the most vociferous proponent of this view of the critical process"—Stanley Fish (43-44). Brooks deplores the arbitrary norms that Fish accepts in seeking the most interesting interpretation of a poem over the one that gives a more nearly correct or adequate reading. Equally disconcerting is Fish's concept that "the process of reading is broken up into small units. It is not an unbroken flow—reading proceeds by jerks, in a process of starts and stops" (47). For Fish, reading is an indeterminate process and "the reader normally generates all kinds of out-of-the-way interpretations and meanings" (47). All of this amounts to a system of critical relativism.

Brooks's third essay deals with "The Primacy of the Linguistic Medium." Here he discusses what he considers "the most destructive encroachment of all upon literature"—the tendency of some linguistic theories (e.g. structuralism) to enlarge their scope to examine any kind of structure in all forms of human society, thus becoming entangled with anthropology and myths and all forms of social behaviors. Literature then becomes a secondary factor unto itself. A second defect of this approach is that the literary critic is more interested in his method than in any given literary work. What is beheld is seen as a system; whether literary or not is of little import. Related to the critic's fascination with method is the principle that the "structure" is generic and any linguistic model can be applied to any given text. Here again, the literary text undergoes undue subordination to an overruling frame of reference. Brooks provides the following explanation of deconstruction:

Deconstruction … is an outgrowth of structuralism, but whereas structuralism attempts to reveal the deep structure that underlies the surface meanings of any literary construct, deconstruction, using a more radical analysis, deconstructs that very structure, revealing its lack of any relation to anything beyond itself. But upon one point both structuralism and deconstruction come to the same conclusion: namely, that literature is a self-enclosed system, referring to nothing outside and beyond itself. The consequences of any such conception of literature seem to me to be devastating to any concept of its humanistic value. (55)

William E. Cain shares this concern when he states:

In one form or other, many at the present time are thus advancing one of the most unfortunate traditions of criticism—the belief that criticism cannot finally do what it claims to do, cannot make progress, cannot do more than recapitulate its mistakes and shortcomings. It is a striking fact, seen from the perspective of anti-critical history, that criticism has shunned analytical method or else, particularly since the dawn of the New Critical era, has refined methods while doubting their purposefulness. Criticism has, furthermore, consistently tied itself to social, cultural, and political values that it places in the realm of the unanalyzable. ("Anti-Criticism" 47)

After discussing the crippling if not devastating effects brought about by the relativistic approach of either structuralism or deconstruction, Brooks recalls a principle he enunciated early on regarding the relation of literature to philosophy and to history. He assigns to literature a certain value over philosophy in that the latter deals with abstractions and principles of a predictable nature, whereas literature affords writers a medium that engages human actions in a creative setting of concrete, dramatic narration. Literature enjoys a dynamism that philosophy, in principle, cannot afford. History, of course, deals with human actions, but these are already fixed by the record or chronicle of events. Again, history does not enjoy literature's prerogative of being either dynamic or dramatic; the script is already written and fixed. Brooks continues: "The truth provided by literature is not asserted or stated, but rendered, and the mode, I repeat, is essentially dramatic" (62). The content of the literary piece is in the text; it is not a relative thing nor is it clouded over with skepticism. It is as truly there as Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is "present" in the score "in the form of signs that are to be realized in musical tones" (63). Brooks goes on to note that these comparisons are not so much matters of competition but simply contrasts intended to illustrate the broad scope of literature.

One of the pitfalls of deconstruction is the Pandora's Box it opened upon itself in extending the proper study of literature to other areas of a non-literary nature. "Critical theory today, with its emphasis on textuality, discourse, and rhetoric," says Gregory S. Jay, "has once more forced us to ask what relation if any links literature to the referents of history, politics, psychoanalysis and the other human sciences" (970). Granted that history, psychology, and politics sometimes contribute substantial enrichments to literary productions, one must ask: Is it not incumbent upon the literary critic to be versed as well in the norms and criteria of history, sociology, psychology? And, if the norms of several disciplines are invoked simultaneously, how can an individual cope with such a plethora of standards?

Further, one might ask whether it is necessary for a literary work to conform to all the criteria of history, psychology, politics, etc., in order to qualify for excellence as literature. Allow me to illustrate with a simple example: historical fiction. Traditionally, readers allow the novelist a certain degree of poetic license in creating the scenario. On the other hand, some readers may be more discriminating and may get testy if some dates or sequence of events is altered or if the main characters do not conform to what is factually known about them. For example, the widely acclaimed play and movie Amadeus includes several major discrepancies concerning the character of Salieri and his relationship with Mozart. Suppose one revised the story so that the characters, events and dates were as close to known history as possible; what then? Would the resulting drama be interesting? Perhaps. But it would not be Amadeus. Has the liberty the author taken with the facts produced a defective work of art? Many critics and audiences seem to think not. If Alexander Pope was right that "the proper study of mankind is man," then perhaps the proper study of literary criticism is literature. It is hard to understand why a literary theoretician would want to complicate his task to include a multitude of criteria from other fields. The adjunct sciences instead of being ancillary interpreters have become wayward intruders.

The contemporary critical scene might be described as a literary battlefield. Proponents of various forms of interpretation have not only sought to advance their new methodology. They also insist that what they say is right because some aspect of the New Criticism was wrong. Perhaps one of the most accurate descriptions of the embattled academy is given by David H. Hirsch when he states:

The various strands of contemporary literary criticism and theory (reader responsism, or reception aesthetic; intentionalism, semiotics; deconstruction; interdeterminacy; and poststructuralism) all have in common an implacable enmity toward "the New Criticism." Each movement makes a broad dual claim: on the one hand to be moving inexorably forward into new realms of knowing, and on the other to be effecting this movement forward by means of a frontal assault on some aspect of New Critical error. (25)

The New Criticism speaks for itself through a large body of documents in the form of critical statements such as the "My Credo" series in the Kenyon Review (1950), countless essays explicating particular poems, college English textbooks prepared to guide students to understanding poetry and fiction and to writing clear and cogent rhetoric. The New Criticism stands self justified. However, as Hirsch has well observed:

The fortress New Criticism under attack is actually a convenient house of straw constructed by the new metatheorists themselves. The kind of criticism against which they launch their most furious attacks was, by and large, not practiced by the major New Critics. Certainly such initiators of New Critical practice as T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom were cognizant of author, reader, and historical background. (25)

Some articulate spokesmen who pose as adversaries of the New Criticism betray in their polemics a lack of acquaintance with the writings of the New Critics. Focusing upon, a few cliches, such as "the Intentional Fallacy," "the Affective Fallacy," and "Irony and Paradox," they proceed in true quixotic fashion to attack the windmills. Repeatedly one finds mention of "the autotelic text," described or referred to as some kind of incongruously imprisoned literary preserve of the New Critics. All the while they overlook the careful writings of most New Critics in relation to the role of the author and the reader. How can we make a fair evaluation of this situation? To begin with, we can turn to Cain for a resolution of the dilemma. "The New Criticism leads two lives. Or rather, it is dead in one sense and very much alive in another. It is dead as a movement, as many critiques and attacks demonstrate. But its lessons about literary study lead a vigorous life, setting the norms for effective teaching and marking the boundaries within which nearly all criticism seeks to validate itself" (Crisis 105).

In substance, Cain's essay, "The Institutionalization of the New Criticism," may serve as a manifesto for the New Criticism in the 1990's. This essay may well serve the same function as the several essays composed by New Critics for the Kenyon Review series "My Credo" (1950). But Cain's observation is not a recent discovery. Fifteen years ago Rene Wellek voiced a similar appraisal of the endurance of the New Criticism.

I will not conceal my own conviction that the New Criticism has stated or reaffirmed many basic truths to which future ages will have to return: the specific nature of the aesthetic transaction, the normative presence of a work of art that forms a structure, a unity, coherence, a whole, which cannot be simply battered about and is comparatively independent of its origins and effects. The New Critics have also persuasively described the function of literature in not yielding abstract knowledge or information, message or stated ideology, and they have devised a technique of interpretation that often succeeded in illuminating not so much the form of a poem as the implied attitudes of the author, the resolved and unresolved tensions and contradictions: a technique that yields a standard of judgment that cannot be easily dismissed in favor of the currently popular, sentimental, and simple. ("Critic of Critics" 108)

In 1979 Grant Webster expressed a similar view: "Theoretically, Formalism is dead, but on the practical level, particularly in academic classrooms, it flourishes … One can say, generally, that Formalism lives now in the careers of its practitioners, many of whom have outlived the flowering of the movement, and of their students, and that it is likely to be believed in by, or to have been part of the development of, any literary person who came of age intellectually from 1935 to 1955" (205). Brian Higgins and Herschel Parker note that "although the New Criticism has been dead, folk say, for a decade or more, its legacy is omnipresent." They refer to critics of varying competence and aim their fire at those who are "unwilling or unable to evaluate and employ scholarly evidence" (27).

Another arena where one finds the New Criticism thriving is in the essays of such journals as the Sewanee Review and the Southern Review. Naturally it comes as no surprise that both these magazines should occasionally run reminiscent articles focusing upon the Fugitives and Agrarians and other well known literary figures of the past half century. But there is more than a retrospective monument here. There is also new New Criticism. One also finds new magazines edited by disciples of the New Critics, such as Radcliffe Squires's Michigan Quarterly Review.

Perhaps one of the strangest types of evidence testifying to the endurance of New Criticism is the quest of certain recent writers to clarify the nature of the New Criticism and to rename it in more precise terms. Undaunted by fifty years of usage, Grant Webster maintains that the term "New Criticism" is "both confusing and unenlightening," and insists it's time "to substitute a name which indicates the nature of what is basically a unified movement." And so he proposes "Tory Formalism" "as the term which best characterizes the charter group of men who believe in or wish for a social and intellectual world and a literature that express belief in tradition, order, hierarchy, the fallen nature of man, the war of good and evil, and the ultimate union of warring dualisms in the Word of God and the metaphors of poetry" (205).

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in discussing "Some Aims of Criticism," consents to use the familiar term "New Criticism," but feels compelled to clarify that "the guiding principle of the movement was not formalism, or close analysis, or stylistics, but rather the programmatic idea that literature should be described and estimated in its own intrinsic categories." Hirsch holds that the notion that "literature should be dealt with as literature … still remains the dominant though not the only guiding principle for the teaching and criticism of literature" (124). We should also ponder this statement by Jonathan Culler: "It is important to recognize that what was once the aim of a particular critical movement now defines the general aims of criticism. Close reading of literary texts is the ground that nearly all theories and methods build upon or seek to occupy. And this holds true even for those that are explicitly set up in opposition to the New Criticism" (Pursuit 5).

In his essay "Beyond Interpretation," first published in 1976, Culler argued against the emphasis on "close reading" of texts and referred to it as the "insidious legacy" of the New Criticism. Culler sees the rejection (by the New Critics) "of possible external contexts, whether biographical, historical, psychoanalytic, or sociological," as a literary predestination of sorts to no choice of approach but interpreting the poem. One is taken aback, however, by Culler's rejection of the terminology so well known to those familiar with New Critical approaches: ambivalence, ambiguity, tension, irony, paradox. Surely any reader can readily see each of these terms as aspects of signs, significance, and semiotics. But that was early Culler. In his more recent work he suggests that there does not exist (as some might maintain) a diametrical opposition between inclusive structuralism and the New Criticism.

The distinctiveness of an inclusive "structuralism" does not in fact lie in its cosmopolitan theoretical interests. The New Criticism, with which it is often contrasted, was by no means antitheoretical or provincial, as the discussions in Rene Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature show…. The interpretive projects of the New Criticism were linked to the preservation of aesthetic autonomy and the defense of literary studies against encroachment by various sciences. (On Deconstruction 20)

Culler takes pains to delineate the varieties of structuralism, not so much in terms of different models as in terms of what features are to be included in the "structure" or "structuralism" of a given literary piece: analysis which may include concepts from linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and so on. For some, such varied inclusion is objectionable and untenable. A second objection Culler cites is that structuralism "threatens the very raison d'etre of literary studies by foregoing the attempt to discover the true meaning of a work and by deeming all interpretations equally valid" (On Deconstruction 19).

We can conclude this overview by noting the endurance of the New Criticism on the basis of its insistence, not so much upon close reading or style, but upon the principle that literature should be approached and valued according to its own intrinsic categories. The New Criticism remains valid because it altered the course of teaching literature and brought the focus of literary pedagogy back to the text. Both in method and in theory, the New Criticism endures.

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