Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

New Criticism

New Criticism An approach to literature made popular between the 1940s and the 1960s that evolved out of formalist criticism. New Critics suggest that detailed analysis of the language of a literary text can uncover important layers of meaning in that work. New Criticism consciously downplays the historical influences, authorial intentions, and social contexts that surround texts in order to focus on explication—extremely close textual analysis [a.k.a. "close reading"]. Critics such as John Crowe Ransom, I. A. Richards, and Robert Penn Warren are commonly associated with New Criticism. See also formalist criticism.

a literary reading theory that looks at the parts of a piece of writing (usually a poem) to see how they all fit marvelously together to create a beautiful, organic whole with cohesive symbolic moves

new criticism. This refers to a group of American critics of the 1930s and 40s, and their English counterparts I.A.Richards and William Empson. For the New Critics, a literary text should be approached as a unified whole. Attention to historical context was less important than the aesthetic features, the interrelation of verbal features and the ensuing complexities of meaning. The task of the critic, therefore, revolved around close attention to ambiguity, paradox, irony, poetic imagery, etc., in order to show the contribution of each element to the overall unified structure of the text.

method of literary evaluation and interpretation practiced chiefly in the mid-20th century that emphasizes close examination of a text with minimum regard for the biographical or historical circumstances in which it was produced.

an approach to the critical study of literature that concentrates on textual explication and rejects historical and biographical study as irrelevant to an understanding of the total formal organization of a work.

New Criticism is an approach to literature which was developed by a group of American critics, most of whom taught at southern universities during the years following the first World War. The New Critics wanted to avoid impressionistic criticism , which risked being shallow and arbitrary, and social/ historical approaches which might easily be subsumed by other disciplines. Thus, they attempted to systematize the study of literature, to develop an approach which was centered on the rigorous study of the text itself. They were given their name by John Crowe Ransom, who describes the new American formalists in The New Criticism (1941).

New Critical formalism

New Criticism is distinctly formalist in character . It stresses close attention to the internal characteristics of the text itself, and it discourages the use of external evidence to explain the work. The method of New Criticism is foremost a close reading, concentrating on such formal aspects as rhythm, meter, theme, imagery, metaphor, etc. The interpretation of a text shows that these aspects serve to support the structure of meaning within the text.

The aesthetic qualities praised by the New Critics were largely inherited from the critical writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was the first to elaborate on a concept of the poem as a unified, organic whole which reconciled its internal conflicts and achieved some final balance or harmony.

In The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), Cleanth Brooks integrates these considerations into the New Critical approach. In interpreting canonical works of poetry, Brooks constantly analyzes the devices with which they set up opposing these and then resolve them. Through the use of "ironic contrast" and "ambivalence" , the poet is able to create internal paradoxes which are always resolved. Under close New Critical analysis, the poem is shown to be a hierarchical structure of meaning, of which one correct reading can be given .

The heresy of paraphrase

Although the New Critics do not assert that the meaning of a poem is inconsequential, they reject approaches which view the poem as an attempt at representing the "real world." They justify the avoidance of discussion of a poem's content through the doctrine of the "Heresy of Paraphrase," which is also described in The Well-Wrought Urn. Brooks asserts that the meaning of a poem is complex and precise, and that any attempt to paraphrase it inevitably distorts or reduces it. Thus, any attempt to say what a poem means is heretical, because it is an insult to the integrity of the complex structure of meaning within the work.

The intentional and affective fallacies

In The Verbal Icon (1954), William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley describe two other fallacies which are encountered in the study of literature .

The "Intentional Fallacy" is the mistake of attempting to understand the author's intentions when interpreting a literary work. Such an approach is fallacious because the meaning of a work should be contained solely within the work itself, and attempts to understand the author's intention violate the autonomy of the work. [See Biographical Fallacy]

The "Affective Fallacy" is the mistake of equating a work with its emotional effects upon an audience. The new critics believed that a text should not have to be understood relative to the responses of its readers; its merit (and meaning) must be inherent.

The New Critics' preference for poetry

The New Critics privileged poetry over other forms of literary expression because they saw the poem as the purest exemplification of the literary values which they upheld. However, the techniques of close reading and structural analysis of texts have also been applied to fiction, drama, and other literary forms. These techniques remain the dominant critical approach in many modern literature courses.

Possible critiques and responses

Because New Criticism is such a rigid and structured program for the study of literature, it is open to criticism on many fronts. First, in its insistence on excluding external evidence, New Criticism disqualifies many possibly fruitful perspectives for understanding texts, such as historicism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. Since New Criticism aims at finding one "correct" reading, it also ignores the ambiguity of language and the active nature of the perception of meaning described by poststructuralists. Finally, it can even be perceived as elitist, because it excludes those readers who lack the background for arriving at the "correct" interpretation.

However, defenders of New Criticism might remind us that this approach is meant to deal with the poem on its own terms. While New Criticism may not offer us a wide range of perspectives on texts, it does attempt to deal with the text as a work of literary art and nothing else.