For much of the twentieth century, the New Criticism was the dominant method of textual interpretation. Most critics and teachers of literature in college and universities, both in Great Britain and the United States, were committed to “close reading”—the intensive study of the words on the page, the careful examination of the poem in itself, which was the theory and practice that the New Criticism described and promoted. The New Critics were different in important respects from one another, but, as one of their leaders, Cleanth Brooks, observed: “The one common element that I can discern among those loosely grouped together as New Critics was the special concern they exhibited for the rhetorical structure of the literary text” (Brooks 1984: 42).
Few today would claim to be or would aspire to become a New Critic. The movement expired, it is generally agreed, decades ago. Yet when it arose and established itself, the New Criticism was viewed not only as significantly “new” but also as superior to everything that had preceded it. In the mid‐1950s, Hyatt H. Waggoner identified the New Criticism as “the best criticism we have or are likely to have for a long time. Certainly, it is the chief reason why it is perfectly correct to characterize our age as, whatever its other failings, a brilliant age for criticism.” In Waggoner’s judgment, “the greatest contribution” that the New Criticism had made was “its creation and demonstration of a way of talking about literature at once objective and literary … There are no extrinsic or irrelevant standards applied, there is no subjectivism, and there is no mystique. We can look at what is being pointed at and agree or disagree with the interpretation” (Waggoner 1957: 224). The poet‐critic William Logan has referred to this text‐focused era of the New Criticism from the 1920s to the 1960s as “the golden age of modern literary criticism” (Logan 2008: 255).
We can connect the rise and institutionalization of the New Criticism and its emphasis on the close reading of literary texts to a series of major works of literary criticism:
- T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920); Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (1932)
- I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924); Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (1929)
- William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930)
- Kenneth Burke, Counter‐Statement (1931); The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941)
- Ezra Pound, How to Read (1931); Make It New: Essays (1934)
- F. R. Leavis, Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry (1936)
- R. P. Blackmur, The Double Agent: Essays in Craft and Elucidation (1935)
- Yvor Winters, Primitivism and Decadence: A Study of American Experimental Poetry (1937)
- John Crowe Ransom, The World’s Body (1938); The New Criticism (1941)
- Cleanth Brooks, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939); The Well Wrought Urn (1947)
- Allen Tate, Reason in Madness: Critical Essays (1941)
Except for Leavis and Brooks, all of these critics were poets. Their literary criticism was crucially linked to their creative writing—to their own poetry (Burke and Tate also wrote fiction) and its relationship to the poetry produced by their contemporaries. “The greatest age of poetry criticism,” the first two‐thirds of the twentieth century, was also “one of the great ages of poetry in English” (G. Davis 2008: xxiii).
Ransom’s book gave the movement its name, but the term was not a new one. Joel E. Spingarn, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia, had called for a “New Criticism” in a lecture he delivered in 1910 on the “aesthetic judgment” of literature; and Edwin Berry Burgum edited an anthology of literary critical essays with this title in 1930. Nor was “close reading” a phrase that the New Critics invented. We can find it early in the century in essays, for example, by the literary historians J. L. Lowes (1911: 208) and Ruth Wallerstein (1927: 496). As for the New Critics themselves, sometimes they used this phrase, as when I. A. Richards remarks, “all respectable poetry invites close reading” (Richards 1929: 203), and when R. P. Blackmur refers to the “close reading” of Henry James (Blackmur 1948: 317). But these are exceptions: rarely do the New Critics speak of “close reading” as the interpretive activity they perform. The phrase became more common among their followers, especially those committed to defining the skills that students in literature courses should be taught. Related terms include: explication, explanation, analysis, exegesis, interpretation, elucidation, exposition, and clarification (Gudas 1993). Each of these terms was intended to convey a preoccupation with the details of a poem’s language, its structure and texture, its tone, its formal organization. As Blackmur said, literary critics should seek a “sense of intimacy by inner contact” with the literary work itself (1935: 285).
We therefore should connect the New Critics with close reading as a procedure but realize that the term is not one that many (or even any) of them embraced. Only some of them (e.g., Brooks) produced close readings of specific texts. Eliot and Pound; Richards, Ransom, and Tate: they insisted on rigorous attention to literary language but rarely did they undertake close reading (see Hyman 1948: 272). This helps us to understand why the term New Criticism is both accurate and unhelpful as a designation. It is “exasperatingly inexact” (Poirier 1992: 184), and it blurs significant distinctions between, say, a poet/critic/novelist such as Allen Tate and a British literary academic such as F. R. Leavis, an advocate for close reading and a practical critic who engaged in it. As Robert Penn Warren noted—he was a poet, critic, biographer, novelist, short‐story writer, and historian: “Let’s name some of them—Richards, Eliot, Tate, Blackmur, Brooks, Leavis (I guess). How in God’s name can you get that gang into the same bed? There is no bed big enough and no blanket would stay tucked” (qtd. Wellek 1986: 214).
Still, these very different figures do hold in common the belief that the critic should be vigilantly attentive to the poem—and it was always poetry, concentrated in its language and limited in length, that the New Critics emphasized. Criticism, says Eliot, “is the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste,” and “the chief tools of the critic are “comparison and analysis” (Eliot 1923: 24, 32–3). He stated too that what made his literary essays “coherent” as a group was their concern with “the problem of the integrity of poetry, with the repeated assertion that when we are considering poetry we must consider it primarily as poetry and not another thing” (Eliot 1928: viii). Ezra Pound proclaimed: “The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first‐hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one ‘slide’ or specimen with another” (Pound 1934: 17).
Influenced by Eliot and Pound, Leavis asserted: “In dealing with individual poets the rule of the critic is, or should (I think) be, to work as much as possible in terms of particular analysis—analysis of poems or passages, and to say nothing that cannot be related immediately to judgments about producible texts” (Leavis 1936: 2–3). Allen Tate states the point this way: “The question in the end comes down to this: What as literary critics are we to judge? As literary critics we must first of all decide in what respect the literary work has a specific objectivity … From my point of view the formal qualities of a poem are the focus of the specifically critical judgment because they partake of an objectivity that the subject matter, abstracted from the form, wholly lacks” (Tate 1940: 110).
To understand why this commitment to the text, to the writer’s words, was perceived to be “new,” we need to remember what literary criticism was like in the first decades of the twentieth century, especially in colleges and universities. It is not an exaggeration to say that there was little to no literary criticism. On the graduate level and to a large extent on the undergraduate level, the emphasis was on “facts” about literature, an emphasis that drew its inspiration from the lessons and models that philology and positivist scholarship furnished. Philological, textual, and other kinds of scholarship, anchored in ancient and medieval languages, gave English studies, it was believed, the prestige of a hard science, with a compelling discipline and a comparable sense of progress. When on the occasions that literature as literature was discussed, teachers spoke in vague, rapturous terms. The “criticism” on display was impressionistic and appreciative, highly generalized, often nostalgic, even sentimental.
At Harvard, for example, the 275 students who enrolled every year in the eminent scholar G. L. Kittredge’s undergraduate course on Shakespeare sat in a lecture hall and listened to his commentaries on etymologies and meanings of words, allusions, and references. It is said that he spent fifteen minutes on the “seacoast of Bohemia” in The Winter’s Tale. There was next to nothing in this course on Shakespeare’s “poetry, themes, and dramatic values” (Bush 1981: 598). The literary theorist René Wellek recalled that when he began as an instructor at Princeton in the 1920s, “no course in American literature, none in modern literature, and none in criticism was offered.” It was nearly impossible to find a teacher who had “any interest in aesthetics or even ideas.” Here, as at other colleges and universities, someone who wanted to study...