Main features of New Criticism and Challenging Concept by Later Critics and Theorists


New Criticism is an approach to literature which was developed by a group of American critics, most of who 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 Criticism is distinctly formalist in characterIt 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.
John Crowe Ransom
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.
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.
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 criticism distinguished in itself and distinctive in its relation to past and present in literature, brought out several surveys of the field that opened it to other than readers of purely literary reviews. Critiques and Essays in Criticism, 1920-1948, edited by Robert W. Stallman with an introduction by Cleanth Brooks, represented the achievement of modern critics of Great Britain and America, the school deriving from the critical work of T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and I. A. Richards. Dr. Leavis' program was outlined in his Education and the University, and his vigorous use of his own methods was displayed in his The Great Tradition, a study of what Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad contributed to the tradition of the English novel and what they drew from it. T. S. Eliot; The Design of His Poetry, by Elizabeth Drew (first detailed chronological survey of his plays and light verse), involved her subject in Jungian psychology; T. S. Eliot, a Study of His Writings by Several Hands, was edited by Balachandra Rajan and extended from 'The Waste Land' to the present; T. S. Eliot, a symposium edited by Richard Marsh and M. J. Tambimuttu, had 47 distinguished contributors. Critics in New Directions II included Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Kenneth Rexroth, representing the 'advance guard' and experimental fields. Results of the romantic revival in writing in England during the war years were represented in A New Romantic Anthology edited by Stefan Schimansky and Henry Treece. The far-reaching effect of a small, relatively short-lived magazine was shown in The Importance of 'Scrutiny,' edited by Eric Bentley; and Transition Workshop, edited by Eugene Jolas
The New Critics privileged poetry over other forms of literary expression because the 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.
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.

 

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