It’s time to move on from the antiquated rituals of criticism of the past. Does this statement itself seem outdated? Does even trying to argue against the now old New Criticism just seem hackneyed and unnecessary? Maybe, if so many professors and critics still didn’t feel jailed behind the bars of New Criticism. And for each restriction placed upon their own research, so too do they place it upon their students, readers, etc. This has got to end, one open forum for free literary thinking at a time. This is a call to arms for all literary readers and critics alike, it is time for something truly new.
I cannot completely discredit New Criticism, for it has shaped and opened doors for all new forms of literary criticism in the past fifty years. But, just as New Criticism has offered new ways to critique literature, it also falls short of it’s ultimate end goal and relies heavily on old, outdated methods, aimed purely at a sophisticated, upper-class reading society. In New Essays on “The Catcher in the Rye,” Emory Elliot states in his preface that prior to the advent of New Criticism, many American novels “had come to be taken for granted by earlier generations as having an established set of recognized interpretations” (vii). This new form of criticism was created to combat this way of thinking and learning.
New Criticism’s rise in the 1940s and 1950s called attention to the text itself, setting apart history, biography and society. Wimsatt and Beardsley state in “The Intentional Fallacy,” that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” (1015). By categorizing this assumption of authorial intent as “fallacy,” they argue that the author’s intention cannot be known and that people invoke the author’s intention rhetorically to bolster their own arguments — but that this inentionality is not, in fact, “real.” They then go on to distinguish among three types of evidence: internal, i.e. the text itself, external, which is everything outside the text, i.e. historical context, author’s biography, letters and journals, etc.; and lastly, contextual evidence, by which they mean the author’s other works that could be employed by readers in their attempts to discover the meaning of a literary work.
Well then. That’s pretty fucking limiting, isn’t it? For Wimsatt and Beardsley, internal evidence is the ONLY type of evidence that is to be used to determine the meaning of a piece of literature. Essentially, any meaning that is to be derived from a literary work can be found by doing a close reading of the text itself. Brings me back to 7th grade when it seemed like only the teacher really knew what the text was about, and only by reading closely could we lowly, young students actually even begin to grasp what the hell was going on.
For Wimsatt and Beardsley, focusing solely on the internal evidence of the words on the page prevents an imposition of a meaning that doesn’t really seem to be “in the text.” But this, however, assumes that all who take in a piece of work are aware of and understanding of all the words within the text. This is most definitely not always the case. Take, for example, a piece of work like Ulysses by James Joyce. A beautiful piece of literature with so many layers and depths of meaning the average reader needs a guide to help them along the way. What do we do with a work of literature like this? The first page of Ulysses starts out with a mock-Catholic mass as performed by Buck Mulligan.
Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
– Introibo ad altare Dei (3).
Right at the very start it is easy for someone to get confused and not understand the humor of the action that is taking place. What if you, as a reader, are unaware of common Catholic practices? Likewise, if you don’t understand the Latin language you may not be able to figure out what is happening. What would you make of this passage? In this case, and in many in literature, the reader will need to rely on some outside information in order to gather what is happening in the text. Therefore, the rule of “close reading,” is moot.
It seems funny to me then, in retrospect, that New Criticism was created against the idea of “recognized interpretations.” According to Emory Elliot, there was a sense among many students that “a canon was [already] established and that the larger thematic and interpretive issues had been decided” (vii). But with so many professors in the canon holding New Criticism so sacred, I can’t help but ask, has much really changed in modern learning institutions?
What New Criticism says to me, judging by this first rule (one of many I will touch upon in later posts), is that the only people who can determine a “true meaning” of a work of art is an elite, learned, teaching and/or critiquing class. The words on a page and their sub-sequential meanings are only for those of an intellectual higher class to know and possess. The “average” reading public does not matter nor should they have any business trying to create meaning out of a text. New Criticism, in my mind, is a form of literary eugenics. A term I will use to describe all those of higher-learning facilities and the like who feel that they “hold the meaning of a text,” over the typical readers, knowing only the truth from the New Criticism gods who have handed it down to them. Authors are unnecesssary. Only the critics matter, and only if they adhere to New Criticism rules and only if they’ve established themselves as notable and respectable. Students, and even casual readers, should only aspire to be such, else their opinions do not matter, for they are not part of the elite, intellectual reading community who holds all the power.
Does this seem excessive? Dare I even say, radical? Perhaps, but lines need to be drawn and “laws” need to be broken. I ask you, should there be “rules” on thought? Rules imposed upon opinions? Should we, as a reading public, be unable to read a work in the way we choose because some highfalutin, crotchety old critics say we cannot? I think not. And I think now is the time for freedom within the field of literary criticism.
I understand that we cannot merely just step all over those who worked hard to bring us New Critcisim. Their intentions were well. But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. It is also unfair to pass any judgments without studying the tenets of New Criticism, its origins and how it broke the mold. However, you gotta know the rules to break the rules, and that said, after much studying of New Criticism, I think it’s time to smash the state of literary criticism as it stands.
Northrop Frye wrote in his “Anatomy of Criticism,” that in the public must move beyond New Criticism and its isolating habits of the mind, linking it to “art for art’s sake” critical doctrines and the “delicate learning” aimed for the initiated and elite few. That was in 1957. It’s 2011 now. What has changed? Now is the time for liberation of thought and mind.
I should also say that this is not an imposition. It’s an emancipation. A freeing of thought and arguments within literary criticism, but only by choice. Everyone has their own comfort zone. And when one is enjoying literature, each individual should be able to do just that…enjoy it. If you feel safer within the confines of New Criticism, then by all means, follow it. It’s is up to you to choose how you interpret a piece of literature. And if you have opinions that don’t seem to fit the mold, express them. That’s the main basis of this entire blog. A freedom of thought and mind for any and every type of literature read, because, in the end, literature can and should be enjoyed.
Elliot, Emory. “Series Editor’s Preface.” Jack Salzman, ed. New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1991.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. New York: Random House, 1957.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1961.
Rotante, Jamie. Who is the Arranger in Joyce’s Work: A Definitive Answer. New York, Blurb.com, 2010.
Wimsatt, W.K. and Monroe Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” Hazard Adams, ed. Critical Theory Since Plato. New York: Harcourt, 1971. 1015 – 1022.