The Old New Criticism, New Again

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In the WSJ, James Seaton reviews Praising It New, an anthology of writing by the New Critics, edited by Garrick Davis.  In the space of a short review, Seaton–quite remarkably–manages to blame all of the following for our corrupt contemporary literature-hating ways: 

Television shows, movies, instant-messaging, Facebook, blogs, “writers with literary pretensions” who are “now hyped beyond their merits,” the concern of cultural theorists with such nasty topics as “race, gender, class, linguistics and colonialism,” the evil children of the 60s who hate literature and humanism (and the New Critics!), anti-capitalists (this is the WSJ after all, so you knew that was coming), and relativists who think every interpretation of a literary text is equally valid.

What an astonishing array of literature-haters!  If we could gather them all together in a room, they might even more effectively conspire to crush what little remains of our anemic literary culture.

To be fair to this review, contemporary critics do have a tendency to unfairly malign the New Critics.  While preparing to write my dissertation chapter on the figure of the hipster in Ellison and Pynchon, I found myself reading many forgotten New Critical writers.  They came across as generally smart and insightful readers of literature, and beyond that they had a huge practical impact on the literary writers of their day.  And it is also true that critics were generally much more a part of our public culture than they are today.

Which is not to say that the ratio of good to bad criticism differed from today’s crop of young critics.  Most of it was crap, while a small slice of it was brilliant.  If in thirty years an anthology of the best theoretical writing of today were compiled, some Seaton-analog writing in a WSJ-analog would indubitably lament how unfairly maligned the Age of Theory was and decry the ways that newfangled nanotechnological brain implants have eroded our love of literature.  Which would be true enough, as far as it goes.

What Seaton does not discuss is that the New Critics he praises in his review are the very best of the first-generation.  There was a second generation, much maligned for producing rote and mechanical studies that searched in highly predictable ways for paradoxes and ironies and ambiguities in this or that text.  In the late 50s, as Thomas Pynchon mentions in an interview with David Hadju, it was often a sort of insult to be called a critic.  Randall Jarrell, a beloved critic and poet in his day, described this state of affairs as the “Age of Criticism,” another insulting phrase.

The fact is, deconstruction, politically-engaged criticism, and other new schools of thought emerged out of a collective sense that the New Criticism had gone as far as it could in its research program.  That it was exhausted.  Some politically-oriented critics considered deconstructionists to be reactionary aesthetes.  Deconstructionists and other post-structuralists accused Marxists of all sorts of intellectual crime.  And so on.

I can testify to the fact that literature is alive and well, both inside and outside of the academy.  People read classics, albeit in an expanded canon, though probably not expanded enough.  Most of what we do in the classroom is a testament to practices of close reading developed in the 40s and 50s, colored with this or that new theoretical tint.  And the rate of novel production today is just staggering.  Yes, much of what is published stinks, but that was also true in previous decades.  Finally, critics are still vitally important to the process of canon-formation, in a million direct and indirect ways.

So no, the literary-critical sky is not falling.