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New Left Review I/127, May-June 1981


Terry Eagleton

The Idealism of American Criticism

From the mid-1930s to the late 1940s, American literary theory fell under the sway of a curious hybrid of critical technocracy and Southern religious-aesthetic conservatism known as the ‘New Criticism’. [1] The leading New Critics were John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, R. P. Blackmur, Austin Warren and Monroe Beardsley. For an excellent Marxist account of the movement, see John Fekete, The Critical Twilight (London, 1977). Offspring of the failed Agrarian politics of the 1930s, and aided by the collapse of a Stalinised Marxist criticism, New Criticism yoked the ‘practical critical’ techniques of I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis to the re-invention of the ‘aesthetic life’ of the old South in the delicate textures of the poem. Ravaged by scientific rationalism, the ‘world’s body’ [2] The title of a work by John Crowe Ransom, published in 1938. had been shamefully denuded; it was now the task of criticism to restore that sensuous particularity, resisting the remorseless abstraction of experience with its cognitions of poetic ambiguity. But since a mere Romanticism was no longer ideologically plausible, New Criticism couched its nostalgic anti-scientism in toughly ‘objectivist’ terms: the poem had the gemlike hardness of an ‘urn’ or ‘icon’, a structure of complex tensions cut loose from the flux of history and authorial intention, autotelic and unparaphrasable. Critical analysis, then, mimed the reifying habits of industrial capitalism even as it resisted them; ‘disinterested’ aesthetic contemplation parodied the very scientism it was out to challenge. If the texture of the poem eluded rationalist enquiry, its functionalist structure held contradictions in harmonious balance. As a provisional unification of responses, an eirenic interplay of opposing beliefs, poetry promised to scoop out a contemplative space within the Cold War. In response to the reification of society, New Criticism triumphantly reified the poem.

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