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New Left Review 110, March-April 2018

francis mulhern


Consider this. For much of the past century, some 70 years or so, the historical self-understanding of professional literary studies in the Anglo-American zone has been radically confused. Intellectual genealogies have been garbled; precious working resources have been set aside; priorities have been misjudged and alignments misconstrued. An entire historical situation has been wrongly evaluated by most of the left in the field. So argues Joseph North, in a book whose stolen title is itself a sign of iconoclastic intent: Literary Criticism was—is—the title of ‘a short history’ published by two leading exponents of the New Criticism just 40 years ago. [1] Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, Cambridge, ma and London 2017; W. K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History, New York 1957. The difference, as the subtitle announces, is that this new one is ‘political’, and the account it offers is correspondingly ‘lean’—or even skeletal, viewed by the lights of conventional intellectual history. But this is avowedly ‘strategic history’, concerned to elucidate the ‘main lines of force’ in its theatre of operations, which is the ‘terrain of sensibility’. Its aim is to give ‘a rapid, synoptic overview of the basic paradigms that have governed the academic criticism of literature in much of the English-speaking world for the last century or so’, with a view to radical reconstruction. [2] North, pp. viii, ix, vii.

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Francis Mulhern, ‘Critical Revolutions’, NLR 110: £3

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