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’.footnote1 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’footnote2 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.

For perhaps a decade after the demise of New Critical theory, New Critical practice lingered on. Indeed as Richard Ohmann has shrewdly suggested, it was a practice eminently suited to the pedagogical conditions of post-war America, where the probing of an isolated literary fragment offered a convenient way of coping with a rising University population.footnote3 But New Criticism proved in the end too particularist, too modest and unmethodical, to provide the kind of apology for poetry which a monopoly capitalist age demanded. What was needed was a critical method which, while vigorously preserving the formalist, anti-rationalist bent of New Criticism, fashioned it into a global theory of rigorously ‘scientific’ proportions. The answer, in a word, was the Canadian Northrop Frye’s mighty totalization of literary genres, Anatomy of Criticism, published in 1957 but gestating since the New Critical decline of the late 1940s.

It is here that Frank Lentricchia takes up the narrative, in his invaluable survey of that rich gamut of idealisms, all the way from Frye to Harold Bloom, which has served as modern American criticism.footnote4 Frye’s perverse achievement was to press the two contradictory thrusts of New Criticism to a parodic extreme. New Critical objectivism became an aggressive literary positivism, eschewing evaluation for a cumbersome system of mythological categories into which any individual work could be briskly slotted. Ransom’s aestheticist nostalgia mushroomed to a full-blooded formalism, a neo-Kantian disdain for literary cognition and referentiality in a world where myth alone could transcend the torture-chamber of history. If Frye is in some sense a proto-structuralist in his pathological monism, he is perhaps in another sense a proto-post-structuralist: for at the centre of his system wells a transcendental lack or desire, source and impulse of all structuration, which will be staunched only in the kingdom of heaven. It is true that this conception in Frye is strictly speaking more Sartrean than post-structuralist, since desire is for him an originary centre, untrammelled by the discourses to which it gives rise. But the curious unity in his work of a structuralist scientism and debased ‘post-structuralist’ Romanticism is nevertheless striking. It is a savage irony that he first encountered both ‘system’ and ‘desire’ in his early study of William Blake, Fearful Symmetry (1947).

Lentricchia, in an otherwise excellent account, does not quite pursue these parallels. Nor does he attend to Frye’s work since the Anatomy, in which the ideological motivations of that earlier text become flagrantly clear. In The Stubborn Structure (1970) and elsewhere, Frye explicitly advances literature, in the manner of Matthew Arnold, I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis and the New Critics, as both surrogate for and complement to science, an essential palliative for the displacement of religious ideology. (Like several of the New Critical luminaries, Frye is a professing Christian—indeed a clergyman). Yet the totalizing drive of a utopian mythology, necessary to loosen the tightening grip of Cold War ideologies, is at odds with liberal pluralism—is, indeed, in some danger of formally reproducing the very ideologies it is supposed to spurn. In The Critical Path (1971), Frye will consequently strike a cerebral balance between conservative ‘myths of concern’ and liberal ‘myths of freedom’, correcting authoritarian tendencies with the latter and political irresponsibility with the former. The only mistake—that of the revolutionary—is to misinterpret myths of freedom as historically realizable goals. The New Critical dilemma—textual pluralism, structural integration—is reproduced rather than resolved.

In so far as Frye’s myths are ontologically grounded, they contrast with existentialist ‘fictions’—those mental products ironically aware of their own arbitrariness. Lentricchia accordingly passes from Frye to Sartre (a significant influence on the American critics Murray Krieger and Paul de Man), relating the bland neo-Kantianism of the one to the tragic epistemology of the other. If Frye’s fastidious aestheticism can posit the external world only as horrifying facticity, Sartre’s existentialism is in pursuit of an elusive real which is nevertheless paradoxically granted determinacy over consciousness. So it is that Sartre’s The Psychology of the Imagination scornfully devalues the ‘image’ as mere congealed unreality, at the same stroke as it celebrates the imagination as a negating—and so emancipatory—surge of consciousness. It is clear at any rate that by the time we arrive at Sartre and Wallace Stevens, that glib counterposing of coherent fiction to chaotic reality which is, as Lentricchia remarks, ‘one of modernism’s characterizing shibboleths’, has become entrenched as the purest critical cliché.