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What is New Criticism?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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New Criticism is a form of literary criticism that triumphed as the predominant critical form in the 1940s through the 1960s. John Crowe Ransom is responsible for naming it in his book of the same name, published in 1941. It quickly became “the” way to read literature and poetry, and was taught in both college and high schools. The underlying idea is that the intent of the author is not important; the text itself is all that should be examined.

Literary criticism prior to this form had considered a number of ways to interpret literature, with no consensus as to the best method. Some critics evaluated literature in terms of the author’s history, showing how works were representative or differed from the time periods in which they were written. Others evaluated works in terms of the author’s life and background.

New Criticism differed greatly from previous forms as it dismissed authorial intent, and particularly ignored biographical and historical information about an author. Instead, literature was to be interpreted based solely on the cohesiveness of the work. To a New Critic, whatever the author intended was not relevant, as the form of the work always transformed intent, producing new meanings.

The critic’s position was to evaluate various aspects of a text that produced ambiguity. He or she analyzed metaphor, simile, and other rhetorical tropes that resulted in stress and counterstress, reconciling them to find the harmony in a work. Through analysis, the critic could then tell readers how to interpret a text and what value was to be gained from reading a text. In other words, the critic became the interpreter through which literature could be understood.

Additionally, the text had to be considered as an object of literature, complete within itself. If the reader began to extrapolate to his or her interpretation outside of the text, he or she had strayed from New Criticism. The critic should be free from his or her own feelings or emotional response when reading the text, and only criticism that stuck to the text was of value. Later theorists argued that there can be no freedom from the self in textual analysis, and that this desire to analyze text as if the reader were a blank slate is quite impossible.

In their new elevated status as interpreter, however, critics legitimized their own profession. Publication of books and articles that clarified the meanings of poetry and other writings were cousins to literature, because they provided the layperson with a method for understanding what he or she read. Though much of New Criticism has been soundly refuted, this new, enhanced status of the critic remains.

This form of criticism influenced the literary canon, the materials considered to be art, because critics could point to those works that achieved harmony through ambiguity. As such, certain works were considered more valuable than others, greatly influencing which ones were assigned as reading material. Students writing about such material often had their interpretations scrapped because they had failed to find the “correct” interpretation of a text.

While New Criticism remains a useful tool for teaching students about the basic elements in poetry, most of it has been refuted and replaced. Newer forms of literary criticism, which often posit that texts can produce multiple meanings that are directly opposed, have triumphed. These theories have reintroduced the consideration of the author’s intent from a psychological or historical point of view. Other critical schools, such as structuralism, evaluate the specific language of the text to derive multiple meanings.

The best refutations have led to inclusion of more works in the canon. New Critics tended to value Western work over any other forms of literature, and moreover, placed a higher value on works written by men. Feminist and New Historical Critics have restored many works to the canon that had been ousted by New Critics.

Though New Criticism is no longer a dominant critical form, knowledge of it is essential to understanding the history of literary criticism. One outstanding text to review is Cleanth Brooks’ The Well Wrought Urn. Other influential writers in this area are William Empson and Allen Tate.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon933031 — On Feb 14, 2014

Adding anything outside that given by the text is mere apocrypha. New critics say prune all that Imposed addenda and then the text remains to be read closely and interpreted. That gives criticism an objective goal, although not a scientific one.

Any other ramification and imposition on a literary work calls for distortion and misuse thus rendering interpretation a probability game. Every interpreter would become correct and no interpreter/critic would be wrong. This paradox is kept at bay when literature is approached from the perspectives of new criticism.

The bicker over the criticism of literature survived simply because all ways of approaching literature other than is given by the text are seemingly legitimized forms of decontextualizing and twisting through omission or addition. This addiction and affliction needs therapy offered by new criticism.

By ysmina — On Feb 18, 2011

I think that literature can be criticized from many different points of view. I've had the opportunity to follow critics who use different formats when criticizing but, for me, the most fascinating one is feminist criticism. Anyone who has had a chance to take a course on feminism or women in literature during high school or college would know that many literary works are supportive of a patriarchal type of system that ignores or even represses women rights. Feminist and new feminist criticism evaluates literature on the basis of these factors and the overall impact of a piece of writing on women's position in society. Literature says a great many things about people and unfortunately, many literary works by men still express an unwillingness to accept women as equals.

I think that feminist criticism needs to be even more popular. Not because we want to put down male writers, absolutely not. Literature can reach many people and impact the way they see the world. More literature which respects and supports women rights can have a positive affect on society in general. If an educated group like writers in a society do not support a cause like women rights, how can we expect support from the rest of society to make the necessary changes?

By bear78 — On Feb 17, 2011

It sounds to me like criticism of literature before new criticism was more structured. Critics looked at the piece of work comparatively, analyzing how it represented or expressed the writer or that period of time. This means that different critics who analyzed the same piece of work would come up with the same or similar conclusions about the writing or poetry. I think that is a more realistic and just way of criticizing literature. Even though new criticism's definition does not allow the critic to include his or her own thoughts and judgments about a subject, it's just not possible. New criticism is a sort of interpretation by the critic and intentionally or unintentionally will include the interpreter's worldview and perceptions. I actually think that this is an acceptable way of considering literature. It bothers me, however; when an individual's judgments are used to label a piece of literature as good or bad. I might read a poem and think that it is excellent, you might read it and think it is horrible. I don't think this gives us the right to announce our opinions as fact. I'm happy that new criticism is not as dominant as it used to be because I think it might undermine some writers' abilities and accomplishments.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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