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.