Vital Signs

New Criticism, Old Values

It was in 1942 that John Crowe Ransom coined the phrase "The New Criticism" by publishing a book under that title, a book about the most respected literary critics of the first half of the century, notably T.S. Eliot, LA. Richards, William Empson, Yvor Winters, and R.P. Blackmur. But actually, he was criticizing the critics and asking for something better; "Wanted: An Ontological Critic," he declared in his last chapter, as if no critic including himself—and he was one of the great critics—could really satisfy the need to produce a thoroughgoing critique of literature.

In the succeeding decade, Ransom's title became the creed of a critical school, which sought to treat literary works as works of art, not as historical or sociological treatises nor as disguised autobiographies, and the term "New Criticism" became fashionable in the academy and was inevitably abused by those who wanted to seem better critics than they really were. The result was that the "New Criticism" was no longer taken as a call for profounder critics of literature, as Ransom meant it to be (and it should be remembered that Ransom was not only the originator but the first critic of the New Criticism); it was taken instead as a call for narrower critics who sought only to look at the work itself, disregarding the author and his age. But for a time, at least, chiefly through the textbooks of Robert Penn Warren...

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