New Criticism

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New Criticism


a school of American literary criticism and scholarship.

The New Criticism emerged in the USA during the 1930’s. It was influenced by the English critics I. A. Richards (who applied semantics to literary criticism) and W. Empson (who stressed the layers of meaning in a text), the philosopher T. Hulme, and the poets T. S. Eliot and E. Pound. The New Criticism attacked literature oriented toward social criticism, as well as sociological and Marxist literary scholarship. During the 1940’s and 1950’s the New Criticism monopolized American literary criticism. Since that time it has been going through a crisis.

The theoretical foundations of the New Criticism were formulated in A. Tate’s Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (1936), C. Brooks’ Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), J. C. Ransom’s World’s Body (1938) and The New Criticism (1941), and R. P. Blackmur’s Language as Gesture (1952). The New Criticism considers its principal task to be close reading—that is, the discovery of the specific and at the same time universal meaning of the text, including the significance of metaphors, similes, and the entire system of images.

The New Criticism pays particular attention to deciphering symbolism, which reflects the underlying motives of human behavior (K. Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 1941). It also seeks to reveal the multiplicity of meanings (and the ambivalence) in a poetical work and to interpret style as an indication of a certain frame of mind. A number of the techniques applied by the New Criticism in analyzing texts are productive. However, by regarding a literary work as a closed, self-sufficient linguistic structure (close reading), the New Criticism ignores its sociohistorical genesis and social orientation, as well as the author’s conscious aims and the sociobiographical aspect of his personality.

In France, the New Criticism developed in the late 1950’s. It was influenced primarily by structuralism in anthropology (C. Lévi-Strauss), linguistics (F. de Saussure and R. Jakobson), and semiotics (L. Hjelmslev), in their polemic with the school of cultural history and the aesthetics of existentialism.

In the early 1970’s the New Criticism comprised various trends, such as the Tel quel and Changes groups. The most general principles of French New Criticism were formulated by R. Barthes. It focuses on such problems as the internal structure of works (R. Barthes), narration and plot development (A. J. Greimas and C. Bremond), and the nature of poetic speech (T. Todorov), all of which are related to the development of the new rhetoric (the “M” group). Attempts are being made to apply N. Chomsky’s generative linguistics to the analysis of literary texts (J. Kristeva).

The American and French schools of the New Criticism are regarded by Soviet scholars as varieties of the formalistic method in literary scholarship.


Weiman, R. “Novaia kritika” i razvitie burzhuaznogo literaturovedeniia. Moscow, 1965. (Translated from German.)
Gilenson, B. A. “Zametki o ‘novoi kritike’.” In Voprosy estetiki, fasc. 8. Moscow, 1968.
Elton, W. A Guide to the New Criticism. Chicago, 1953.
Barthes, R. Critique et vérité. Paris, 1966.
Doubrovsky, S. Pourquoi La Nouvelle Critique: Critique et objectivité. Paris, 1967.

B. A. GILENSON (New Criticism in the USA) and G. K. KOSIKOV

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Ultimately, Richards's Practical Criticism became, together with Empson's Seven Types, the debating point from which John Crowe Ransom launched his often cited--and less often read--1940 volume The New Criticism.
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In recent decades, the postmodern reactions against the dominance of the New Criticism were violent and quick, and by the early 1980s the New Critics were almost universally renounced by the mainstream guild of literary scholars.
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Grav's brief methodological discussion distinguishes his "formalism-of-sorts" (4) from (a) "much literary criticism in the last few decades," which, he claims, tends "to extract and concentrate on select portions of text in order to divine overall meaning," while he, by contrast, puts the plays, "in their entirety, under a microscope with a focus on close readings" (3); (b) "a belief that the meaning of texts is endlessly indeterminate," against which he claims that "the consideration of a text in its entirety, coupled with intuitive common sense," can yield adequately probable interpretations; and (c) the "narrow tenets of New Criticism.