An advanced course in slow reading

Cleanth Brooks, chief architect of America’s first real school of criticism, was an advocate of “close reading,” if nothing else. The New Criticism he developed along with his friends from Vanderbilt University may not rest on any more substantial tenets than might be suggested by New Criticism’s other name, aesthetic formalism. Hence its detractors’ criticisms: “art for art’s sake” and, most famously, “an advanced course in remedial reading.”

But Brooks’s lifelong quest for an objective and comprehensive theory of aesthetics led many people back to great literature to discover it on their own, starting with his own students at Louisiana State University and Yale. Brooks’s essays loosely demonstrate a joy in “close reading” through a gentle and urbane writing style as Southern in its way as that of Faulkner, Welty, or other Southern writers Brooks admired.

From about the end of World War II until well into the 1970’s, aesthetic formalism largely defined how United States colleges and universities taught literature. As the first school of criticism as such in the United States, aesthetic formalism helped to make literary criticism a field of study in many universities. Mark Roydn Winchell describes the rise and eventual fall of New Criticism in his biography of Brooks, who became the chief spokesman for New Criticism.

Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism by Winchell is three books in one, combining a history of twentieth century criticism, a biography of Brooks, and a summary of most of the many books Brooks published, often with chapter-by-chapter detail. Winchell’s book also contains summaries of Brooks’s other published essays and summaries of the books and essays of some of Brooks’s many detractors.

To accomplish all three of these purposes, Winchell addresses each purpose separately within each general time period. As a result, Winchell often reports events out of chronological order. For instance, after alluding to an episode of Brooks’s life during a section on the history of criticism, Winchell later retreats five years to describe the event in detail. The loosening of time’s order is not much of a problem, however, and the book’s organization ably advances all three of its purposes. Some of the information seems needlessly out of place, though. For instance, Winchell waits until page 293 in his biography of over 450 pages to give the reader a physical description of the adult Brooks.

New Criticism grew out of the meetings and magazine of the Fugitive poets, an informal collection of Vanderbilt students and faculty in the 1920’s who were interested in the techniques of poetry. Many of the Fugitives became Agrarians, an intellectual and political movement of the 1930’s that offered the South a new and distinctly regional identity. As a reaction to the industrialization and the hegemony of economic issues in America, the Agrarians offered to return the nation to a world of small farms with a stronger connection to the land. Many former Fugitives contributed to I’ll Take My Stand, a collection of essays that defined the Agrarian movement of the 1930’s.

Like a prophet born out of due time, Cleanth Brooks missed becoming a Fugitive by attending Vanderbilt a couple of years after the last issue of The Fugitive was published. He was influenced by the Fugitives, however, including Vanderbilt professor John Crowe Ransom, whose poetry helped Brooks develop the crux of his aesthetic theory, which relied on paradox and irony as the chief means of understanding poetry.

Generally, Brooks concentrated his writing on developing and repeating the tenants of New Criticism and then on applying his critical theory to a variety of mostly English and American literature. While teaching English at Louisiana State University in the 1930’s, he and Fugitive poet Robert Penn (“Red”) Warren laid the groundwork for the New Criticism’s eventual postwar popularity by publishing bestselling collegiate textbooks (especially their first textbook collaboration, Understanding Poetry) and by editing the influential Southern Review.

Brooks and Warren’s textbooks were the first popular American textbooks written from the standpoint of an articulated theory of literary aestheticism. At the time of New Criticism’s rise, most American colleges taught literature through the eyes of scholarship alone. That is, a poem was “explained” by using information from the poet’s life or from the literary movement to which the poet belonged. Other historical information might also permit the reader to understand the poem. Before New Criticism, textbooks often suggested that a poem was great or good simply because of the message it conveyed.

None of this amounted to criticism, as moderns now understand literary criticism. Brooks and Warren’s textbooks, particularly Understanding Poetry, were meant to give students some tools by which they might understand and judge poetry on their own. Their textbooks distinguished poetry from other forms of writing by emphasizing paradox and irony, reasoning that a poem that means only what it says on its most obvious level would be inferior in that task to a political tract or other form of prose. Their theory of poetry dovetailed with their enchantment with the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century and with the “high moderns” such as T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats, all of who, it may be said, wrote a more intellectual style of poetry. To the new critics, the Romantics in general seemed too direct in their sentiments and too interested in an inherently poetic subject matter.

New Criticism was never meant to replace traditional scholarship, but to supplement it, Brooks often asserted. Nevertheless, the new critics were accused of presenting an ahistorical and valueless framework with which to understand poetry. Throughout his long career, Brooks responded to such claims by publishing essays that broadened the application of New Criticism’s tenets to expanding numbers and types of poems, short stories, and novels while using historical scholarship and other traditional scholastic tools to buttress his readings of these works of literature.

Such essays by Brooks, as well as those by Warren and other new critics, eventually led New Criticism away from its Agrarian roots and broadened its appeal. In his most influential book of essays, The Well Wrought Urn, Brooks applied his theories to foster a reader’s appreciation of some Romantic poetry in an effort to demonstrate the universality of New Criticism’s theory and to move New Criticism away from the anti-Romanticism of some of its allies, such as Eliot.

By the time Brooks published The Well Wrought Urn in 1947, New Criticism’s Agrarian roots were largely forgotten, and Brooks and his critical allies were often accused of espousing “art for art’s sake” since New Criticism almost never purported to judge a poem by its overt “message.” This criticism intensified in the 1960’s as members of the New Left sought to enlist poetry to bolster its assault on United States and European policies concerning the Vietnam War, the ecology, and Civil Rights.

Brooks responded to such criticism with his frequent “it’s not a choice between” line of reasoning. Brooks recognized that a poem could accomplish any number of things, just as a car might serve any number of goals. However, just as a car’s mechanics needs to be sound for the car to achieve its owner’s goals, a poem must adhere to certain rules of aesthetics for it to serve anyone’s aims.

Part of Brooks’s “art for art’s sake” leanings had to do with a certain balance he kept in life — a balance reflected in Winchell’s biography. Brooks was a convert to the Episcopal Church and was active in his church community. He felt no need for poetry to take on the role of religion, as some in his own denomination advocated in the 1960’s. Brooks saw the displacement of religion by poetry as an extension of Matthew Arnold’s belief that literature might fill the void left by religion after Darwin. Brooks’s own faith had survived Darwin, and he feared that Arnold’s position would lead to “an ersatz religion and an ersatz poetry.” (283)

Of all of New Criticism’s detractors, however, Harold Bloom’s criticism seems to ring with the most truth. In 1971, Bloom equated the two conflicting traditions in English poetry with two fundamentally different religious sensibilities. Bloom traced Romantic poetry to the left wing of English Puritanism, and to nonconformists who rejected Christianity to strike a religious path on their own. On the other hand, the “metaphysicals and the high modernists were content to climb the ladder of analogy rather than ascend to Heaven in a mystical ecstasy.” Bloom had no qualms with Brooks’s taste for dramatic, intellectual, and paradoxical poetry. He objected, of course, to what he felt was Brooks’s presentation of his personal aesthetic preferences in the objective language of theory.

Bloom further questioned whether Eliot or the poets among the new critics (Tate, Warren, and others) had escaped the influence of the Romantics they eschewed. Brooks, though, had come to the same conclusion with respect to Eliot at around the same time with the publication of his book, Shaping Joy. Winchell sums up Brooks’s take on Eliot and the Romantics:

Eliot is an anti-Romantic largely in his insistence on writing urban poetry and in his rejection of the notion of inherently poetic subject matter. But neither he nor the French Symbolists [whom Eliot admired] employ two defining characteristics of the metaphysical poets — logical or pseudological poetic structure and the extended metaphor or simile. In its use of elliptical or implied connections, Eliot’s verse more nearly resembles a poem such as Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways” than anything written by John Donne or Andrew Marvell. (333)

During the New Criticism’s reign, it was also the target of attacks from newer theories of criticism. In the late 1970’s and 1980’s, deconstructionism succeeded in replacing New Criticism as the most popular theory of criticism in American universities, but deconstructionism’s reign was short-lived. We now seem to live in an era when competing theories are permitting no one school of criticism to dominate American campuses.

Deconstructionism may resemble New Criticism taken to an extreme. While the new critics believed that the text often transcended an author’s intention, the deconstructionists believed the text did so every time. Yet Winchell argues that the difference between the two schools is not just one of degree:

[The New Critics] believed that connotations enriched language without obliterating denotations. They could argue against a moralistic reading of literature precisely because their own sense of moral certitude was so strong. They could step out of the confines of historical and cultural determinism because they believed that history and culture would be waiting for them when they got back. For the new critics, the values of Western civilization were so palpable that they could afford to take those values for granted. It is the pride of the deconstructionists that they take nothing for granted. (400-401)

Winchell ends his chapter on the ascendancy of deconstructionism with a quote from Brooks: “[The deconstructionists’] triumphs, at least thus far, have been in theory [and] not in any practical help to the reader.” This seems the greatest strength of New Criticism and of Brooks’s writings in particular: their assistance in deepening the relationship between a poem and its reader. New Criticism seems to have earned the most famous one-liner formed against it: aesthetic formalism is “an advanced course in remedial reading,” as Douglas Bush alleged. Brooks often wrote about “a close reading,” and his writing facilitated it. Brooks was one of the rare professors whose critical theory sprung out of what worked in the classroom.

Brooks was never a firebrand Agrarian, nor was he a firebrand of any sort. Moderate in his temperament and in his lifestyle, Brooks comes across in Winchell’s book as sort of an early Bob Newhart, a lifelong straight man surrounded by zany friends. We learn of Katherine Anne Porter’s third marriage to the Southern Review‘s business manager, Albert Erskine, some twenty-one years her junior (Erskine didn’t know her true age until hours after the wedding). We see a good deal of Alan Tate’s mercurial temperament and insulting manner, and of Red Warren’s first wife Cinina, whose jealousy and drunkenness embarrassed Warren on numerous occasions. The stories are fascinating and are relatively disconnected from one another, giving Winchell’s biography an anecdotal feel, as if he were chiefly relating stories he had collected from a number of witnesses. Indeed, the biography is the first and only one published of Brooks of which I am aware, and the biographical material in it, compared with the analysis of Brooks’s writings, has the feel of being new and relatively unprocessed. This is probably the case, since much of the information in the biography stems from the access Winchell had with Brooks during the last years of Brooks’s life and from the sources to which Brooks pointed Winchell.

Brooks had numerous connections with poets and other writers of the twentieth century, particularly the Fugitive poets, and part of the fun of this biography derives from the insights Brooks and his wife Tinkum gather about these well-known figures. Brooks’s almost lifelong association with Red Warren is especially entertaining and, at the end, touching.