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The Cultural Politics of New Criticism
Mark Jancovich

[1993] Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006
£ 20.99, ix + 217 pp. ISBN 9780521034845


Reviewed by Jamil Khader



Specters of New Criticism: The Political Formalism of The American New Criticism

The titles of many publications on theory that came out in the last decade make it clear that academics have been scrambling to transcend Theory and to inhabit a post-Theory world. The controversy surrounding the publication of Daphne Patai and Will Corral’s Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent (NY: Columbia University Press, 2005), with its ferocious attack on contemporary literary theory especially, poststructural theory and the practice of deconstruction, and its call for a return to poetics and to the pure love of literature qua literature, devoid of any political agendas, brought to the forefront questions about the value, utility, and meaning of literary theory to the study and appreciation of literature. This kind of attack is not new to the history of literary theory: The ceaseless struggle between insiders and outsiders, dogmatic thought and skeptical discourses (call it, if you may, “the anxiety of influence,” after Harold Bloom, or the Oedipal complex, after Freud) has always marked the history of Theory. As Valentine Cunningham correctly points out in Reading After Theory (Oxford and Malden: Blackwell, 2002), criticism and theory work not through innovation only but through renovation, a “process of constant reaction, resurrection, rereading, repositioning revision” [37]. For him, therefore, “theorizing about literature is always a palimpsest” [37]. It is in the context of these debates about Theory, the place of poststructuralism and deconstruction, and the renovation of Theory that I’d like to review Mark Jancovich’s The Cultural Politics of the New Criticism (originally published in 1993), which has recently been re-issued by Cambridge University Press (2006).

In his effort at renovating the legacy of the American New Criticism, Jancovich revisits the cultural and political contributions of the work of the first generation of New Critics—the Nashville Agrarians—a group of Southern poets and critics that included Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom, who gave the movement its name in his book, The New Criticism (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1941). Although the New Criticism is considered by far today as a dead movement, or as David Richer calls it in his introduction to Falling into Theory (Boston and NY: Bedford/ St.Martin’s, 2000) a “rare species” [1-2],no one can underestimate the lasting impression that the New Criticism has made on the academy especially, through its style and method of close reading. A brief survey of recent guides and companions to literary study and theory can only confirm the prevalence of this association of the New Criticism with formalist and aesthetic criticism that dismiss the social and political context of the text as extraneous or extrinsic to the meaning of the text. Jancovich, however, seeks to correct the common misrepresentations of the New Criticism in the history of literary theory as a form of asocial formalism or a theory of semantic autonomy.

Contrary to the academic consensus, therefore, Jancovich claims that the first generation of the New Critics, far from merely espousing the fetishization of the text by focusing on its formal or structural properties, were pretty much invested in the social, political, cultural, and economic issues of their times. The New Critics, in this revisionist account, did not only confront and resist the paradoxes and contradictions of modern forms of social life but also called for reimagining alternative ways of living. Drawing upon forms of Southern paternalism, these critics sought to resist the abstractions of capitalist relations and scientific positivism, upon which modern society is predicated, by “identifying the limitations and contradictions of positivistic discourse through an investigation of the properties of language and meaning” [143]. Following arguments made by Gerald Graff and others, he contends that the New Critics “analysed the text in relation to modern society, and examined the social situation within which the activity of writing takes place,” adding that they “did not ignore history: rather they made the critique of modern society the centre of their argument and approach, and emphasized the social contexts of literary texts” [144].

The book is divided into four parts and a conclusion, each of which is made up of three chapters, and covers the following themes: The critical reception of the New Criticism, its origins and context of production; its formation and the specific interests that motivated Ransom’s, Tate’s, and Warren’s socio-political critiques of modernity; its establishment and institutionalization in the academy; the differences in the development of the ideas of the first-generation of the New Critics; and the similarities and differences between the New Criticism and postmodern and deconstructive theories.

In the first part, “The New Criticism and Its Critics,” Jancovich dissects the views of various literary theorists including, Terry Eagleton, Frank Lentricchia, and Terence Hawkes, who misconstrued the New Criticism as exemplary of bourgeois individualism; this charge, he implies, was made retrospectively against the New Critics after they secured their position in the bourgeois academic institutions. Instead, he argues, the New Criticism was antagonistic to liberal humanism, producing proto-Marxist critiques of modern industrial society, corporate capitalism, scientific positivism, mass media, and the cash-nexus, critiques that ultimately aimed to destroy, in Tate’s words, “middle class capitalist hegemony” [26].
In a rather brilliant move, Jancovich renovates the New Criticism by examining its origins within its historical context of production, which seems to be deliberately overlooked or obfuscated by the same contemporary literary criticism that insists on interrogating the text in its historical context. He discusses the beginnings of the New Critics in the Agrarian movement and demonstrates that their views about society and literature during the early 1930s remained essentially the same during the two periods. Indeed, he maintains that the New Criticism was not a rupture with the politics of Agrarianism but an iteration of it, one that articulated art and politics, the critique of culture with the formalist emphasis on rhetoric and linguistic properties, as a means for resisting corporate capitalism and scientific positivism.

In the second part, “The Formation of the New Criticism,” Jancovich explores the commonalities and the differences in the writings of Ransom, Tate, and Warren during the early 1930s. Although the three drew on the traditions of Southern paternalism to formulate their socio-political views as pertains to the study of literature and the linguistic properties of a text, each writer gave his ideas a different spin, depending on the flexibility of their social and political beliefs in relation to the specific problems and issues each critic was writing about. He also examines how in their critique of the existing theoretical approaches of the time namely, Neo-Humanism, academic scholasticism, and Stalinized Marxism, the New Critics ended up valorizing formalism to prove that “it was the way in which texts used their sources which was important, not their sources or positions” [emphasis in the original; 68].

In the third and fourth parts, Jancovich discusses the establishment and institutionalization of the New Criticism in the academy in the late 1930s and the early 1940s, after the collapse of agrarianism and the dispersal of the three critics to the North. In the third part, “The establishment of the New Criticism,” he views their involvement in the struggles over the teaching of English as a “change of tactics,” in their attempt to “establish an institutional basis for the distribution of their social and cultural criticism” [69]. After 1935, they tried to articulate their New Critical tenets in a coherent way and form a community of intellectuals through various strategies: They established critical quarterlies such as the Kenyon Review and the Southern Review; they collected their essays and published them in books that defined their theoretical positions; they organized symposia and delivered papers at the Modern Language Association annual conventions; and they published college textbooks on the teaching of poetry and fiction especially, Warren and Cleanth Brooks, who popularized the New Criticism in the undergraduate classroom, making the students aware of “the paradoxes and contradictions of social and cultural activity, and hence to a critical engagement with their society and culture” [88]. Through these efforts, the New Critics revolutionized the academy by institutionalizing literary criticism as a legitimate and independent practice within the departments of English.

In the fourth part, “The Development of the New Criticism,” Jancovich examines how the theoretical positions the New Critics had formulated and popularized during the mid and later 1930s were revised and extended in response to social and cultural developments in the early 1940s including, WWII, the Cold War, and McCarthyism. While Ransom actually reneged on the original platform of the Agrarians and the New Critics as a result of all the political witch hunt that characterized McCarthyism and Cold War politics, Tate was forced to compromise with American hegemony without, nonetheless, abandoning his critique of modernity and corporate capitalism. Only Warren seems to have remained faithful to the original agenda of the Agrarians/ New Critics, with his advocacy of civil liberties and multiculturalism.

In his conclusion, Jancovich discusses the impact of the New Criticism on contemporary Theory and surveys the important contributions of the New Criticism that serve as antecedents to some the common ideas of poststructural theory especially, postmodernism and the deconstructive theories of Jacques Derrida. Despite the fact that the major tenets of the New Criticism constitute the “favorite whipping boy of most contemporary theorists” [137], Jancovich makes it clear that the very identity of contemporary criticism has been defined in opposition to the New Criticism, whose power is naturalized and mystified but forever present. Indeed, the continued dismissal and caricaturing of the New Criticism in contemporary theory can only suggest a “kind of presence which needs to be addressed” [137]. Moreover, he asserts that the New Criticism is superior to the various poststructural theories dominating literary study today, because the former never abandoned its commitment to social and political struggle. The New Critics “often managed to avoid the worst excesses of the Frankfurt School and poststructuralism”[16], concluding that the “shift from the New Critical interpretation of the text as ‘a struggle for unity and meaning’ to the postmodern rejection of totalization or meaning is not a liberating one” [154]. The real asocial formalists, in his view, are those deconstructionists themselves with their popularization of areferentiality. Jancovich of course caricatures deconstruction and poststructuralism and ignores the political nature of deconstruction especially, in Derrida’s work such as his work on Marx, cosmopolitanism, hospitality, forgiveness, the European Union, the force of law, etc.

For Jancovich, the New criticism is not what contemporary critics wish to make of it. He defends the New Critics against common charges that he presumes to be baseless and rewrites the history of contemporary literary theory, by recovering the important contributions of the New Criticism that serve as antecedents to some of the common ideas of poststructural and postmodern theories. Despite his attempt at producing a balanced account of the New Criticism and its healthy skepticism about the hegemonic reception of the New Criticism in the history of literary theory and criticism, Jancovich remains heavily repetitive and apologetic in tone. Any time he quotes, paraphrases, or discusses a passage by the New Critics that reeks of asocial formalism, he would immediately and mechanically jump to their defense, anticipating the critiques and refuting them by stating over and over again that these critics did not deem social issues irrelevant. At other times, Jancovich tends to stretch the boundaries of their social formalism by imposing his theory on the writings of these critics and by finding social formalism where it does not exist. For example, Jancovich interprets a statement made by Brooks and Warren about the ability of literature to lead students to “an appreciation of the more broadly human values” to mean making students “aware of the paradoxes and contradictions repressed by capitalist rationality” [88].

In addition to the repetitions and the defensive tone, Jancovich also admits at one point that the social formalism of the New Critics “was not so much stated as illustrated” [82]: Their politics, that is, was to be gleaned from between the lines of their writings; it was never forcefully stated or advocated in their work. Moreover, Jancovich never acknowledges the shortcomings of the New Criticism and that the same developments in the work of the three main critics he discusses in his study could have given fodder for those critics who charge with asocial formalism. In particular, Jancovich never entertains the fact that, as some critics have pointed out, the ontological position of the New Critics made their flight from politics and reality relatively easy, if not inevitable. Some critics would qualify Jancovich’s assertion: For example, in Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (NY and London: Routledge, 2006), Lois Tyson notes that while the New Critics did sometimes address the extrinsic psychological, sociological or philosophical dimensions of text, they did in fact aestheticize these extrinsic dimensions. In this way, the New Critics could maintain that “their interpretation [fell] within the context created by the text itself” [148]. And finally, and in relation to contemporary poststructural theory, to valorize the New Criticism over other theories, the way Jancovich does, would obfuscate the state of Theory even more. Instead, the relationship between contemporary theory and the New Criticism ought to be examined as a site of ceaseless interrogation, contestation, and examination of continuities and departures between older theories and newer ones. It would have been more useful to see how Jancovich would have situated his study along the dominant forms of what is called political theory and criticism that examines race, gender, nation, colonialism, sexuality, and class in relation to what one critic has called the New Critics’ “genteel condescension towards women and Blacks” and to their narrow conception of the literary canon. A new preface and/ or conclusion would have made the relationship of the New Criticism to the twenty-first century more relevant.




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