New Criticism and Scientific Authority

        New Criticism's emphasis on "objective interpretation," and on a kind of purity of methods and materials, appeared at a time when the similar interpretive attributes of science were in high demand.  Though the earliest work toward New Criticism, including its name, might be said to originate in John Crowe Ransom's The New Criticism (1941), the apostolic essays by Wimsatt and Beardsley in the late 1940s, and the influential books by Brooks (1947) and Empson (1955) established commonly used terms of art that were incorporated into the New Critical method as it was taught in schools in the 1950s and '60s. 

1921  T. S. Eliot publishes The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (816 E421Ks and available online from the California Digital Library, University of California), in which he identifies critical methods he identifies as "perfect" and "imperfect."  New Criticism will borrow his methodological emphasis on close reading of texts for their structural features, his emphasis on lyric and dramatic poetry, and his fusion of aesthetic and religious ideology.  Perhaps the most influential essay in the collection was "Tradition and the Individual Talent," where Eliot argues that a single, ancient "tradition" or poetic inheritance links together a sequence of "great" authors who consciously or unconsciously bound their works to the tradition by patterns of borrowing, allusion, and aesthetic imitation.  This is one origin of the idea of a literary canon, like the canonical books of the Christian Bible, which contains the New Critics' sacred texts.

1922  I. A. (Ivor Allen) Richards, with C.K. Ogden and James Wood, publish The Foundations of Aesthetics (London: Allen and Unwin; 701 O34 1925 ) in which they lay out a comprehensive attempt to explain the human aesthetic response as a psychological struggle for balance among conflicting sensory demands or thoughts.  In later New Critical thought, this becomes "tensions" created by conflicting aesthetic elements in the work (characters, ideas, repeated events, etc.).

1924, 1929  I. A. Richards publishes The Principles of Literary Criticism (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner;  801 R51 1961 ) and Practical Criticism (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner; 808.1 R51p 1956 ) in which he outlines a program of "close reading" of the text to make interpretation more accurate and to enable reliable aesthetic conclusions to be reached by a variety of readers following the same reading rules.

1930 (rpt. 1956)  William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (821.9 E55) a bravura attempt by a non-academic to establish a taxonomy or thorough list of all existing types of ambiguous usage, illustrated by copious quotation from the canon but without any extended demonstration of a full NC interpretation arising from any one of them.

1937  John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), Criticism, Inc. (A theoretical call for greater rigor in the study of literature and its teaching: "Criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic.")

1938  Cleanth Brooks & Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry  (821.8 B872 1961: Ransom's students from Kenyon College articulate a practical set of rules for reading and responding to poems.)

1941  John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), The New Criticism ( 801 R21: Ransom looked back at four critics he admired--I.A. Richards, William Empson, T.S. Eliot, and Yvor Winters--but concluded that the "new criticism" did not yet exist and called for an "ontological critic" who would pay more attention to the methods of knowing and the logical validity of interpretation.   

1945 United States uses two nuclear weapons to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Japan surrenders, ending the last formal hostilities of World War II

1946  Returning U. S. servicemen and women are given free college tuition by the "G.I. Bill," vastly increasing the size of college and university classes, and creating the instant need for methodical way of instructing tens of thousands of students, many of whom were the first in their families to attend college.  In the same year, Wimsatt and Beardsley, a literary critic and an aesthetic philosopher, publish "The Intentional Fallacy" (051.S51 The Sewanee Review 54 [1946]--note that the Goucher Library print holdings are the only place you can get this article)  The article uses Cleanth Brooks' article, "The Motivation of Tennyson's Weeper," as the example of correct New Critical interpretation.

1947  Cleanth Brooks, A Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (821.9 B873 c.2):  Brooks produced ten chapters in which he offered examples of correct literary interpretation on New Critical principles.  Many of the chapters (including "Tennyson's Weeper") had been previously published as journal articles.  All of his primary texts were poems.  In the eleventh chapter, he names "The Heresy of Paraphrase" and argues for the importance of purifying literary criticism by eliminating the tendency to substitute statements about what poems mean to analyses of how poems work as aesthetic structures.  He also mentions in passing, as a given, the existence of Eliot's "central stream of tradition" (192).

1948  F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (Special Collections, Burke Collection, PR873 .L4 1948): Leavis identified works of literature that could enable "Western democracies" like England and America to withstand the challenges of fascism and communism by transmitting the cultural values which would sustain us.  In doing so, he attempted to name the writers who populated T. S. Eliot's somewhat amorphously described "tradition."  The book's first sentence announced that "The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad."  There you have it.

August 29, 1949  Soviet Union tests its first nuclear weapon, as good as year as any for the start of the Cold War

1949  Wimsatt and Beardsley, "The Affective Fallacy" (051.S51 The Sewanee Review 57 [1949])

1954  Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (808.1 W757: collects "IF" and "AF")

October 4, 1957  Soviet Union launches Sputnik, the first artificial Earth orbiting satellite, in an orbit which took it directly over the United States.

September 2, 1958: President Eisenhower signs the National Defense Education Act to sponsor studies and research in science, engineering, and foreign languages

1960  E.D. Hirsch, "Objective Interpretation" (PMLA 75:4 [September 1960: 463-79]; durable URL

1962 / 1964: NDEA amended to broaden Federal aid to higher education in the humanities

October 16, 1964  China tests its first nuclear weapon

1967  E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation  (801 H669v).  VI reprints "Objective Interpretation" and extends its argument.  For reference' sake, Roland Barthes, one of the first Post-Modernist critics, began publishing in French during this same period but his influence was limited in America until he was translated into English during the next decade: Sur Racine (1963); Essais Critiques (1964); Critque Et Vérité (1966); Système de la Mode (1967); Mythologies (1970); Critical Essays (English, 1972); Mythologies (1972); S/Z (English, 1974).

September, 1974  Critical Inquiry, a journal that aggressively covered new theory, is founded at University of Chicago.  Its epigraph reads: "A voice for reasoned inquiry into significant creations of the human spirit."  Volume 1, number 1, includes essays by Wayne Booth, Kenneth Burke, Elder Olson, Frank Kermode, and Eudora Welty.  Leonard B. Meyers's concluding essay is titled "Concerning the Sciences, the Arts--AND the Humanities" (Meyer's emphatic capitalization).