Guide to Week 5: Tuesday  ("Mussolini in the Rain")

         In the web page hyperlinked to today's reading in Wimsatt and Beardsley's article, I have abstracted key terms and theoretical principles that motivate this critical theory and its interpretive methods.  After you have read the article, review the terms and principles, and make sure you understand them.  The first portion of our discussion will be a review of the article, and then we will look at some broader issues like those below.

        New Criticism was developed at the same time that America and the world were going through some titanic military, scientific, and political events.  It might be said that NC surfed on the wave of the Cold War as a socio-political event that construed American higher education, including literary interpretation, as a form of cultural competition with "global Communism."  What would a Marxist critic say about New Criticism as a "cultural production"?  Historical situations and material circumstances would have a lot to do with their view of literary interpretation.  Click here for some dates and events relevant to the emergence of New Criticism in American colleges and universities.

       New Criticism was assembled over several decades by a series of articles and books which challenged the prevailing interpretive theories and their methods.  In "The Intentional Fallacy" (1946), New Critics William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley specifically targeted "biographical criticism," the search for evidence in the author's life that "caused" the work of literature or one of its attributes.  They took this attack further by denying the then common assumption that authors are fully and directly responsible for works of literature and that we should read works of literature to discover what their authors may have intended to create, including evidence from that biographical material, rather than reading the work, itself.  This bold stroke, designed to exclude logically irrelevant (i.e., fallacious) evidence from discussions of literary meaning, has been interpreted by some as the attempt to exclude the author from the work.  That notion makes many authors nervous.  At the risk of asking the obvious, why?  And what goals were the New Critics pursuing that were so important that they were willing to risk the charge that they wanted to eject authors from considerations of their works?

        Plato told us not to listen to poets because they probably were mad with the Muse's inspiration from the gods, they were not experts in the crafts they purported to describe, and their poetic forms produced dangerous emotional effects.  What did New Critics think was so dangerous about paying attention to the author's biography or to asking what the author may have intended to create?  What rules did they prescribe to replace the reliance on biographical evidence of author's intentions or reliance on sources?  What types of evidence did they urge us to allow in arguments about what works of literature mean, and why are those types better than the other sort for detecting poems' meaning and quality?  Once you understand Wimsatt and Beardsley's reasoning, you will have more sympathy with the cause for which New Critics fought their predecessors.  For some interpretive problems involving the "intentional fallacy," click here.