Guide to Week 6: Tuesday
In the web page hyperlinked to today's reading in Tyson, I have abstracted key terms and theoretical principles that identify various authors who helped create this critical theory and its interpretive methods. After you have read Tyson, review the terms and principles, and make sure you understand them. The first portion of our discussion will be a review of Tyson, and then we will look at the structure and strategies of Cleanth Brooks' "The Motivation of Tennyson's Weeper," a New Critical interpretation of Tennyson's "Tears, Idle Tears." Brooks can serve as a model of the moves a New Critic typically makes, from his basic aesthetic principles about what makes a poem good (or bad) to what the critic should do with the poem to explicate its meaning. He does not necessarily make his NC moves in the four-stage order I present them to you, especially cycling back to question elements in tension and the evolving poem's use of literary language to encode multiple simultaneous meanings in thematic patterns. Think of the four stages as a data-gathering strategy which will enable you to write a more creatively satisfying analysis in an order that satisfies you and your readers.
These readings in Tyson and Brooks are very important to the course. Please give them additional preparation time so that you will be able to discuss how and why New Criticism established some of the most widely used critical practices of the late twentieth century. You probably already use many of their critical practices you inherited from high-school teachers trained in New Critical methods, but usually those high-school teachers never teach their students where those methods came from or upon what theoretical assumptions they depend. They simply assumed that New Critical methods were correct, and that they would continue to be correct for the foreseeable future because they had scientific rigor and could be taught like good laboratory technique, to any student regardless of the student's aptitude for literary creativity. Why might this be an attractive solution to educators' problems when designing and arguing for the continued relevance of high school literature courses during the Cold War? For a short summary of New Critical theory's two most important assumptions about why they're doing this, click here. You also might want to review some things W&B said poems were and some things they said critics did with them.
Think about your first week reading protocols, and about the unwritten assumptions you may have detected in your mind since you created them. Do you see any remnants of New Critical methods in your own interpretive practices? If so, do you share any of their ideological assumptions about the purity of interpretive technique, or about the cultural importance of literature? If you use their practices without sharing the assumptions, are you in any danger, intellectually or otherwise? If you share their assumptions, do the critiques Ohmann and Tyson summarize cause you to doubt them?
We are nearly midway through the course. By now, you should be beginning to feel your own critical thought processes more clearly, and you should be starting to realize the consequences implied by their grounding theories. Please contact me if you are having trouble sorting this out. It's normal to be confused at various stages in this process, but it's not a good idea to allow that confusion to persist too long.
If you are particularly interested in the politics of literary theory, I recommend this chapter by Richard Ohmann,"Teaching and Studying Literature at the End of Ideology," from The Politics of Literature (1970) (It's a web page--click on the link). Ohmann's book chapter reprints an essay from the 1970s that helps to explain the historical circumstance that led to your teachers' beliefs in NC methods. He refers early in the essay to the belief, first articulated by the Victorian, Matthew Arnold, that because of the waning of Christian belief among college-educated English people, the English-speaking world was in danger of losing its bearings unless it could find a substitute "gospel" in which to believe. For Arnold, that "gospel" was "the best that had been written or thought" as it was recorded in great literature. Watching King Lear was a kind of "cultural church," and the art of interpreting literature, under this doctrine, came to have a quasi-theological power as New Critics claimed to detect timeless, universal insights about all human beings' intellectual, physical, and spiritual existence. This is a huge claim, but when combined with the quasi-scientific New Critical claims about logically sound methods and universally reproducible results, they gave students of literature real political power in academia, and in the nation. For a shorter version of some crucial passage from Ohmann which you might find thought-provoking, click here.