Marxist Interpretation on the "Cultural Production" of New Criticism

        Let's allow the departing Marxists to tell us something about the mid-twentieth century's historical situation and the material circumstances in which "the New Criticism's proponents wrote their first manifestos like Wimsatt and Beardsley's "The Intentional Fallacy" (1946).  Valerie Holman's study of the English book trade during World War II (1939-45 for the Brits) reminds us that the War Office's paper needs required paper rationing for all other publishers, including those who printed novels and literary criticism, and for such non-government books that were published, page space was precious: "There must be no blank pages between chapters.  In fiction, chapters must run on with a gap of no more than eight lines."  Even books already printed had to run a gauntlet of fire on their way to readers.  Luftwaffe bombs dropped on London's Paternoster Row on December 29, 1940, obliterated seventeen publishers, the major trade journal The Bookseller, and the largest wholesale book warehouse.  One short propaganda film (The Battle of the Books) showed German students burning 25,000 banned books in 1933, including the works of Freud, Einstein, and Marx, followed by shots of English readers moving freely in bookshops and libraries, reading what they chose to read.  Germany and Britain set up a prison-camp "study abroad" system for each nation's prisoners of war so that they could pursue their educations while the war raged.  In England, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien invented and taught the English Honors curriculum, and after the war, an Allied Forces book center distributed 1.5 million books in "liberated Europe."  After the war, especially in the United States because of the G.I. Bill, returning soldiers filled college classrooms seeking to know what they had been fighting for.  New Criticism had an answer: You were fighting for the survival of the literary and interpretive tradition by which our victorious culture was constructed and from which it will be reconstituted in each successive generation into the future, as long as literature and correct interpretive practices survive. 

        If the earlier battles between Freudian and Marxist and Classical Formalist critics had been fierce, now the stakes were higher.  Totalitarian Communism, which practiced rigorous state censorship of publication and control of interpretation to protect the state (cf. The Republic, but gone horribly wrong) faced Liberal Capitalist Democracy, which allowed the marketplace of ideas to determine what got published and what literature meant.  From within, New Critics faced a second, more dangerous foe, commercialism and popular culture.  If books that sold the most copies were by definition "the greatest literature," unschooled popular taste and marketing devices controlled the culture's destiny.  The solution?  New Criticism must take over the universities where teachers are taught and train the new generation to resist popular culture and to pursue "objective interpretation" based on quasi-scientific principles of observation and analysis.  Having seized control of academic English Departments, the New Critics charged the editorial boards of major scholarly journals whose publishing decisions determined who got hired, tenured, and promoted.  PMLA, JEGP, College English, and even Modern Philology, the oldest journal of literary analysis in America (Vol. 1, No. 1, January 1903--see the real thing in the library stacks, not the electronic version!), became controlled by New Critic editors and peer reviewers between the 1940s and the 1960s. 

        By the time I went to Lehigh University in 1966, there were no courses in literary theory, even for graduate students. Everyone simply "did New Criticism," only they never referred to it as such.  Its control was so hegemonic that nobody needed to name it--it was "being a scholar of English literature" for most majors and their teachers.  Some strange fringe elements, suspected of lunacy or treason, continued to experiment with Marxist or Freudian interpretations, and some even practiced the deviant obscurantisms of descriptive bibliography or philology, once the foundation of the discipline, but they had no power and survived by never challenging the dominant critical ideology.  The New Criticism became "criticism" and, while nobody was looking, forgot its own theory and became only routines of practice.

Source: Nicholas Rankin, "Culture Wars," a review of Valerie Holman, Print For Victory Book Publishing in England 1939-1945.  [British Library, 2009]  The Times Literary Supplement No. 5524 (13 February 2009): 30.