I believe it was in James Gleick’s Chaos that I read about shorelines being of infinite length and complexity, providing we afford them enough scrutiny. Mark Jancovich’s study of the Agrarian and New Critical writings of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren demonstrates that the same can also be said of any writer’s (or group of writers’) oeuvre. Rejecting most critical assessments of the New Criticism as roughly equivalent with the programmatic disavowal of the importance of the social, historical, and cultural contexts of literary and critical practice, Jancovich mounts an impressive case for exactly the opposite by reconsidering some of Ransom’s, Tate’s, and [End Page 559] Warren’s most influential writings and by sampling the output of other figures commonly associated with “the New Criticism.” An important return to the formative work of these writers and an equally important clarification of some of their cultural agenda, The Cultural Politics of the New Criticism is, nonetheless, a work that suffers deeply both from the myopia of its thesis and from its own selectivity.
According to Jancovich, we’ve had it all wrong with respect to the cultural politics of those Southern critics who came to dominate academic literary criticism in this country. The bad rap they’ve received at the hands of Jonathan Culler, Terrence Hawkes, Frederic Jameson, Frank Lentricchia, Terry Eagleton, John Fekete, Russell Reising, Robert Scholes, and others centers around the shared perception of contemporary literary theorists and historians of literary criticism to impute to the New Criticism the perception of literature as an autonomous activity more or less unrelated to all contexts of its production and consumption. To counter this misperception, Jancovich has written a work that is at once a history, a clarification, a defense, and a critique, all addressing the notion that New Criticism was, by virtue of its putative indifference (or hostility) to questions of social significance, somehow complicitous with the rise of bourgeois individualism and the consolidation of capitalism in the mid- and late-twentieth century. What emerges from Jancovich’s study is a profile of the New Criticism as the formative gesture of oppositional critical practice, a practice with deep and principled roots in the soil of social activism and cultural transformation.
Jancovich supports his arguments with micro-readings of seminal texts by the usual suspects, and, not surprisingly, does excavate an alternative lineage for the New Critics. In the early 1930s, for example, Warren combated both those who would reduce literature to a form of propaganda (the usual read) and those who would reduce it to an asocial, autonomous activity. Ransom rejects I. A. Richards’s program because it deprives poetry of its power as the discourse of social and cultural critique. Similarly, Tate rejects the view of poetry as an asocial world to which the individual can retreat from the alienation and fragmentation of modern society. All three of these characterizations run widdershins to the conventional wisdom on New Criticism, and Jancovich admits as much. The problem is that, in order to make this case convincingly and with enough rigor effectively to reverse that contemporary [End Page 560] conventional wisdom, Jancovich needs a book two or three times the length of this modest little monograph. In one recurring problem, Jancovich regularly chides critics of the New Criticism for their lack of specificity in dealing with New Critical texts, but he nonetheless consistently abstracts “the South” as some coherent and meaningful concept first defended and later criticized by the Agrarian/New Critics. In other words, much like those he attacks, Jancovich simply doesn’t engage the writings of these influential figures deeply enough to reveal them in all their complexity. His micro-readings of individual preferences, trajectories, arguments, and beliefs may highlight hitherto unexamined ranges of their projects, but they also obscure other areas of their work, precisely those which the critics Jancovich chooses as his polemical antagonists have dwelled upon in their own characterizations of New Critical aesthetics and politics.
Capable of revealing important counter-moments in their important prose works, Jancovich...