Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 62-79
[Access article in PDF]
The New Criticism and Aesthetic Experience
AFTER ALMOST TWO DECADES of tumult and transformation in university departments that still claim literature as part of their disciplinary domain, what is most remarkable about literary study at the beginning of the twenty-first century is how similar it is to what passed for such study at the beginning of the twentieth century. Like philology one hundred years ago, academic literary study today—at least at the most eminent universities and in the most prestigious journals—is a highly esoteric activity, unlikely to appeal to anyone outside its own "professional" boundaries, anyone whose foremost interest in works of literature is simply to read them. It is, therefore, an endeavor that could hardly exist outside the university's institutional protection, and it is most strikingly concerned not with the appreciation of the intrinsic qualities of literature but with the historical and cultural "knowledge" that can be acquired from works of literature through a special kind of analysis. The effort, chronicled by Gerald Graff in Professing Literature, to make "literature itself" the focus of academic study and to establish "aesthetic criticism" as the primary mode of literary study must surely be judged a failure, the current academic scene clearly dominated by the sort of scholars Graff terms "investigators." 1
But of course the motives for rejecting the merely literary as a focus of study are quite different among current scholarly investigators as compared to the philologists of 1901. The attitude of the latter can probably be captured in the words of one of them quoted by Graff: "Why then waste time and brains in thrashing over again something which is after all only subjective opinion? Mere aesthetic theorizing [End Page 62] should be left to the magazine writer or to the really gifted critic" (p. 124). Such "researchers" did not deny the value of reading works of literature; they simply considered this value to be essentially "subjective," not an appropriate object of academic scrutiny. While these remarks do imply some condescension toward the "really gifted critic" and this critic's "mere aesthetic theorizing," they do not repudiate the very idea of an aesthetic approach to literature. The present generation of academics engaged in the investigation of literature, on the other hand, have repudiated the aesthetic approach, either explicitly, through the well-publicized critiques of the canon, of the very notion of the great work, or of the remaining approaches still associated with New Criticism, or implicitly through the gradual establishment of cultural investigation as the new norm for the professional training of graduate students and as the dominant mode of analysis in the influential journals. Moreover, the primary motive behind the renunciation of the aesthetic has more to do with politics than with methodology: for these scholars, the aesthetic is literally useless, quite irrelevant to the paramount goal of "intervening" in a continuing ideological struggle that is thought to be the main business of the university scholar.
In the context of the history of modern literary criticism (as opposed to the history of the American university), the current situation mirrors that which prompted the emergence of The New Criticism in the 1930s. Although Vincent Leitch identifies "the evocative mode of Impressionist criticism, the moralism of Neo-Humanism, the anti-modernist cultural criticism of Mencken and Van Wyck Brooks," as well as the "sociologizing" of Marxist criticism" as the collective bêtes noires of the New Critics, it was clearly the latter they considered to be the most unwelcome. Not only had it effectively eclipsed the other practices, but it could be said to have exhibited most of those characteristics against which New Criticism expressed the deepest antipathy. 2 Compared to the close reading New Critics would espouse, Marxist criticism was superficial, willing to settle for the most readily available interpretation (according to the Marxists' own critical assumptions), moralistic, committed to the idea that the best literature was that which could be shown to be good for you, historicist, concerned to place works...