- The Roots of New Criticism
The rise of New Criticism is now an old story, faded to the black and white of another era. Critics and students think they know New Criticism better than any major literary movement of the past century. By virtue of its phenomenal success New Criticism drew the attention, mainly polemical, of the critical movements that followed in its wake. As a consequence, its theoretical tenets and their implications have been thoroughly analyzed. Less well known, however, is the history behind New Criticism — its political and social determinants. That several of the principal architects of New Criticism had been Southern Agrarians is common knowledge, yet merely to say that New Criticism was shaped by Southern Agrarianism is a generality that levels complexity as much as it illuminates. Precisely how great an influence Agrarianism had on New Criticism remains a vexed question.
That the subject has not received conclusive treatment is no surprise. The Southern Agrarian and New Critical movements comprised several dozen men collectively responsible for hundreds of publications. These men possessed distinct aims and opinions, and professed varying degrees of commitment, to either or both of the movements. Such plurality frustrates generalization. An essay on so big a subject must be selective. Disclaimers aside, in the following pages I argue that New Criticism [End Page 93] inherited and adapted at least two of its fundamental ideas from Southern Agrarianism: belief in the superiority of a life lived in contact with the land and opposition to science. The New Critical tenets to which they correspond are the notion of the poem as an organic whole and the distinction between artistic and scientific modes of discourse.
Before addressing points of contact between Southern Agrarianism and New Criticism I want to preface the discussion with opposing viewpoints, as well as historical and biographical background. The viewpoints represent the boundaries between which assessments of New Criticism’s relation to Southern Agrarianism have fallen. On the one hand is the view that New Criticism was simply the literary projection of the Southern Agrarianism of its founders. In The Critical Twilight John Fekete saw the transition from Southern Agrarianism to New Criticism as a retreat — an inevitable retreat. Having failed in their attempt to change society from the outside, the Southern Agrarians-turned-New Critics “confine[d] the broad scope of Agrarian ideology within the bounds of a literary criticism that champion[ed] art in safety from within the non-aesthetic life of the existing society” (45). In Fekete’s view, New Criticism renounced “all possibilities of reshaping the exterior world . . . to gain social sanction for the perfection of the interior world, the sensibility, through the strictly literary experience of life” (45). In contrast to Fekete’s view is that of Paul Conkin. “But even though [New Criticism] derived from former Agrarians,” wrote Conkin, “it is not clear that it was in any necessary sense agrarian criticism” (141). Both Fekete’s and Conkin’s positions resist easy refutation, for they point to divergent but equally true facets of the historical moment in which New Criticism emerged. Certainly, the New Critics did not wholly discard but retained and drew upon convictions they developed during their campaign for an Agrarian South. But equally certain, New Criticism was never subsumed beneath or brought in line with an Agrarian platform. Conkin’s point is well taken — that New Criticism resists conflation with Southern Agrarianism — but affinities between the two movements run deep enough to argue for a strong degree of socio-political determinacy. They run deep enough to make Fekete’s Marxist account, though unpalatable to many admirers of the New Critics, essentially accurate — but with one exception. I do not contest Fekete’s characterization of New Criticism as a retreat from the world of political engagement but I do question, in line with Mark Jancovich and before him Richard Gray, the contention that it represented a submission to a dominant capitalist order. Eschewing statements as sweeping [End Page 94] as Fekete’s, the following study examines the reorientation of Agrarian ideology into New Criticism albeit on a much smaller scale.
While this paper founds its claims on affinities between the...