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CRITICISM FEATURE: CLEANTH BROOKS Sounding the Past: A Discussion with Cleanth Brooks / Joseph M. Ditta, Ronald S. Librach At the behest of John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks published his "Formalist Credo" in the Kenyon Review in 1951. A statement of convictions which holds that "the principles of criticism define the area relevant to literary criticism," Brooks' "Credo" was both the summation and the affirmation of discoveries which he had made in such landmark works as Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) and The Well-Wrought Um (1947). The current critical climate, of course, is not the same as it was when, in the company of Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and others, Cleanth Brooks was trying to "define the area relevant to literary criticism." Boundary disputes persist, and if gentlemanly disagreement is an extension of politics by other means, ours is certainly an era in which critical activity has been willing to politicize itself, with various critical activists radicalizing their stances in an effort to be heard on an often noisy battlefield. Critics, says Cleanth Brooks, are "notoriously a splenetic lot at best," and against the contemporary backdrop, it is not surprising to find Brooks, a man of life-long devotion to the humanistic ideal, reminding us that "the area relevant to literary criticism" is man himself and the continuity of the values which he expresses in his literature. Perhaps the reader will be surprised to find Brooks—so often the embattled critic—reluctant to criticize his brethren, but this, it would seem, is not his way: he makes his points between the lines, gently, as a gentleman should. In the spring of 1982, under the auspices of the Paul Anthony Brick Lecture Committee, we were able to interview Professor Brooks. Much to our delight, what began as a highly formal occasion—with tapes and microphones and strategically placed chairs—swiftly developed into a relaxed and far-ranging discussion of matters launched by the topic of his three lectures: the contemporary state of literary criticism. Interviewer: You have been lecturing to us on three topics: the primacy of the author, the primacy of the reader, and the primacy of the linguistic medium. We were thinking of one of the problems that concerns us today: the apparent attitude by critics with regard to what I would call the primacy of the critical stance. The Missouri Review · 239 Brooks: That, I think, is a fairly easy one to answer, if I understand what you are asking; you stop me if I don't understand it and restate the question. The primacy of the critical stance, I think, ordinarily gives no problem for reasonable people. If people want to decide that we won't read poems, or that we'll just read them and not think about them, or that we will read them and not pay any attention to what other people think about them, you can dispose of criticism. There is no law that demands that somebody write a critical account, or that there be a conference to decide which of the critical accounts is proper. The point is, it seems to me, that criticism of one form or another constantly occurs; you can't read without it. Interviewer: Well, I did have something more specific in mind. You were talking in your last lecture about Stanley Fish's book 2s There a Text in This Class? I took a passage from that. Let me read it to you. He says: "The business of criticism was not to determine a correct way of reading, but to determine from which of a number of possible perspectives reading would proceed. Establish," he says, "by political and persuasive means (they are the same thing), the set of interpretive assumptions from the vantage of which the evidence (and the facts and the intentions and everything else) will hereafter be specifiable." Fish is saying that, instead of examining the text from what you might call an innocent posture in relationship to it, first establish your critical assumptions, your critical stance, and on the basis of that stance, specify what would be evidential in the text itself. Brooks: Well, that is fair enough, and I think...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 137-160
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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