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  • Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History by Joseph North
  • Bécquer Seguín
Joseph North. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. Harvard UP. 2017. 272 pages.

Joseph North's is a welcome polemic. North's issue in the book is with our inability as professors in literature departments to move beyond what he calls the historicist/contextualist paradigm. For nearly the past four decades, he argues, we've been stuck in an intellectual rut—often unwittingly, more often unknowingly—where nearly all of us "treat literary texts chiefly as opportunities for producing knowledge about the cultural contexts in which they were written and read" (7). This, North argues, is unprecedented. Since literature became a field of scholarly inquiry in the modern university, two paradigms have shared in their domination of the field: one "critical" and the other "scholarly." The critical paradigm, according to North, used the study of literature as a way to intervene in culture while the scholarly paradigm did so as a way to analyze culture. But "the central fact of the discipline's development over the last generation—a fact so central it keeps being overlooked—is that at some point in the late 1970s or early 1980s, the literary 'scholars' effectively won the dispute" (2). It is within this "scholarly turn" that historicism/contextualism came to be the dominant way in which professors in literature departments teach, read, and write about works of literature today.

But to really understand the provocation of North's book, it is important to pay attention to both its title, "literary criticism," and its subtitle, "a concise [End Page 1435] political history." Given the subtitle, North's book defines both what literary criticism is as well as what a political history of it might mean rather narrowly. His definition of literary criticism is far from the one most professors of literature widely embrace today. For North, literary criticism, which effectively ended in the 1970s, was a program, in writing and in the classroom, to cultivate aesthetic education through reading literature. This meant developing new experiences, sensibilities, and dispositions from the interpretation of works of fiction in ways that could reach the general public; in other words, it emphasized thinking about rather than through a text. This takes us back to the subtitle of the book. North's history is, in a sense, its own attempt at practicing the kind of literary criticism he envisions. The goal behind providing a history of our current historicist/contextualist paradigm is ultimately to intervene in it. "We will of course continue to need trenchant historicist/ contextualist analyses of culture through a radical lens," he writes. But doing so involves "an intellectual synthesis that addressed the various concerns of the major countercurrents [e.g. affect, world literature, distance reading, etc.] in a systematic and unitary way" (211). Ever the historicist/contextualist scholar, North does not make it any closer than this to providing any prescriptive solutions to the quandary he identifies.

The book traces the history of the past eight decades of literary criticism over the course of four substantial chapters. North begins his account with a rereading of I. A. Richards and the birth of "close reading" as a form of literary criticism. North's Richards is not the one that is typically taught in literary history courses. For North, Richards's contribution to the discipline of literary criticism was to ground "close reading" in an "incipiently materialist practice" (27). The reception of Richards in the United States by the New Critics dramatically transformed his materialist vision for close reading. The version of "close reading" that many young scholars learn today is, according to North, an idealist bastardization of Richards's original materialist project. That is, New Critics fundamentally altered the purpose of "close reading": once a way to cultivate aesthetic education, close reading had now been reduced to a simple evaluative mechanism. Not surprisingly, then, many subsequent scholars challenged this transcendental paradigm of reading literature. Raymond Williams and other scholars of the New Left generation exacted a trenchant critique of what had come to be known as "literary criticism," shifting the scholarly attention away from the transcendentalism that close reading had become...