The New Criticism
Warren’s legacy to literary studies goes far beyond the novels, stories, poems and plays he created. He was one of the founders of a school of criticism called the New Criticism, which dominated the field of English studies for more than a generation. He accomplished this through his role as teacher to countless undergraduate and graduate students who would go on to be teachers and professors, through his influence as founder and editor of two highly influential literary journals (Southern Review and Kenyan Review), and perhaps most important, through the defining textbooks he wrote with fellow Louisiana State University professor and critic Cleanth Brooks.
The theory and methods of the New Criticism will seem to today’s students both obvious and outdated. Simply put, they argued that poems (and other genres, but poems especially) could be read and interpreted on the merits of their own internal and formal qualities. The methods grew out of the practices of a loose group of students and professors (called the Fugitives) at Vanderbilt University who met regularly to talk about poetry and to read and discuss each other’s work. Though one of the youngest members of the group when he first began attending, Warren was quickly recognized as one of its brightest lights, contributing as both a poet and as an adept reader of other members’ work. The critical methods that members of the group employed, careful word by word scrutiny of the text as separate from its author, became part of the classroom practices of the professors and professors to be. When Warren took up a teaching post at Louisiana State University in 1934 he collaborated with his colleague Cleanth Brooks to write the textbook that formalized these methods, Understanding Poetry, which was published in 1938 and still in use in some college classrooms forty years later.
Today, most critics find New Criticism limited in its ability to account for the cultural context of a work of literature, and believe that its insistence on discounting the personal life of the author erases important differences in gender, ethnicity, and other features of authorial identity. Nonetheless, many— if not most—professors and critics in literary studies today were taught by professors who were trained in these methods. Though the New Criticism is no longer an end in itself, its methods for close reading of a text are often the first step in any teacher’s or critic’s approach to a work of literature.
The New South and the Old South
The cultural context of the literary circle at Vanderbilt is important. Vanderbilt was at the time the site of vigorous intellectual activity, and a great deal of the discussion, quite naturally, had to do with the state of the American South. Members of the Fugitive group who met to discuss literature and culture were interested in preserving the cultural uniqueness of the southeast, but were also “intent of repudiating the magnolia-and-julip tradition of southern letters,” as Bohner puts it. The Fugitives’ positions were complex and contradictory, but in general, they were concerned that the northern industrial culture would eclipse what was left of the southern way of life. In particular they “were distressed by what they considered to be the results of a culture based on the machine: the accelerating tempo of life, the chaotic individualism, the blatant materialism, the debasement of human effort and human dignity,” as Bohner defines it. By 1930, four of the regular attendees of Fugitive meetings, Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson joined eight other southern writers to publish a collection of essays called I’ll Take my Stand.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Robert Penn Warren, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.