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New Criticism

history practice reading critics

a movement in American literary criticism associated with a group of poets and critics who were strongly influenced by the ideas and practice of I. A. Richards and William Empson. It received its name from the book of that title published by John Crowe Ransom in 1941; the group also included Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks (see Agrarians). The New Criticism was not a tightly knit school or programme, and was considerably less consistent than its opponents have often imagined. It was chiefly a response to the new poetry of the first part of the century, the work of Eliot, Pound, Yeats. It was interested in irony and ambiguity, hostile to sentimentality and paraphrasable statement. It was devoted to the principle of close reading, to a sense of ‘the words on the page’, and this was often taken to imply an indifference or resistance to history, to everything in literature that seems to take place around rather than in a text. In fact none of the New Critics was as anti-historical as this—indeed, since they were mostly Southerners, and largely conservative, it may be that they were not so much resisting history as refusing the progressive liberal consensus American history seemed to have become by the 1940s. New Criticism, or at least its practice of close reading, was eminently teachable and had far-reaching effects in schools and universities in Britain and especially America. It was firmly opposed to what it regarded as an unquestioned tradition of old-fashioned ‘literary history’ and it has been seen as preparing the ground for Deconstruction. A notable reaction to its supposed indifference to context and history is the New Historicism. See also Practical Criticism.

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