Critical Inquiry 4 (4):611-624 (1978)

The new methods, the tone, and new taste are clearly discernible first in the early articles and books of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, R. P. Blackmur, Kenneth Burke, and Yvor Winters, and somewhat later in Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and William K. Wimsatt. . . . Still, something tells us that there is some sense in grouping these critics together. Most obviously they are held together by their reaction against the preceding or contemporary critical schools and views mentioned before. They all reject the kind of metaphorical, evocative criticism practiced by the impressionists. Tate, Blackmur, Burke, and Winters contributed to a symposium highly critical of the neo-Humanists, and others voiced their rejection elsewhere. They all had no use for Mencken and Van Wyck Brooks, particularly after Brooks became a violent enemy of all modernism. Furthermore, they were almost unanimous in their rejection of Marxism, with the single exception of Kenneth Burke, who in the thirties passed through a Marxist phase and, anyhow, after his first book moved away from his neo-critical beginnings. What, however, in the American situation mattered most was that they were united in their opposition to the prevailing methods, doctrines, and views of academic English literary scholarship. There, in a way the younger generation may find it difficult to realize, a purely philological and historical scholarship dominated all instruction, publication, and promotion. I remember that when I first came to study English literature in the Princeton graduate school in 1927, fifty years ago, no course in American literature, none in modern literature, and none in criticism was offered. Of all my learned teachers only Morris W. Croll had any interest in aesthetics or even ideas. Most of the New Critics were college teachers and had to make their way in an environment hostile to any and all criticism. Only Kenneth Burke was and remained a freelance man of letters, though he taught in later years occasionally at Bennington College and briefly at the University of Chicago. But he very early deserted the New Criticism. It took Blackmur, Tate, and Winters years to get academic recognition, often against stiff opposition, and even Ransom, R. P. Warren, and Cleanth Brooks, established in quieter places, had their troubles. Ransom's paper "Criticism, Inc." pleaded for the academic establishment of criticism, and thanks to him and others criticism is now taught in most American colleges and universities. But it was an uphill fight. I still remember vividly the acrimony of the conflict between criticism and literary history at the University of Iowa, where I was a member of the English Department from 1939 to 1946. René Wellek, Sterling Professor Emeritus of comparative literature at Yale University, is the author of Theory of Literature and of A History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950. He has contributed "Notes and Exchanges Between René Wellek and Wayne C. Booth" and "A Rejoinder to Gerald Graff" to Critical Inquiry
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