Tuesday, April 14, 2009

1938: "Criticism, Inc." by John Crowe Ransom

The Author:
John Crowe Ransom

Born in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1888, Ransom graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1909 and became a faculty member of the English department after studying at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship between 1910 and 1913. Ransom remained at Vanderbilt until 1937, when he accepted a position at Kenyon College in Ohio. There he founded the prestigious literary quarterly the Kenyon Review and edited it until his retirement in 1959. He died in 1974.

The “central figure in the institutionalization of the New Criticism, the formalist theory and practice that dominated U.S. teaching and literary criticism in the mid-twentieth century,” Ransom shaped a method of literary analysis that would “become the foundation that all modern approaches build upon” (Leitch et al, 1105, 1107)

The Text:
“Criticism, Inc."
Published the same year the fifty-year-old Ransom began teaching at Kenyon, “Criticism, Inc.” calls on English departments to produce “technical studies of poetry” and dismisses both the “ethical” criticism of New Humanists and Marxists and the historical criticism of academics “who stress backgrounds, sources, and influences rather than the poem itself.” (1106 )

“Professors of literature are learned but not critical men. …[It] is easy for one of them without public reproach to spend a lifetime in compiling the data of literature and yet rarely or never commit himself to a literary judgment.” (1109)

“Criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic, and this means that it must be developed by the collective and sustained efforts of learned persons—which means that its proper seat is in the universities.” (1109)

“…I do not think we need be afraid that criticism, trying to be a sort of science, will inevitably fail and give up in despair, or else fail without realizing it and enjoy some hollow and pretentious career. It will never be a very exact science, or even a nearly exact one. But neither will psychology …” (1109)

“Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals. Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have the idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc., or Criticism, Ltd.” (1109)

“… the students of the future must be permitted to study literature, and not merely about literature.” (1110)

“Criticism is the attempt to define and enjoy the aesthetic or characteristic values of literature …” (1110)

“The department of English is charged with the understanding and the communication of literature, an art, yet it has usually forgotten to inquire into the peculiar constitution and structure of its product: English might almost as well announce that it does not regard itself as entirely autonomous, but as a branch of the department of history, with the option of declaring itself occasionally a branch of the department of ethics.” (1112)

“…the more eminent (as historical scholar) the professor of English, the less apt he is to be able to write decent criticism, unless it is about another professor’s work of historical scholarship, in which case it is not literary criticism.” (1112)

“Here is contemporary literature, waiting for its criticism; where are the professors of literature? They are watering their own gardens; elucidating the literary histories of their respective periods. So are their favorite pupils. The persons who save the occasion, and rescue contemporary literature from the humiliation of having to go without a criticism, are the men who had to leave the university before their time because they felt themselves being warped into mere historians . . . They are home-made critics. Naturally they are not too wise, these amateurs who furnish our reviews and critical studies.” (1112-1113)

“The first law to be prescribed to criticism, if we may assume such authority, is that it shall be objective, shall cite the nature of the object rather than its effects upon the subject. Therefore it is hardly criticism to assert that the proper literary work is one that we can read twice; or one that causes in us some remarkable physiological effect, such as oblivion of the outer world, the flowing of tears, visceral or laryngeal sensations, and such like …” (1115)

“We must regard as uncritical the use of an extensive vocabulary which ascribes to the object properties really discovered in the subject as: moving, exciting, entertaining, pitiful; great, if I am not mistaken, and admirable, on a slightly different ground; and, in strictness, beautiful itself.” (1115)

“For each poem … [there is] a logical object or universal, but at the same time a tissue of irrelevance . . . The critic has to take the poem apart, or analyze it, for the sake of uncovering these features. …[It] is rude and patchy business by comparison with the living integrity of the poem. But without it there could hardly be much understanding of the value of poetry, or of the natural history behind any adult poem.” (1118)


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