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What is New Criticism?

Credit: Getty images

The New Criticism movement

New Criticism is a post-World War I Anglo-American literary critical theory and movement. The main assumption of it is the intrinsic value and meaning of the work of art itself. Instead of surveying the historical context, the social implications, the other works of the author, or his personality, the New Criticism stressed the independent and internal qualities of a given text. The leading figures of the movement were I.A. Richards (Practical Criticism, 1929), William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1930), and also the English poet T.S. Eliot who made contributions, with his critical essays "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1917) and "Hamlet and His Problems" (1919).

The movement did not have a name, however, until the appearance of John Crowe Ransom's The New Criticism (1941), in which he criticized the critics.

Methods of analysis

The proponents of New Criticism advocated for the usage of "close reading" (a method in which each sentence is thoroughly scrutinized, a technique as old as Aristotle's Poetics ) and detailed textual analysis. Thus, they were able to unravel the inherent symbolic system, the interplay of words and meanings, as well as the coherence of the text and the way the whole modulated each semantic unit and vice verse. In that respect, New Criticism resembles the later systems of Structuralism and Deconstruction because it draws the attention of the reader to the structure of the text itself instead of its referential aspects.

Other leading figures of the movement were Kenneth Burke, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, R.P. Blackmur, W.K. Wimsatt, and Robert Pen Warren. In Understanding Poetry (1938), the last two managed to promote the movement's principles throughout American academic circles. Even one century later, these techniques are still widely employed.

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