20th Century American Literary Criticism Essay

For the events sanctioned by the University Interscholastic League, see Literary Criticism (UIL).

Literary criticism (or literary studies) is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often influenced by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of literature's goals and methods. Though the two activities are closely related, literary critics are not always, and have not always been, theorists.

Whether or not literary criticism should be considered a separate field of inquiry from literary theory, or conversely from book reviewing, is a matter of some controversy. For example, the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism[1] draws no distinction between literary theory and literary criticism, and almost always uses the terms together to describe the same concept. Some critics consider literary criticism a practical application of literary theory, because criticism always deals directly with particular literary works, while theory may be more general or abstract.

Literary criticism is often published in essay or book form. Academic literary critics teach in literature departments and publish in academic journals, and more popular critics publish their reviews in broadly circulating periodicals such as the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, The Nation, and The New Yorker.


Classical and medieval criticism[edit]

Literary criticism is thought to have existed as long as literature. In the 4th century BC Aristotle wrote the Poetics, a typology and description of literary forms with many specific criticisms of contemporary works of art. Poetics developed for the first time the concepts of mimesis and catharsis, which are still crucial in literary studies. Plato's attacks on poetry as imitative, secondary, and false were formative as well. Around the same time, Bharata Muni, in his Natya Shastra, wrote literary criticism on ancient Indian literature and Sanskrit drama.

Later classical and medieval criticism often focused on religious texts, and the several long religious traditions of hermeneutics and textual exegesis have had a profound influence on the study of secular texts. This was particularly the case for the literary traditions of the three Abrahamic religions: Jewish literature, Christian literature and Islamic literature.

Literary criticism was also employed in other forms of medieval Arabic literature and Arabic poetry from the 9th century, notably by Al-Jahiz in his al-Bayan wa-'l-tabyin and al-Hayawan, and by Abdullah ibn al-Mu'tazz in his Kitab al-Badi.[2]

Renaissance criticism[edit]

The literary criticism of the Renaissance developed classical ideas of unity of form and content into literary neoclassicism, proclaiming literature as central to culture, entrusting the poet and the author with preservation of a long literary tradition. The birth of Renaissance criticism was in 1498, with the recovery of classic texts, most notably, Giorgio Valla's Latin translation of Aristotle's Poetics. The work of Aristotle, especially Poetics, was the most important influence upon literary criticism until the late eighteenth century. Lodovico Castelvetro was one of the most influential Renaissance critics who wrote commentaries on Aristotle's Poetics in 1570.

Enlightenment criticism[edit]

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In the Enlightenment period (1700s to 1800s), literary criticism became more popular due to the invention and use of the printing press. During this time period literacy rates started to rise in the public, no longer was reading exclusive for the wealthy or scholarly. With the rise of the literate public and swiftness of printing, criticism arose too. Reading was no longer viewed solely as educational or as a sacred source of religion; it was a form of entertainment.[3] Literary criticism was influenced by the values and stylistic writing, including clear, bold, precise writing and the more controversial criteria of the author's religious beliefs.[4] These critical reviews were published in many magazines, newspapers, and journals. Many works of Jonathan Swift were criticized including his book Gulliver's Travels, which one critic described as "the detestable story of the Yahoos".[4]

19th-century Romantic criticism[edit]

The British Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century introduced new aesthetic ideas to literary studies, including the idea that the object of literature need not always be beautiful, noble, or perfect, but that literature itself could elevate a common subject to the level of the sublime. German Romanticism, which followed closely after the late development of German classicism, emphasized an aesthetic of fragmentation that can appear startlingly modern to the reader of English literature, and valued Witz – that is, "wit" or "humor" of a certain sort – more highly than the serious Anglophone Romanticism. The late nineteenth century brought renown to authors known more for their literary criticism than for their own literary work, such as Matthew Arnold.

The New Criticism[edit]

However important all of these aesthetic movements were as antecedents, current ideas about literary criticism derive almost entirely from the new direction taken in the early twentieth century. Early in the century the school of criticism known as Russian Formalism, and slightly later the New Criticism in Britain and in the United States, came to dominate the study and discussion of literature, in the English-speaking world. Both schools emphasized the close reading of texts, elevating it far above generalizing discussion and speculation about either authorial intention (to say nothing of the author's psychology or biography, which became almost taboo subjects) or reader response. This emphasis on form and precise attention to "the words themselves" has persisted, after the decline of these critical doctrines themselves.


In 1957 Northrop Frye published the influential Anatomy of Criticism. In his works Frye noted that some critics tend to embrace an ideology, and to judge literary pieces on the basis of their adherence to such ideology. This has been a highly influential viewpoint among modern conservative thinkers. E. Michael Jones, for example, argues in his Degenerate Moderns that Stanley Fish was influenced by his adulterous affairs to reject classic literature that condemned adultery.[5]Jürgen Habermas in Erkenntnis und Interesse [1968] (Knowledge and Human Interests), described literary critical theory in literary studies as a form of hermeneutics: knowledge via interpretation to understand the meaning of human texts and symbolic expressions—including the interpretation of texts which themselves interpret other texts.

In the British and American literary establishment, the New Criticism was more or less dominant until the late 1960s. Around that time Anglo-American university literature departments began to witness a rise of a more explicitly philosophical literary theory, influenced by structuralism, then post-structuralism, and other kinds of Continental philosophy. It continued until the mid-1980s, when interest in "theory" peaked. Many later critics, though undoubtedly still influenced by theoretical work, have been comfortable simply interpreting literature rather than writing explicitly about methodology and philosophical presumptions.

History of the book[edit]

Related to other forms of literary criticism, the history of the book is a field of interdisciplinary inquiry drawing on the methods of bibliography, cultural history, history of literature, and media theory. Principally concerned with the production, circulation, and reception of texts and their material forms, book history seeks to connect forms of textuality with their material aspects.

Among the issues within the history of literature with which book history can be seen to intersect are: the development of authorship as a profession, the formation of reading audiences, the constraints of censorship and copyright, and the economics of literary form.

Current state[edit]

Today, interest in literary theory and continental philosophy coexists in university literature departments with a more conservative literary criticism of which the New Critics would probably have approved. Disagreements over the goals and methods of literary criticism, which characterized both sides taken by critics during the "rise" of theory, have declined. Many critics feel that they now have a great plurality of methods and approaches from which to choose.

Some critics work largely with theoretical texts, while others read traditional literature; interest in the literary canon is still great, but many critics are also interested in minority and women's literatures, while some critics influenced by cultural studies read popular texts like comic books or pulp/genre fiction. Ecocritics have drawn connections between literature and the natural sciences. Darwinian literary studies studies literature in the context of evolutionary influences on human nature. Many literary critics also work in film criticism or media studies. Some write intellectual history; others bring the results and methods of social history to bear on reading literature.

Value of academic criticism[edit]

The value of extensive literary analysis has been questioned by several prominent artists. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that good readers do not read books, and particularly those which are considered to be literary masterpieces, "for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations".[6] At a 1986 Copenhagen conference of James Joyce scholars, Stephen J. Joyce (the modernist writer's grandson) said, "If my grandfather was here, he would have died laughing ... Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can be picked up, read, and enjoyed by virtually anybody without scholarly guides, theories, and intricate explanations, as can Ulysses, if you forget about all the hue and cry." He later questioned whether anything has been added to the legacy of Joyce's art by the 261 books of literary criticism stored in the Library of Congress.[7]

Key texts[edit]

The Classical and medieval periods[edit]

The Renaissance period[edit]

The Enlightenment period[edit]

  • Thomas Hobbes: Answer to Davenant's preface to Gondibert
  • Pierre Corneille: Of the Three Unities of Action, Time, and Place
  • John Dryden: An Essay of Dramatic Poesy
  • Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux: The Art of Poetry
  • John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • John Dennis: The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry
  • Alexander Pope: An Essay on Criticism
  • Joseph Addison: On the Pleasures of the Imagination (Spectator essays)
  • Giambattista Vico: The New Science
  • Edmund Burke: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful
  • David Hume: Of the Standard of Taste
  • Samuel Johnson: On Fiction, Rasselas, Preface to Shakespeare
  • Edward Young: Conjectures on Original Composition
  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Laocoön
  • Joshua Reynolds: Discourses on Art
  • Richard "Conversation" SharpLetters & Essays in Prose & Verse
  • James Usher :Clio: or a Discourse on Taste (1767)[8]
  • Denis Diderot: The Paradox of Acting
  • Immanuel Kant: Critique of Judgment
  • Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
  • William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven or Hell, Letter to Thomas Butts, Annotations to Reynolds' Discourses, A Descriptive Catalogue, A Vision of the Last Judgment, On Homer's Poetry
  • Friedrich Schiller: Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man
  • Friedrich Schlegel: Critical Fragments, Athenaeum Fragments, On Incomprehensibility

The 19th century[edit]

  • William Wordsworth: Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads
  • Anne Louise Germaine de Staël: Literature in its Relation to Social Institutions
  • Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling: On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Shakespeare's Judgment Equal to His Genius, On the Principles of Genial Criticism, The Statesman's Manual, Biographia Literaria
  • Wilhelm von Humboldt: Collected Works
  • John Keats: letters to Benjamin Bailey, George & Thomas Keats, John Taylor, and Richard Woodhouse
  • Arthur Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Idea
  • Thomas Love Peacock: The Four Ages of Poetry
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Defense of Poetry
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Conversations with Eckermann, Maxim No.279
  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Philosophy of Fine Art
  • Thomas Carlyle: Symbols
  • John Stuart Mill: What is Poetry?
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Poet
  • Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve: What Is a Classic?
  • Edgar Allan Poe: The Poetic Principle
  • Matthew Arnold: Preface to the 1853 Edition of Poems, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, The Study of Poetry
  • Hippolyte Taine: History of English Literature and Language
  • Charles Baudelaire: The Salon of 1859
  • Karl Marx: The German Ideology, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
  • Søren Kierkegaard: Two Ages: A Literary Review, The Concept of Irony
  • Friedrich Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Truth and Falsity in an Ultramoral Sense
  • Walter Pater: Studies in the History of the Renaissance
  • Émile Zola: The Experimental Novel
  • Anatole France: The Adventures of the Soul
  • Oscar Wilde: The Decay of Lying
  • Stéphane Mallarmé: The Evolution of Literature, The Book: A Spiritual Mystery, Mystery in Literature
  • Leo Tolstoy: What is Art?

The 20th century[edit]

  • Benedetto Croce: Aesthetic
  • A. C. Bradley: Poetry for Poetry's Sake
  • Sigmund Freud: Creative Writers and Daydreaming
  • Ferdinand de Saussure: Course in General Linguistics
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Structural Study of Myth
  • T. E. Hulme: Romanticism and Classicism; Bergson's Theory of Art
  • Walter Benjamin: On Language as Such and On the Language of Man
  • Viktor Shklovsky: Art as Technique
  • T. S. Eliot: Tradition and the Individual Talent; Hamlet and His Problems
  • Irving Babbitt: Romantic Melancholy
  • Carl Jung: On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry
  • Leon Trotsky: The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism
  • Boris Eikhenbaum: The Theory of the "Formal Method"
  • Virginia Woolf: A Room of One's Own
  • I. A. Richards: Practical Criticism
  • Mikhail Bakhtin: Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel
  • Georges Bataille: The Notion of Expenditure
  • John Crowe Ransom: Poetry: A Note in Ontology; Criticism as Pure Speculation
  • R. P. Blackmur: A Critic's Job of Work
  • Jacques Lacan: The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience; The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason Since Freud
  • György Lukács: The Ideal of the Harmonious Man in Bourgeois Aesthetics; Art and Objective Truth
  • Paul Valéry: Poetry and Abstract Thought
  • Kenneth Burke: Literature as Equipment for Living
  • Ernst Cassirer: Art
  • W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley: The Intentional Fallacy, The Affective Fallacy
  • Cleanth Brooks: The Heresy of Paraphrase; Irony as a Principle of Structure
  • Jan Mukařovský: Standard Language and Poetic Language
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: Why Write?
  • Simone de Beauvoir: The Second Sex
  • Ronald Crane: Toward a More Adequate Criticism of Poetic Structure
  • Philip Wheelwright: The Burning Fountain
  • Theodor Adorno: Cultural Criticism and Society; Aesthetic Theory
  • Roman Jakobson: The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles
  • Northrop Frye: Anatomy of Criticism; The Critical Path
  • Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space
  • Ernst Gombrich: Art and Illusion
  • Martin Heidegger: The Nature of Language; Language in the Poem; Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry
  • E. D. Hirsch, Jr.: Objective Interpretation
  • Noam Chomsky: Aspects of the Theory of Syntax
  • Jacques Derrida: Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences
  • Roland Barthes: The Structuralist Activity; The Death of the Author
  • Michel Foucault: Truth and Power; What Is an Author?; The Discourse on Language
  • Hans Robert Jauss: Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory
  • Georges Poulet: Phenomenology of Reading
  • Raymond Williams: The Country and the City
  • Lionel Trilling: The Liberal Imagination;
  • Julia Kristeva: From One Identity to Another; Women's Time
  • Paul de Man: Semiology and Rhetoric; The Rhetoric of Temporality
  • Harold Bloom: The Anxiety of Influence; The Dialectics of Poetic Tradition; Poetry, Revisionism, Repression
  • Chinua Achebe: Colonialist Criticism
  • Stanley Fish: Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes Without Saying, and Other Special Cases; Is There a Text in This Class?
  • Edward Said: The World, the Text, and the Critic; Secular Criticism
  • Elaine Showalter: Toward a Feminist Poetics
  • Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar: Infection in the Sentence; The Madwoman in the Attic
  • Murray Krieger: "A Waking Dream": The Symbolic Alternative to Allegory
  • Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
  • René Girard: The Sacrificial Crisis
  • Hélène Cixous: The Laugh of the Medusa
  • Jonathan Culler: Beyond Interpretation
  • Geoffrey Hartman: Literary Commentary as Literature
  • Wolfgang Iser: The Repertoire
  • Hayden White: The Historical Text as Literary Artifact
  • David P. Gontar: "Hamlet Made Simple" and "Unreading Shakespeare"
  • Hans-Georg Gadamer: Truth and Method
  • Paul Ricoeur: The Metaphorical Process as Cognition, Imagination, and Feeling
  • M. H. Abrams: How to Do Things with Texts
  • J. Hillis Miller: The Critic as Host
  • Clifford Geertz: Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought
  • Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism
  • Tristan Tzara: Unpretentious Proclamation
  • André Breton: The Surrealist Manifesto; The Declaration of January 27, 1925
  • Mina Loy: Feminist Manifesto
  • Yokomitsu Riichi: Sensation and New Sensation
  • Oswald de Andrade: Cannibalist Manifesto
  • André Breton, Leon Trotsky and Diego Rivera: Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art
  • Hu Shih: Some Modest Proposals for the Reform of Literature
  • Octavio Paz: The Bow and the Lire

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

This audio file was created from a revision of the article "Literary criticism" dated 2006-10-18, and does not reflect subsequent edits to the article. (Audio help)

More spoken articles

  1. ^Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2005. ISBN 0801880106. OCLC 54374476. 
  2. ^van. Gelder, G. J. H. (1982). Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 1–2. ISBN 9004068546. OCLC 10350183. 
  3. ^Murray, Stuart (2009). The Library: An Illustrated History. New York: Skyhorse. pp. 132–133. ISBN 9781616084530. OCLC 277203534. 
  4. ^ abRegan, Shaun; Dawson, Books (2013). Reading 1759: Literary Culture in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain and France. Lewisburg [Pa.]: Bucknell University Press. pp. 125–130. ISBN 9781611484786. 
  5. ^Jones, E. Michael (1991). Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehaviour. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. pp. 79–84. ISBN 0898704472. OCLC 28241358. 
  6. ^Vladimir NabokovLectures on Literature, chap. L'Envoi p. 381
  7. ^D. T. Max (June 19, 2006). "The Injustice Collector". The New Yorker.
  8. ^Ussher, J. (1767). Clio Or, a Discourse on Taste: Addressed to a Young Lady. Davies. p. 3. Retrieved 2014-10-10. 

American literature, the body of written works produced in the English language in the United States.

Like other national literatures, American literature was shaped by the history of the country that produced it. For almost a century and a half, America was merely a group of colonies scattered along the eastern seaboard of the North American continent—colonies from which a few hardy souls tentatively ventured westward. After a successful rebellion against the motherland, America became the United States, a nation. By the end of the 19th century this nation extended southward to the Gulf of Mexico, northward to the 49th parallel, and westward to the Pacific. By the end of the 19th century, too, it had taken its place among the powers of the world—its fortunes so interrelated with those of other nations that inevitably it became involved in two world wars and, following these conflicts, with the problems of Europe and East Asia. Meanwhile, the rise of science and industry, as well as changes in ways of thinking and feeling, wrought many modifications in people’s lives. All these factors in the development of the United States molded the literature of the country.

This article traces the history of American poetry, drama, fiction, and social and literary criticism from the early 17th century through the turn of the 21st century. For a description of the oral and written literatures of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, seeNative American literature. Though the contributions of African Americans to American literature are discussed in this article, seeAfrican American literature for in-depth treatment. For information about literary traditions related to, and at times overlapping with, American literature in English, seeEnglish literature and Canadian literature: Canadian literature in English.

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