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Literary Criticism
Literary Criticism

Encyclopædia Britannica Article


the reasoned consideration of literary works and issues. It applies, as a term, to any argumentation about literature, whether or not specific works are analyzed. Plato's cautions against the risky consequences of poetic inspiration in general in his Republic are thus often taken as the earliest important example of literary criticism.

More strictly construed, the term covers only what has been called ―practical criticism,‖ the

interpretation of meaning and the judgment of quality. Criticism in this narrow sense can be

distinguished not only from aesthetics (the philosophy of artistic value) but also from other matters that may concern the student of literature: biographical questions, bibliography, historical knowledge, sources and influences, and problems of method. Thus, especially in

academic studies, ―criticism‖ is often considered to be separate from ―scholarship.‖ In

practice, however, this distinction often proves artificial, and even the most single-minded concentration on a text may be informed by outside knowledge, while many notable works of

criticism combine discussion of texts with broad arguments about the nature of literature and the principles of assessing it.

Criticism will here be taken to cover all phases of literary understanding, though the emphasis will be on the evaluation of literary works and of their authors' places in literary history. For another particular aspect of literary criticism, see textual criticism.


The functions of literary criticism vary widely, ranging from the reviewing of books as they are published to systematic theoretical discussion. Though reviews may sometimes determine whether a given book will be widely sold, many works succeed commercially despite negative reviews, and many classic works, including Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), have acquired appreciative publics long after being unfavourably reviewed and at first neglected. One of criticism's principal functions is to express the shifts in sensibility that make such revaluations possible. The minimal condition for such a new appraisal is, of course, that the original text survive. The literary critic is sometimes cast in the role of scholarly detective, unearthing, authenticating, and editing unknown manuscripts. Thus, even rarefied scholarly skills may be put to criticism's most elementary use, the bringing of literary works to a public's attention.

The variety of criticism's functions is reflected in the range of publications in which it appears. Criticism in the daily press rarely displays sustained acts of analysis and may sometimes do little more than summarize a publisher's claims for a book's interest. Weekly and biweekly magazines serve to introduce new books but are often more discriminating in their judgments, and some of these magazines, such as The (London) Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books, are far from indulgent toward popular works. Sustained criticism can also be found in monthlies and quarterlies with a broad

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circulation, in ―little magazines‖ for specialized audiences, and in scholarly journals and


Because critics often try to be lawgivers, declaring which works deserve respect and presuming to say what they are ―really‖ about, criticism is a perennial target of resentment. Misguided or malicious critics can discourage an author who has been feeling his way toward a new mode that offends received taste. Pedantic critics can obstruct a serious engagement with literature by deflecting attention toward inessential matters. As the French philosopher- critic Jean-Paul Sartre observed, the critic may announce that French thought is a perpetual colloquy between Pascal and Montaigne not in order to make those thinkers more alive but to make thinkers of his own time more dead. Criticism can antagonize authors even when it performs its function well. Authors who regard literature as needing no advocates or investigators are less than grateful when told that their works possess unintended meaning or are imitative or incomplete.

What such authors may tend to forget is that their works, once published, belong to them only in a legal sense. The true owner of their works is the public, which will appropriate them for its own concerns regardless of the critic. The critic's responsibility is not to the author's self- esteem but to the public and to his own standards of judgment, which are usually more exacting than the public's. Justification for his role rests on the premise that literary works are not in fact self-explanatory. A critic is socially useful to the extent that society wants, and receives, a fuller understanding of literature than it could have achieved without him. In filling this appetite, the critic whets it further, helping to create a public that cares about artistic quality. Without sensing the presence of such a public, an author may either prostitute his talent or squander it in sterile acts of defiance. In this sense, the critic is not a parasite but, potentially, someone who is responsible in part for the existence of good writing in his own time and afterward.

Although some critics believe that literature should be discussed in isolation from other matters, criticism usually seems to be openly or covertly involved with social and political debate. Since literature itself is often partisan, is always rooted to some degree in local circumstances, and has a way of calling forth affirmations of ultimate values, it is not surprising that the finest critics have never paid much attention to the alleged boundaries between criticism and other types of discourse. Especially in modern Europe, literary criticism has occupied a central place in debate about cultural and political issues. Sartre's own What Is Literature? (1947) is typical in its wide-ranging attempt to prescribe the literary intellectual's ideal relation to the development of his society and to literature as a manifestation of human freedom. Similarly, some prominent American critics, including Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, Kenneth Burke, Philip Rahv, and Irving Howe, began as political radicals in the 1930s and sharpened their concern for literature on the dilemmas and disillusionments of that era. Trilling's influential The Liberal Imagination (1950) is simultaneously a collection of literary essays and an attempt to reconcile the claims of politics and art.

Such a reconciliation is bound to be tentative and problematic if the critic believes, as Trilling does, that literature possesses an independent value and a deeper faithfulness to reality than is contained in any political formula. In Marxist states, however, literature has usually been considered a means to social ends and, therefore, criticism has been cast in forthrightly partisan terms. Dialectical materialism does not necessarily turn the critic into a mere guardian of party doctrine, but it does forbid him to treat literature as a cause in itself, apart

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from the working class's needs as interpreted by the party. Where this utilitarian view prevails, the function of criticism is taken to be continuous with that of the state itself, namely, furtherance of the social revolution. The critic's main obligation is not to his texts but rather to the masses of people whose consciousness must be advanced in the designated direction. In periods of severe orthodoxy, the practice of literary criticism has not always been distinguishable from that of censorship.

Historical development


Although almost all of the criticism ever written dates from the 20th century, questions first posed by Plato and Aristotle are still of prime concern, and every critic who has attempted to justify the social value of literature has had to come to terms with the opposing argument made by Plato in The Republic. The poet as a man and poetry as a form of statement both seemed untrustworthy to Plato, who depicted the physical world as an imperfect copy of transcendent ideas and poetry as a mere copy of the copy. Thus, literature could only mislead the seeker of truth. Plato credited the poet with divine inspiration, but this, too, was cause for worry; a man possessed by such madness would subvert the interests of a rational polity. Poets were therefore to be banished from the hypothetical republic.

In his Poeticsstill the most respected of all discussions of literatureAristotle countered Plato's indictment by stressing what is normal and useful about literary art. The tragic poet is not so much divinely inspired as he is motivated by a universal human need to imitate, and what he imitates is not something like a bed (Plato's example) but a noble action. Such imitation presumably has a civilizing value for those who empathize with it. Tragedy does arouse emotions of pity and terror in its audience, but these emotions are purged in the process (katharsis). In this fashion Aristotle succeeded in portraying literature as satisfying and regulating human passions instead of inflaming them.

Although Plato and Aristotle are regarded as antagonists, the narrowness of their disagreement is noteworthy. Both maintain that poetry is mimetic, both treat the arousing of emotion in the perceiver, and both feel that poetry takes its justification, if any, from its service to the state. It was obvious to both men that poets wielded great power over others. Unlike many modern critics who have tried to show that poetry is more than a pastime, Aristotle had to offer reassurance that it was not socially explosive.

Aristotle's practical contribution to criticism, as opposed to his ethical defense of literature, lies in his inductive treatment of the elements and kinds of poetry. Poetic modes are identified according to their means of imitation, the actions they imitate, the manner of imitation, and its effects. These distinctions assist the critic in judging each mode according to its proper ends instead of regarding beauty as a fixed entity. The ends of tragedy, as Aristotle conceived them, are best served by the harmonious disposition of six elements: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. Thanks to Aristotle's insight into universal aspects of audience psychology, many of his dicta have proved to be adaptable to genres developed long after his time.

Later Greek and Roman criticism offers no parallel to Aristotle's originality. Much ancient criticism, such as that of Cicero, Horace, and Quintilian in Rome, was absorbed in technical

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rules of exegesis and advice to aspiring rhetoricians. Horace's verse epistle The Art of Poetry is an urbane amplification of Aristotle's emphasis on the decorum or internal propriety of each genre, now including lyric, pastoral, satire, elegy, and epigram, as well as Aristotle's epic, tragedy, and comedy. This work was later to be prized by Neoclassicists of the 17th century not only for its rules but also for its humour, common sense, and appeal to educated taste. On the Sublime, by the Roman-Greek known as ―Longinus,‖ was to become influential in the 18th century but for a contrary reason: when decorum began to lose its sway encouragement could be found in Longinus for arousing elevated and ecstatic feeling in the reader. Horace and Longinus developed, respectively, the rhetorical and the affective sides of Aristotle's thought, but Longinus effectively reversed the Aristotelian concern with regulation of the passions.

Medieval period

In the Christian Middle Ages criticism suffered from the loss of nearly all the ancient critical texts and from an antipagan distrust of the literary imagination. Such Church Fathers as Tertullian, Augustine, and Jerome renewed, in churchly guise, the Platonic argument against poetry. But both the ancient gods and the surviving classics reasserted their fascination, entering medieval culture in theologically allegorized form. Encyclopaedists and textual commentators explained the supposed Christian content of pre-Christian works and the Old Testament. Although there was no lack of rhetoricians to dictate the correct use of literary figures, no attempt was made to derive critical principles from emergent genres such as the fabliau and the chivalric romance. Criticism was in fact inhibited by the very coherence of the theologically explained universe. When nature is conceived as endlessly and purposefully symbolic of revealed truth, specifically literary problems of form and meaning are bound to be neglected. Even such an original vernacular poet of the 14th century as Dante appears to have expected his Divine Comedy to be interpreted according to the rules of scriptural exegesis.

The Renaissance

Renaissance criticism grew directly from the recovery of classic texts and notably from Giorgio Valla's translation of Aristotle's Poetics into Latin in 1498. By 1549 the Poetics had been rendered into Italian as well. From this period until the later part of the 18th century Aristotle was once again the most imposing presence behind literary theory. Critics looked to ancient poems and plays for insight into the permanent laws of art. The most influential of Renaissance critics was probably Lodovico Castelvetro, whose 1570 commentary on Aristotle's Poetics encouraged the writing of tightly structured plays by extending and codifying Aristotle's idea of the dramatic unities. It is difficult today to appreciate that this obeisance to antique models had a liberating effect; one must recall that imitation of the ancients entailed rejecting scriptural allegory and asserting the individual author's ambition to create works that would be unashamedly great and beautiful. Classicism, individualism, and national pride joined forces against literary asceticism. Thus, a group of 16th-century French writers known as the Pléiadenotably Pierre de Ronsard and Joachim du Bellaywere simultaneously classicists, poetic innovators, and advocates of a purified vernacular tongue.

The ideas of the Italian and French Renaissance were transmitted to England by Roger Ascham, George Gascoigne, Sir Philip Sidney, and others. Gascoigne's ―Certayne notes of Instruction‖ (1575), the first English manual of versification, had a considerable effect on poetic practice in the Elizabethan Age. Sidney's Defence of Poesie (1595) vigorously argued

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the poet's superiority to the philosopher and the historian on the grounds that his imagination is chained neither to lifeless abstractions nor to dull actualities. The poet ―doth not only show

the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter into it.‖

While still honouring the traditional conception of poetry's role as bestowing pleasure and instruction, Sidney's essay presages the Romantic claim that the poetic mind is a law unto itself.

Neoclassicism and its decline

The Renaissance in general could be regarded as a neoclassical period, in that ancient works were considered the surest models for modern greatness. Neoclassicism, however, usually connotes narrower attitudes that are at once literary and social: a worldly-wise tempering of enthusiasm, a fondness for proved ways, a gentlemanly sense of propriety and balance. Criticism of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in France, was dominated by these Horatian norms. French critics such as Pierre Corneille and Nicolas Boileau urged a strict orthodoxy regarding the dramatic unities and the requirements of each distinct genre, as if to disregard them were to lapse into barbarity. The poet was not to imagine that his genius exempted him from the established laws of craftsmanship.

Neoclassicism had a lesser impact in England, partly because English Puritanism had kept alive some of the original Christian hostility to secular art, partly because English authors were on the whole closer to plebeian taste than were the court-oriented French, and partly because of the difficult example of Shakespeare, who magnificently broke all of the rules. Not even the relatively severe classicist Ben Jonson could bring himself to deny Shakespeare's greatness, and the theme of Shakespearean genius triumphing over formal imperfections is echoed by major British critics from John Dryden and Alexander Pope through Samuel Johnson. The science of Newton and the psychology of Locke also worked subtle changes on neoclassical themes. Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711) is a Horatian compendium of maxims, but Pope feels obliged to defend the poetic rules as ―Nature methodiz'd‖—a portent of quite different literary inferences from Nature. Dr. Johnson, too, though he respected precedent, was above all a champion of moral sentiment and

―mediocrity,‖ the appeal to generally shared traits. His preference for forthright sincerity left

him impatient with such intricate conventions as those of the pastoral elegy.

The decline of Neoclassicism is hardly surprising; literary theory had developed very little during two centuries of artistic, political, and scientific ferment. The 18th century's important

new genre, the novel, drew most of its readers from a bourgeoisie that had little use for aristocratic dicta. A Longinian cult of ―feeling‖ gradually made headway, in various

European countries, against Neoclassical canons of proportion and moderation. Emphasis

shifted from concern for meeting fixed criteria to the subjective state of the reader and then of the author himself. The spirit of nationalism entered criticism as a concern for the origins and growth of one's own native literature and as an esteem for such non-Aristotelian factors as ―the spirit of the age.‖ Historical consciousness produced by turns theories of literary progress and primitivistic theories affirming, as one critic put it, that ―barbarous‖ times are

the most favourable to the poetic spirit. The new recognition of strangeness and strong feeling as literary virtues yielded various fashions of taste for misty sublimity, graveyard sentiments, medievalism, Norse epics (and forgeries), Oriental tales, and the verse of plowboys. Perhaps the most eminent foes of Neoclassicism before the 19th century were Denis Diderot in France and, in Germany, Gotthold Lessing, Johann von Herder, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Friedrich Schiller.

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Romanticism, an amorphous movement that began in Germany and England at the turn of the 19th century, and somewhat later in France, Italy, and the United States, found spokesmen as diverse as Goethe and August and Friedrich von Schlegel in Germany, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in England, Madame de Staël and Victor Hugo in France, Alessandro Manzoni in Italy, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe in the United States. Romantics tended to regard the writing of poetry as a transcendentally important activity, closely related to the creative perception of meaning in the world. The poet was credited with the godlike power that Plato had feared in him; Transcendental philosophy was, indeed, a derivative of Plato's metaphysical Idealism. In the typical view of Percy Bysshe Shelley, poetry ―strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms.‖

Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), with its definition of poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings and its attack on Neoclassical diction, is regarded as the opening statement of English Romanticism. In England, however, only Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria (1817) embraced the whole complex of Romantic doctrines emanating from Germany; the British empiricist tradition was too firmly rooted to be totally washed aside by the new metaphysics. Most of those who were later called Romantics did share an emphasis on individual passion and inspiration, a taste for symbolism and historical awareness, and a conception of art works as internally whole structures in which feelings are dialectically merged with their contraries. Romantic criticism coincided with the emergence of aesthetics as a separate branch of philosophy, and both signalled a weakening in ethical demands upon literature. The lasting achievement of Romantic theory is its recognition that artistic creations are justified, not by their promotion of virtue, but by their own coherence and intensity.

The late 19th century

The Romantic movement had been spurred not only by German philosophy but also by the universalistic and utopian hopes that accompanied the French Revolution. Some of those hopes were thwarted by political reaction, while others were blunted by industrial capitalism and the accession to power of the class that had demanded general liberty. Advocates of the literary imagination now began to think of themselves as enemies or gadflies of the newly entrenched bourgeoisie. In some hands the idea of creative freedom dwindled to a bohemianism pitting ―art for its own sake‖ against commerce and respectability. Aestheticism characterized both the Symbolist criticism of Charles Baudelaire in France and the self- conscious decadence of Algernon Swinburne, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde in England. At an opposite extreme, realistic and naturalistic views of literature as an exact record of social truth were developed by Vissarion Belinsky in Russia, Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola in France, and William Dean Howells in the United States. Zola's program, however, was no less anti-bourgeois than that of the Symbolists; he wanted novels to document conditions so as to expose their injustice. Post-Romantic disillusion was epitomized in Britain in the criticism of Matthew Arnold, who thought of critical taste as a substitute for religion and for the unsatisfactory values embodied in every social class.

Toward the end of the 19th century, especially in Germany, England, and the United States, literary study became an academic discipline ―at the doctoral level.‖ Philology, linguistics, folklore study, and the textual principles that had been devised for biblical criticism provided

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curricular guidelines, while academic taste mirrored the prevailing impressionistic concern for the quality of the author's spirit. Several intellectual currents joined to make possible the writing of systematic and ambitious literary histories. Primitivism and Medievalism had awakened interest in neglected early texts; scientific Positivism encouraged a scrupulous regard for facts; and the German idea that each country's literature had sprung from a unique national consciousness provided a conceptual framework. The French critic Hippolyte Taine's History of English Literature (published in French, 186369) reflected the prevailing determinism of scientific thought; for him a work could be explained in terms of the race, milieu, and moment that produced it. For other critics of comparable stature, such as Charles Sainte-Beuve in France, Benedetto Croce in Italy, and George Saintsbury in England, historical learning only threw into relief the expressive uniqueness of each artistic temperament.

The 20th century

The ideal of objective research has continued to guide Anglo-American literary scholarship and criticism and has prompted work of unprecedented accuracy. Bibliographic procedures have been revolutionized; historical scholars, biographers, and historians of theory have placed criticism on a sounder basis of factuality. Important contributions to literary understanding have meanwhile been drawn from anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. Impressionistic method has given way to systematic inquiry from which gratuitous assumptions are, if possible, excluded. Yet demands for a more ethically committed criticism have repeatedly been made, from the New Humanism of Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt in the United States in the 1920s, through the moralizing criticism of the Cambridge don F.R. Leavis and of the American poet Yvor Winters, to the most recent

demands for ―relevance.‖

No sharp line can be drawn between academic criticism and criticism produced by authors and men of letters. Many of the latter are now associated with universities, and the main shift of academic emphasis, from impressionism to formalism, originated outside the academy in the writings of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and T.E. Hulme, largely in London around 1910. Only subsequently did such academics as I.A. Richards and William Empson in England and John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks in the United States adapt the New Criticism to reform of the literary curriculumin the 1940s. New Criticism has been the methodological counterpart to the strain of modernist literature characterized by allusive difficulty, paradox, and indifference or outright hostility to the democratic ethos. In certain respects the hegemony of New Criticism has been political as well as literary; and anti-Romantic insistence on irony, convention, and aesthetic distance has been accompanied by scorn for all revolutionary hopes. In Hulme conservatism and classicism were explicitly linked.

Romanticism struck him as ―spilt religion,‖ a dangerous exaggeration of human freedom. In

reality, however, New Criticism owed much to Romantic theory, especially to Coleridge's idea of organic form, and some of its notable practitioners have been left of centre in their

social thought.

The totality of Western criticism in the 20th century defies summary except in terms of its restless multiplicity and factionalism. Schools of literary practice, such as Imagism, Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism, have found no want of defenders and explicators. Ideological groupings, psychological dogmas, and philosophical trends have generated polemics and analysis, and literary materials have been taken as primary data by sociologists and historians. Literary creators themselves have continued to write illuminating commentary on

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their own principles and aims. In poetry, Paul Valéry, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens; in the theatre, George Bernard Shaw, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht; and in fiction, Marcel Proust, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Mann have contributed to criticism in the act of justifying their art.

Most of the issues debated in 20th-century criticism appear to be strictly empirical, even technical, in nature. By what means can the most precise and complete knowledge of a literary work be arrived at? Should its social and biographical context be studied or only the words themselves as an aesthetic structure? Should the author's avowed intention be trusted, or merely taken into account, or disregarded as irrelevant? How is conscious irony to be distinguished from mere ambivalence, or allusiveness from allegory? Which among many approacheslinguistic, generic, formal, sociological, psychoanalytic, and so forthis best adapted to making full sense of a text? Would a synthesis of all these methods yield a total theory of literature? Such questions presuppose that literature is valuable and that objective knowledge of its workings is a desirable end. These assumptions are, indeed, so deeply buried in most critical discourse that they customarily remain hidden from critics themselves, who imagine that they are merely solving problems of intrinsic interest.

The influence of science

What separates modern criticism from earlier work is its catholicity of scope and method, its borrowing of procedures from the social scienes, and its unprecedented attention to detail. As literature's place in society has become more problematic and peripheral, and as humanistic education has grown into a virtual industry with a large group of professionals serving as one another's judges, criticism has evolved into a complex discipline, increasingly refined in its procedures but often lacking a sense of contact with the general social will. Major modern

critics, to be sure, have not allowed their ―close reading‖ to distract them from certain

perennial questions about poetic truth, the nature of literary satisfaction, and literature's social utility, but even these matters have sometimes been cast in ―value-free‖ empirical terms.

Recourse to scientific authority and method, then, is the outstanding trait of 20th-century criticism. The sociology of Marx, Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim, the mythological investigations of Sir James George Frazer and his followers, Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, Claude Levi-Strauss's anthropological structuralism, and the psychological models proposed by Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung have all found their way into criticism. The result has been not simply an abundance of technical terms and rules, but a widespread belief that literature's governing principles can be located outside literature. Jungian archetypal‖ criticism, for example, regularly identifies literary power with the presence of certain themes that are alleged to inhabit the myths and beliefs of all cultures, while psychoanalytic exegetes interpret poems in exactly the manner that Freud interpreted dreams. Such procedures may encourage the critic, wisely or unwisely, to discount traditional boundaries between genres, national literatures, and levels of culture; the critical enterprise begins to seem continuous with a general study of man. The impetus toward universalism can be discerned even in those critics who are most skeptical of it, the so-called historical relativists who attempt to reconstruct each epoch's outlook and to understand works as they appeared to their first readers. Historical relativism does undermine cross-cultural notions of beauty, but it reduces the record of any given period to data from which inferences can be systematically drawn. Here, too, in other words, uniform methodology tends to replace the intuitive connoisseurship that formerly typified the critic's sense of his role.

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Criticism and knowledge

The debate over poetic truth may illustrate how modern discussion is beholden to extraliterary knowledge. Critics have never ceased disputing whether literature depicts the world correctly, incorrectly, or not at all, and the dispute has often had more to do with the support or condemnation of specific authors than with ascertainable facts about mimesis. Today it may be almost impossible to take a stand regarding poetic truth without also coming to terms with positivism as a total epistemology. The spectacular achievements of physical science have (with logic questioned by some) downgraded intuition and placed a premium on concrete, testable statements very different from those found in poems. Some of the most influential modern critics, notably I.A. Richards in his early works, have accepted this value order and have confined themselves to behavioristic study of how literature stimulates the reader's feelings. A work of literature, for them, is no longer something that captures an external or internal reality, but is merely a locus for psychological operations; it can only be judged as eliciting or failing to elicit a desired response.

Other critics, however, have renewed the Shelleyan and Coleridgean contention that literary experience involves a complex and profound form of knowing. In order to do so they have had to challenge Positivism in general. Such a challenge cannot be convincingly mounted within the province of criticism itself and must depend rather on the authority of antipositivist epistemologists such as Alfred North Whitehead, Ernst Cassirer, and Michael Polanyi. If it is now respectable to maintain, with Wallace Stevens and others, that the world is known through imaginative apprehensions of the sort that poetry celebrates and employs, this is attributable to developments far outside the normal competence of critics.

The pervasive influence of science is most apparent in modern criticism's passion for total explanation of the texts it brings under its microscope. Even formalist schools, which take for granted an author's freedom to shape his work according to the demands of art, treat individual lines of verse with a dogged minuteness that was previously unknown, hoping thereby to demonstrate the ―organic‖ coherence of the poem. The spirit of explanation is also apparent in those schools that argue from the circumstances surrounding a work's origin to the work itself, leaving an implication that the former have caused the latter. The determinism is rarely as explicit or relentless as it was in Taine's scheme of race, milieu, and moment, but this may reflect the fact that causality in general is now handled with more sophistication than in Taine's day.

Whether criticism will continue to aim at empirical exactitude or will turn in some new direction cannot be readily predicted, for the empiricist ideal and its sanctuary, the university, are not themselves secure from attack. The history of criticism is one of oscillation between periods of relative advance, when the imaginative freedom of great writers prompts critics to extend their former conceptions, and periods when stringent moral and formal prescriptions are laid upon literature. In times of social upheaval criticism may more or less deliberately abandon the ideal of disinterested knowledge and be mobilized for a practical end. Revolutionary movements provide obvious instances of such redirection, whether or not they identify their pragmatic goals with the cause of science. It should be evident that the future of criticism depends on factors that lie outside criticism itself as a rationally evolving discipline. When a whole society shifts its attitudes toward pleasure, unorthodox behaviour, or the meaning of existence, criticism must follow along.

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As Matthew Arnold foresaw, the waning of religious certainty has encouraged critics to invest their faith in literature, taking it as the one remaining source of value and order. This development has stimulated critical activity, yet, paradoxically, it may also be responsible in part for a growing impatience with criticism. What Arnold could not have anticipated is that the faith of some moderns would be apocalyptic and Dionysian rather than a sober and attenuated derivative of Victorian Christianity. Thought in the 20th century has yielded a strong undercurrent of anarchism which celebrates libidinous energy and self-expression at the expense of all social constraint, including that of literary form. In the critical writings of D.H. Lawrence, for example, fiction is cherished as an instrument of unconscious revelation and liberation. A widespread insistence upon prophetic and ecstatic power in literature seems at present to be undermining the complex, irony-minded formalism that has dominated modern discourse. As literary scholarship has acquired an ever-larger arsenal of weapons for attacking problems of meaning, it has met with increasing resentment from people who wish to be nourished by whatever is elemental and mysterious in literary experience.

An awareness of critical history suggests that the development is not altogether new, for

criticism stands now approximately where it did in the later 18th century, when the Longinian spirit of expressiveness contested the sway of Boileau and Pope. To the extent that modern

textual analysis has become what Hulme predicted, ―a classical revival,‖ it may not be

welcomed by those who want a direct and intense rapport with literature. What is resisted now is not Neoclassical decorum but impersonal methodology, which is thought to deaden commitment. Such resistance may prove beneficial if it reminds critics that rationalized procedures are indeed no substitute for engagement. Excellent work continues to be written, not because a definitive method or synthesis of methods has been found, but on the contrary because the best critics still understand that criticism is an exercise of private sympathy,

discrimination, and moral and cultural reflection.

Frederick C. Crews

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Additional Reading

A useful compilation of essential texts on literary criticism is Mark Schorer, Josephine Miles, and Gordon McKenzie (eds.), Criticism, rev. ed. (1958). The best survey of critical history is William K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957); G.M.A. Grube, The Greek and Roman Critics (1965); Joel E. Spingarn, A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance, 5th ed. (1925, paperback edition 1963); Walter J. Bate, From Classic to Romantic (1946, reprinted 1961); and Rene Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism, 17501950, 4 vol. (195565), are more specialized historical studies. Important theoretical statements are M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953); Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, 3rd rev. ed. (1966); Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957); and Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 3rd ed. (1956, reprinted 1963); Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (1946; Eng. trans. 1953); and Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (1950), are representative examples of modern criticism, combining theory with analysis of a wide variety of texts. See also Douwe W. Fokkema and Elrud Kunne-Ibsch, Theories of Literature in the Twentieth Century: Structuralism, Marxism, Aesthetics of Reception, Semiotics (1978).


"literary criticism." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica 2009 Student and Home Edition. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2009.

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Literary Criticism
Literary Criticism


Literary Criticism, discussion of literature, including description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of literary works. Like literature, criticism is hard to define. One of the critic’s tasks is to challenge definitions of literature and criticism that seem too general, too narrow, or unworkable for any other reason. Whatever it is, literary criticism deals with different dimensions of literature as a collection of texts through which authors evoke more or less fictitious worlds for the imagination of readers.

We can look at any work of literature by paying special attention to one of several aspects: its language and structure; its intended purpose; the information and worldview it conveys; or its effect on an audience. Most good critics steer clear of exclusive interest in a single element.

In studying a text’s formal characteristics, for example, critics usually recognize the variability of performances of dramatic works and the variability of readers’ mental interpretations of texts. In studying an author’s purpose, critics acknowledge that forces beyond a writer’s conscious intentions can affect what the writer actually communicates. In

studying what a literary work is about, critics often explore the complex relationship between

truth and fiction in various types of storytelling. In studying literature’s impact on its

audience, critics have been increasingly aware of how cultural expectations shape experience.

Because works of literature can be studied long after their first publication, awareness of historical and theoretical context contributes to our understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of them. Historical research relates a work to the life and times of its author. Attention to the nature, functions, and categories of literature provides a theoretical framework joining a past text to the experience of present readers. The tradition of literary criticism surveyed here combines observations by creative writers, philosophers, and, more recently, trained specialists in literary, historical, and cultural studies.


The Western tradition’s earliest extended instance of literary criticism occurs in The Frogs (405 BC), a comedy by Athenian playwright Aristophanes that pokes fun at the contrasting

styles of Greek dramatists Aeschylus and Euripides. In the play the two dead masters of Greek tragedy compete for supremacy in Hades (the underworld), debating a fundamental

dilemma of all subsequent criticism: Is the writer’s first commitment to uphold and promote

morality or to represent reality? Is the task of drama and other forms of literature primarily to improve or primarily to inform the audience?

Greek philosopher Plato found virtually all creative writers deficient on both counts in his dialogue The Republic (about 380 BC). Plato felt that stories about misbehaving gods and death-fearing heroes were apt to steer immature people toward frivolous and unpatriotic conduct. Besides, he argued, poetry tended to arouse the emotions rather than promote such virtues as temperance and endurance. But even at their moral best, Plato viewed writerslike

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painters and sculptorsas mere imitators of actual human beings, who are themselves very imperfect “copies”or imitations of the eternal idea of Human Being in the divine mind.

Greek philosopher Aristotle produced a strong philosophical defense against such criticism. His Poetics (about 330 BC) presents artistic representation (mimesis) not as mere copying but as creative re-presentation with universal significance. For example, the epic poet and the playwright evoke human beings in action without having to report actual events. Because the poetic approach to human action is more philosophical in nature than a purely historical approach, literature can show the most probable action of a person of a specific type, rather than what an actual person said or did on a particular occasion. Even the portrayal of great suffering and death may thus give pleasure to an audiencethe pleasure of learning something essential about reality.

Aristotle justified the poetic arousal of passions by borrowing the concept of catharsis (purification through purging) from contemporary medicine. He suggested that tragedy cures us of the harmful effects of excessive pity, fear, and similar emotions by first inducing such emotions in us, and then pleasurably purging them in the controlled therapeutic setting of theatrical experience. The precise meaning of Aristotle’s concept of catharsis has been debated for many centuries, but most critics of literature and of other arts, such as opera and cinema, find useful his isolation and analysis of six interacting aspects of performed drama:

plot, character, thought or theme, diction, music, and spectacle.

Roman poet Horace offered practical advice in Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry, about 20 BC), a witty letter written in verse to two aspiring authors. His most influential suggestion was to combine the useful (utile) and the sweet (dulce) so as to satisfy a varied audience. Some readers seek benefit, others seek pleasure, he explained, but both kinds of readers will purchase writings that instruct and delight at the same time.

A weightier treatment of poetry appears in a 1st-century AD treatise, On the Sublime, long attributed to a 3rd-century philosopher named Longinus. The unknown author of this Greek text cites passages from Greek poets Homer and Sapphoas well as from orators, historians, philosophers, and the first chapter of Genesisto prove the superiority of discourse that does

not merely persuade or gratify its audience but also transports it into a state of enthusiastic ecstasy. The author analyzes the rhetorical devices needed to achieve sublime effects but

insists that ultimately, “sublimity is the echo of a great soul.”


In medieval Europe, where Latin served as the common language of educated people, much scholarly interest focused on Roman authors and their Greek models. To reconcile non- Christian writings with the official doctrine of the Christian church, critics interpreted them allegorically. Greek and Roman divinities, for example, might be viewed as personifications of certain virtues and vices. Scholars applied similar interpretive methods to Hebrew scriptures to show, for instance, how the biblical story of Jonah surviving in the belly of a big fish foreshadowed the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even the parables and metaphors of the Christian Gospels were felt to require allegorical, moral, and spiritual

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interpretation to achieve a deeper understanding of their meaning. By the 14th century, Italian writers Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio suggested that works of nonreligious literature could likewise reward multiple readings beyond the literal level.

Italian translators and commentators of the late 15th and 16th centuries were in the forefront of the Renaissance rediscovery of Aristotle’s Poetics, aided by the commentaries on Aristotle written by Averroës, a 12th-century Arab scholar living in Spain. Ever since the Renaissance,

critics influenced by Aristotle focus on artistic representation rather than on an author’s

rhetorical and persuasive skills. But the view that persuasion is a major goal of literature, based on the writings of Roman statesman Cicero and Roman educator Quintilian about oratory, helped to shape literary studies well into the 18th century. Even today some critics view all poetry, fiction, and drama as more or less concealed forms of rhetoric that are designed to please or move readers and theatergoers, chiefly as a means of teaching or otherwise persuading them.

English poet Sir Philip Sidney defended the poetic imagination against attacks from English

Puritans in his Defence of Poesie (written 1583; published 1595). Unlike historians or philosophers, argued Sidney, a poet affirms nothing and therefore never lies, because a poet’s

works are “not affirmatively but allegorically and figuratively written.” Far from imitating imperfect nature, the poet creates an ideal world of the imagination where virtuous heroes invite admiring readers to imitate them. According to Sidney, philosophers outshine poets when it comes to abstract teaching, but the power to move (or, in today’s language, to motivate) makes the poet ultimately superior because, for teaching to be effective, we need

first “to be moved with desire to know” and then “to be moved to do that which we know.”


The climate of criticism changed with the arrival on the literary scene of such giants as Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Pedro Calderòn in Spain; William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and John Milton in England; and Pierre Corneille, Jean Baptiste Racine, and Molière in France. Most of these writers specialized or excelled in drama, and consequently the so- called battle of the ancients and modernsthe critical comparison of Greek and Roman authors with more recent oneswas fought chiefly in that arena.

In his Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), English poet and playwright John Dryden presented

the conflicting claims of the two sides as a debate among four friends, only one of whom

favors the ancient over the modern theater. One modernist prefers the dignified “decorum” of French drama to the confusing “tumult” of actions and emotions on the English stage. By

contrast, Dryden’s spokesman prefers the lifelike drama of English theater to French tragedy, which he considers beautiful but lifeless. All agree, however, that “a play ought to be a just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humors, and the changes of

fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.”

An Essay on Criticism (1711), by English poet Alexander Pope, put together in verse both ancient and modern opinions. Pope considered nature, including human nature, to be

universal, and he saw no contradiction between the modern writer’s task of addressing a

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contemporary audience and the insistence by traditional critics that certain rules derived from

the practice of the ancients be followed: “Those rules of old discovered, not devised, / Are nature still, but nature methodized.”

English writer Samuel Johnson, in the preface to his 1765 edition of Shakespeare’s plays, observed that “nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.” Accordingly, he praised Shakespeare for creating universal characters “who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion.” Yet Johnson could not help objecting to what he saw as the playwright’s “lack of obvious moral purpose” and “gross jests.” In an earlier essay, “On Fiction” (1750), Johnson cautioned against the unselective realism of popular novels written chiefly for “the young, the ignorant,

and the idle.” In his view, such people are easily tempted to imitate the novelist’s portrayal of “those parts of nature” which are “discolored by passion, or deformed by wickedness.”

Mindful of the impact of literature on the minds of all readers, Johnson demanded that vice, if it must be shown, should appear disgusting, and that virtue should not be represented in an extreme form because people would never emulate what they cannot believeimplausibly virtuous heroes or heroines, for example.

In her pioneering work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), English writer Mary Wollstonecraft addressed the specific situation of women readers. She denounced shallow

novelists, who she felt knew little about human nature and wrote “stale tales” in an overly

sentimental style. Since most women of her day received little education, Wollstonecraft

feared that reading such novels would further hinder women’s “neglected minds” in “the

right use of reason.”

In the third quarter of the 18th century, French philosopher, novelist, and outspoken autobiographer Jean Jacques Rousseau offered an alternative to the faith in universal human reason propounded by Pope, Johnson, and other writers. Opponents of excessive rationalism found in Rousseau an advocate of their own growing interest in the expression of emotion, individual freedom, and personal experience. But most 19th-century concepts of literature and criticism were to owe an even greater debt to a number of Germans who concluded or began their intellectual careers between 1770 and 1800: philosophers Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and writer- critics Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, and the brothers August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Friedrich von Schlegel. All of these thinkers influenced an important 19th-century movement known as romanticism, which emphasized feeling, individual experience, and the divinity of nature.

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Ruskin on the Pathetic Fallacy

John Ruskin was the leading Victorian critic of art and literature. His Modern Painters (first volume published in 1843) began as a defense of the English painter Joseph M. W. Turner. Ruskin’s

discourse extended to five volumes and led him to consider issues such as the need for and the

nature of truth in art. In this famous excerpt from the third volume, Ruskin moves away from

discussing truth and realism in art to consider the same problems in literature. He uses the term pathetic to refer to the emotion pathos, with which a writer invests objects, and classifies with remarkable clarity what he views as successful types of “false appearances” that communicate

poetic truths.

From Modern Painters

By John Ruskin

From “Of the Pathetic Fallacy”

Now therefore, putting these tiresome and absurd words quite out of our way, we may go on at our ease to examine the point in questionnamely, the difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy; false appearances, I say, as being entirely unconnected with any real power of character in the object, and only imputed to it by us. For instanceThe spendthrift crocus, bursting through the mould Naked and shivering, with his cup of gold.

This is very beautiful, and yet very untrue. The crocus is not a spendthrift, but a hardy plant; its yellow is not gold, but saffron. How is it that we enjoy so much the having it put into our heads that it is anything else than a plain crocus? It is an important question. For, throughout our past reasonings about art, we have always found that nothing could be good or useful, or ultimately pleasurable, which was untrue. But here is something pleasurable in written poetry, which is nevertheless untrue. And what is more, if we think over our favourite poetry, we shall find it full of this kind of fallacy, and that we like it all the more for being so. It will appear also, on consideration of the matter, that this fallacy is of two principal kinds. Either, as in this case of the crocus, it is the fallacy of willful fancy, which involves no real expectation that it will be believed; or else it is a fallacy caused by an excited state of the feelings, making us, for the time, more or less irrational. Of the cheating of the fancy we shall have to speak presently; but, in this chapter, I want to examine the nature of the other error, that which the mind admits when affected strongly by emotion. Thus, for instance, in Alton LockeThey rowed her in across the rolling foamThe cruel, crawling foam.

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The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief. All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external

things, which I would generally characterize as the “pathetic fallacy.”

Now we are in the habit of considering this fallacy as eminently a character of poetical

description, and the temper of mind in which we allow it, as one eminently poetical, because passionate. But, I believe, if we look well into the matter, that we shall find the greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falsenessthat it is only the second order of poets who much delight in it.

Thus, when Dante describes the spirits falling from the hank of Acheron “as dead leaves flutter from a bough,” he gives the most perfect image possible of their utter lightness, feebleness,

passiveness, and scattering agony of despair, without, however, for an instant losing his own clear perception that these are souls, and those are leaves: he makes no confusion of one with the other. But when Coleridge speaks of The one red leaf, the last of its clan, That dances as often as dance it can,

he has a morbid, that is to say, a so far false, idea about the leaf: he fancies a life in it, and will, which there are not; confuses its powerlessness with choice, its fading death with merriment, and the wind that shakes it with music. Here, however, there is some beauty, even in the morbid passage; but take an instance in Homer and Pope. Without the knowledge of Ulysses, Elpenor, his youngest follower, has fallen from an upper chamber in the Circean palace, and has been left dead, unmissed by his leader or companions, in the haste of their departure. They cross the sea to the Cimmerian land; and Ulysses summons the shades from Tartarus. The first which appears is that of the lost Elpenor. Ulysses, amazed, and in exactly the spirit of bitter and terrified lightness which is seen in Hamlet, addresses the spirit with the simple, startled words:

“Elpenor! how camest thou under the shadowy darkness? Hast thou come faster on foot than I

in my black ship?” Which Pope renders thus: O, say, what angry power Elpenor led To glide in shades, and wander with the dead? How could thy soul, by realms and seas disjoined, Outfly the nimble sail, and leave the lagging wind?

I sincerely hope the reader finds no pleasure here, either in the nimbleness of the sail, or the haziness of the wind! And yet how is it that these conceits are so painful now when they have been pleasant to us in the other instances?

For a very simple reason They are not a pathetic fallacy at all, for they are put into the mouth of the wrong passiona passion which never could possibly have spoken themagonised curiosity. Ulysses wants to know the facts of the matter: and the very last thing his mind could do at the moment would be to pause, or suggest in an wise what was not a fact. The delay in the first three lines, and conceit in the last jar upon us instantly, like the most frightful discord in music. No poet of true imaginative power would possibly have written the passage. Therefore, we see that the spirit of truth must guide us in some sort, even in our enjoyment of

fallacy. Coleridge‟s fallacy has no discord in it, but Pope‟s has set our teeth on edge.

Source: Ruskin, John. Of the Pathetic Fallacy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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English poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

gave memorable

expression to the romantic mindset developed by their German predecessors and contemporaries. The romantics believed in the primacy of feeling, love, pleasure, and

imagination over reason; in the spiritual superiority of nature’s organic forms over mechanical ingenuity; and in the ability of art to restore a lost harmony between the individual and nature, between society and nature, and between the individual and society. In revised versions of the preface to his and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), Wordsworth declared that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and that “the

poet writes under one restriction only, namely, the necessity of giving immediate pleasure.” The pleasure derived from the writing and reading of poetry were to Wordsworth a loving

“acknowledgment of the beauty of the universe” and an indication that the human mind was “the mirror of the fairest and most interesting properties of nature.” The critical writings of Coleridge in turn stressed the parallel between cosmic creativity and the poet’s godlike

creative imagination.

In A Defence of Poetry (written 1821; published 1840), English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley elaborated on similar romantic themes. Shelley also suggested that the utilitarian science and

technology of his time enhanced the “inequality of mankind” and that poetry should continue

to serve as an antidote to “the principle of the self, of which money is the visible incarnation.” Throughout the Defence, Shelley speaks of poetry in a very broad sense as visionary discourse.

By contrast, two mid-century American poet-critics addressed what they considered to be unique features of poetry. In his essay “The Poet” (written 1842-1843), Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that the poet uses symbols more appropriately than the religious mystic does, because the poet recognizes the multiple meanings of symbols and the ability of language to

reflect a continuously changing world, whereas the mystic “nails” symbols to a specific meaning. In a lecture on “The Poetic Principle” (1848), Edgar Allan Poe expressly distinguished pure intellect from taste and moral sense. In Poe’s view, poets need to “tone down in proper subjection to beauty” all “incitements of passion,””precepts of duty,” and “lessons of truth” so that the resulting work may be sensitively judged by our faculty of taste.

In “A Short Essay on Critics”(1840), American author and editor Margaret Fuller described three kinds of literary criticism: subjective indulgence in the critic’s own feelings about a text, apprehensive entry into the author’s world, and comprehensive judging of a work both by its own law and according to universal principles. These categories anticipate the

distinctions made by English poet-critic Matthew Arnold between three kinds of critical estimations of the value of a literary work: the personal, the historical, and the real. In his essay on “The Study of Poetry” (1880), Arnold assigned great cultural significance to the unbiased critic’s “real estimates” because, in an increasingly nonreligious time, “mankind

will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain

us.” Yet he believed that critics themselves would have to transcend the narrowness of their

own society to perform their role of spiritual guidance. Only by exploring a variety of cultural

traditions could they learn and teach “the best” that has been “known and thought in the world,” Arnold cautioned in his essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”


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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Arnold’s broadly humanistic views found many disciples. Some of Arnold’s younger contemporaries, however, demanded that writers become more intensely involved with the particular problems of their society. French writer Émile Zola, for example, advocated writing true-to-life works of so-called naturalistic fiction that would reflect the ills of contemporary society with scientific precision, a view Zola advanced in his essay “Le roman expérimental” (1880; translated as “The Experimental Novel,” 1893). At the other extreme, English writer Oscar Wilde favored highly personal literary styles and a critical stance acknowledging that “life imitates art far more than art

imitates life,” as he wrote in “The Decay of Lying” (1889). The case for subjective art and

criticism was presented most succinctly by French novelist Anatole France in the preface to his La vie littéraire(1888-1893; translated as On Life and Letters, 1910-1924): “The good

critic tells the adventures of his soul among masterpieces. There is no more an objective

criticism than an objective art.”



Marrying High-Tech and the Humanities

Computer technology may seem an unlikely research tool for a literature professor hoping to better understand William Shakespeare’s plays or for an artist creating a painting. Increasingly, however, computers and software are becoming essential tools for literary criticism, academic publishing, music composition, and sometimes even for the creation of fine art. In this article from the May 1999 Encarta Yearbook, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Dirda explores the cutting edge of this unlikely combination of computer-based technology and disciplines such as art, literature, and music.

Marrying High-Tech and the Humanities

By Michael Dirda

The dancer jumps and bends and pirouettes across the stage. Instead of being watched by an audience, however, she is monitored by a computer, which inputs data from her every move. In an experiment by Joseph Paradiso, principal research scientist and director of the responsive environments group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab in Cambridge, a dancer's shoes are fitted with sensors that measure pressure points, bend, tilt, height off the stage, kicks, stomps, and spin. This information is then transmitted via a radio link to a computer programmed to change the data into images or sounds. In this way the dancer could simultaneously create a musical composition and a visual light show as she performed, perhaps to be combined as part of a multimedia piece. A flight of fancy or a glimpse of the future? Computers and digital technology are rapidly expanding to influence every aspect of human activity at the end of the 20th century. The ageless urge of the human species to produce works of art is no exception to this. Technology is

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becoming so important in so many categories of the arts that we seem to be in the midst of a new Renaissance. The examples of this flowering are everywhere. Powerful new computers are allowing more and more data to be created and stored digitally, that is, in the binary code that makes up the basic language of computers. Artists manipulate images to generate complex digital collages and exhibit their digital and nondigital art on the World Wide Web. Novelists create branching narratives called hypertext fiction, stories that are explored as much as read. Literary scholars exchange ideas through online discussion groups and use computers to discover the author of an unsigned poem hundreds of years old. Composers employ synthesizers and computers to generate sounds never heard before, while librarians and museum curators digitize entire collections of art and literature to be accessed online from anywhere in the world. As these activities become more and more the standard rather than the exception, technology and art will be further paired and enmeshed.

Crunching Texts

Computers have aided in the study of humanities for almost as long as the machines have existed. Decades ago, when the technology consisted solely of massive, number-crunching mainframe computers, the chief liberal arts applications were in compiling statistical indexes of works of literature. In 1964, International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) held a conference on computers and the humanities where, according to a 1985 article in the journal Science, “most of the conferees were using computers to compile concordances, which are alphabetical indices used in literary research.” Mainframe computers helped greatly in the highly laborious task, which dates back to the Renaissance, of cataloging each reference of a particular word in a particular work. Concordances help scholars scrutinize important texts for patterns and meaning. Other humanities applications for computers in this early era of technology included compiling dictionaries, especially for foreign or antiquated languages, and cataloging library collections. Such types of computer usage in the humanities may seem limited at first, but they have produced some interesting results in the last few years and promise to continue to do so. As computer use and access have grown, so has the number of digitized texts of classic literary works. The computer-based study of literary texts has established its own niche in academia. Donald Foster, an English professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, is one of the leaders in textual scholarship. In the late 1980s Foster created SHAXICON, a database that tracks all the “rare” words used by English playwright William Shakespeare. Each of these words appears in any individual Shakespeare play no more than 12 times. The words can then be cross- referenced with some 2,000 other poetic texts, allowing experienced researchers to explore when they were written, who wrote them, how the author was influenced by the works of other writers, and how the texts changed as they were reproduced over the centuries. In late 1995 Foster's work attracted widespread notice when he claimed that Shakespeare was the anonymous author of an obscure 578-line poem, A Funeral Elegy (1612). Although experts had made similar claims for other works in the past, Foster gained the backing of a number of prominent scholars because of his computer-based approach. If Foster's claim holds up to long- term judgment, the poem will be one of the few additions to the Shakespearean canon in the last 100 years. Foster's work gained further public acclaim and validation when he was asked to help identify the anonymous author of the best-selling political novel Primary Colors (1996). After using his

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computer program to compare the stylistic traits of various writers with those in the novel, Foster tabbed journalist Joe Klein as the author. Soon after, Klein admitted that he was the author. Foster was also employed as an expert in the case of the notorious Unabomber, a terrorist who published an anonymous manifesto in several major newspapers in 1995. Foster is just one scholar who has noted the coming of the digital age and what it means for traditional fields such as literature. “For traditional learning and humanistic scholarship to be preserved, it, too, must be digitized,” he wrote in a scholarly paper. “The future success of

literary scholarship depends on our ability to integrate those electronic texts with our ongoing

work as scholars and teachers, and to exploit fully the advantages offered by the new medium.” Foster noted that people can now study Shakespeare via Internet Shakespeare Editions, using the computer to compare alternate wordings in different versions and to consult editorial footnotes, literary criticism, stage history, explanatory graphics, video clips, theater reviews, and

archival records. Novelist and literary journalist Gregory Feeley noted that “the simplest (and

least radical) way in which computer technology is affecting textual scholarship is in making

various texts available, and permitting scholars to jump back and forth between them for easy

comparisons.” Scholars can also take advantage of computer technology in “publishing” their work. Princeton

University history professor Robert Darnton has written of a future in which works of scholarship are presented digitally in a pyramid-like layering. One might start, he suggests, at the top with a concise account of a subject, then proceed to detailed documentation and evidence, continue with a level of questions and discussion points for classroom use, and end with a place for reports and commentary from readers.

The Power of the Web

Using computers for high-level research such as textual scholarship became feasible as more and more literary works were digitized during the 1980s. But an important piece of the puzzle

was missing: a way to easily distribute these texts and other digital data. As the 1985 Science article noted, “There is always the possibility … that students will be able to download both text and programs directly into the memories of their microcomputers, but it is difficult to imagine national centers able to distribute files to millions of students around the country.” This unlikely concept became a reality in the early 1990s with the development of the World Wide Web. In 1989 British computer scientist Timothy Berners-Lee designed the Web for the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) so that scientists working in various locations could share research and collaborate on projects. But the idea of sharing information soon spread far beyond anyone's wildest imagination. Humanities scholars and students were quick to realize the potential of this technology. Suddenly, a professor in India could post his latest paper about Irish writer James Joyce to be analyzed by other Joyce scholars around the world, and get quick feedback through e-mail messages. The Web also allowed a student writing a paper in her dorm room in California to access a rare original text on a computer in New York or Nigeria. Why bother actually going to a bricks-and-mortar library? “The World Wide Web has replaced the library, for many of our students, as the obvious site for conducting original research,” Foster noted.

Virtual Libraries

The rise of the Internet, the so-called Information Highway, has started to transform that cornerstone of academic research, the library. Increasingly, libraries are becoming places to visit

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online rather than in person. The New York Public Library, for example, “dispenses so much information electronically to readers all over the world that it reports ten million hits on [visits to] its computer system each month as opposed to 50,000 books dispensed in its reading room,” wrote Darnton in the New York Review of Books in March 1999. The Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, D.C., the unofficial national library of the United States, has long been a leader in the use of digital technology. Chief among these efforts is its drive to create a National Digital Library. Begun in the early 1990s, this vast, ongoing project aims to put much of the LOC's collections of historic and archival documents online. Some of these documents are too fragile to be handled by the public and were previously unavailable, but now even a 7-year-old can peruse them on the Web.

About 1.7 million items had been put up on the Web site by April 1999, with a goal of 5 million by the time the library celebrates its 200th anniversary in April 2000. However, library officials have a long way to go before reaching their ultimate goal of 80 million unique items online. Recently the LOC received grants to digitize its collections relating to American inventors Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel F. B. Morse. Library officials point with pride to the widespread use of its Web site, American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library, from which one can view extensive photographs and documents about the history of African Americans or a digitized collection of 2,100 early baseball cards from the years 1887 to 1914. Users can also search the library's enormous holdings or access reading lists

for kids (“Read All About It”).

New Medium

More than just a revolutionary tool for indexing, analyzing, or transmitting content, digital technology is actually reshaping the creation of art and literature. “Just as film emerged as the dominant artistic medium of the 20th century, the digital domainwhether it is used for visual art, music, literature or some other expressive genrewill be the primary medium of the 21st,” wrote New York Times columnist Matthew Mirapaul in early 1999. More and more writers, artists, and musicians are using computers and the Internet to enhance, animate, or completely remake their art, with unconventional and remarkable results. Publishing, a print-based business that to some people is beginning to represent the past, is

attempting to adapt to the new digital world. Marc Aronson, a senior children's book editor at the publishing house Henry Holt and a longtime student of the impact of changing technology

on publishing, describes this impact as a kind of blurring or hybridization. “The keynote of the

digital age is overlap, multiplicity, synergy. The digital does not replace print, it subsumes it,” Aronson said. “Print becomes a form of the digital, just as the digital has a special place when it appears in print.” Especially in books for young people, he notes, more authors and artists are

trying books with multiple storylines or told from various points of view. One strain of this new type of nonlinear writing is popularly known as hypertext fiction. At its simplest, hypertext fiction mimics the Choose Your Own Adventure books that became popular in the early 1980s. In these books, readers directed the story by choosing which page to turn to at key points based on what they wanted the character to do. In hypertext fiction, the reader explores different branches of a story on a computer by clicking on hyperlinks in the text. The result is a fragmented, slightly surreal narrative in which time is not linear and there is no obvious conclusion. Michael Joyce, like Foster a professor of English at Vassar, is a leading theoretician and author of hypertext fiction. He wrote what is widely considered the first major work of hypertext

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fiction, afternoon, a story (1990). The piece consists of more than 500 different screens, or pages,

which are connected by more than 900 links. afternoon centers on a man who witnesses a serious car accident that may or may not have involved his ex-wife and son, who may or may not have survived. Joyce has also published Twilight, A Symphony (1996), about a man estranged from his wife who is on the run with their infant son.

Joyce defines hypertext fiction as “stories that change each time you read them.” He notes that “interactive narrative does not necessarily mean multiple plot lines, but can also mean exploring the multiple thematic lines or contours of a story.”

Not surprisingly, hypertext has frequently come under attack from traditional critics. Perhaps the most powerfully simple critique, however, comes from Charles Platt, a contributing editor

for Wired magazine and a prominent science-fiction writer and critic. “Could it be,” wonders Platt, “that storytelling really doesn't work very well if the user can interfere with it?” People

really want the author, scriptwriter, or actors to do the heavy lifting of narrative, he argues. On the other hand, Platt suspects that we have hardly begun to explore true interactive media and that it will be utterly different from fiction as we know it today.

Roll Over, Beethoven

Although the distribution of recorded music went digital with the introduction of the compact disc in the early 1980s, technology has had a large impact on the way music is made and recorded as well. At the most basic level, the invention of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), a language enabling computers and sound synthesizers to talk to each other, has given individual musicians powerful tools with which to make music.

“The MIDI interface enabled basement musicians to gain power which had been available only in expensive recording studios,” Platt observed. “It enables synthesis of sounds that have never existed before, and storage and subsequent simultaneous replay and mixing of multiple sound tracks. Using a moderately powerful desktop computer running a music composition program and a $500 synthesizer, any musically literate person can writeand play!a string quartet in an afternoon.” Serious music scholars and composers are also utilizing computers to forge new paths in music. A prime example is David Cope, professor of music at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who began developing a computer music program in the early 1980s. Cope originally wanted a program that would help him overcome mental blocks when he composed. Through years of tinkering, the software, called Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI), has become a full-fledged compositional program. Cope supplies bits of musical information to EMI, which has been designed to recognize a variety of styles and patterns, and the program then processes this material to generate pieces of original music. The result is “disturbing,” said composer Douglas Hofstadter, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979). “You can actually get pretty good music.”

Whereas many musicians use computers as a tool in composing or producing music, Tod Machover uses computers to design the instruments and environments that produce his music. As a professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab, Machover has pioneered hyperinstruments: hybrids of computers and musical instruments that allow users to create sounds simply by raising their hands, pointing with a “virtual baton,” or moving their entire

body in a “sensor chair.” Similar work on a “virtual orchestra” is being done by Geoffrey Wright, head of the computer

music program at Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore,

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Maryland. Wright uses conductors' batons that emit infrared light beams to generate data about the speed and direction of the batons, data that can then be translated by computers into instructions for a synthesizer to produce music. In Machover's best-known musical work, Brain Opera (1996), 125 people interact with each other and a group of hyperinstruments to produce sounds that can be blended into a musical performance. The final opera is assembled from these sound fragments, material contributed by people on the Web, and Machover's own music. Machover says he is motivated to give

people “an active, directly participatory relationship with music.”

More recently, Machover helped design the Meteorite Museum, a remarkable underground museum that opened in June 1998 in Essen, Germany. Visitors approach the museum through a glass atrium, open an enormous door, enter a cave, and then descend by ramps into various multimedia rooms. Machover composed the music and designed many of the interactions for these rooms. In the Transflow Room, the undulating walls are covered with 100 rubber pads

shaped like diamonds. “By hitting the pads you can make and shape a sound and images in the

room. Brain Opera was an ensemble of individual instruments, while the Transflow Room is a single instrument played by 40 people. The room blends the reactions and images of the


Machover believes that music is in general poorly served in elementary schools and hopes to change this. His inventions, including some intended specifically for children, are designed to help bring music education and appreciation to a wider audience. Machover is convinced that computer science will eventually become a permanent part of regular musical training. Machover's projects at MIT include Music Toys and Toys of Tomorrow, which are creating devices that he hopes will eventually make a Toy Symphony possible. Machover describes one of the toys as an embroidered ball the size of a small pumpkin with ridges on the outside and

miniature speakers inside. “We've recently figured out how to send digital information through fabric or thread,” he said. “So the basic idea is to squeeze the ball and where you squeeze and

where you place your fingers will affect the sound produced. You can also change the pitch to high or low, or harmonize with other balls.” Computer music has a long way to go before it wins mass acceptance, however. Martin Goldsmith, host of National Public Radio's Performance Today, explains why: “I think that a reason a great moving piece of computer music hasn't been written yet is thatin this instancethe technology stands between the creator and the receptor and prevents a real human

connection,” Goldsmith said. “All that would change in an instant if a very accomplished composera Steve Reich or John Corigliano or Henryk Góreckiwere to write a great piece of

computer music, but so far that hasn't happened. Nobody has really stepped forward to make a

wide range of listeners say, „Wow, what a terrific instrument that computer is for making music!‟ ”

But Is It Art?

The art world has also seen the impact of digital technology in varying degrees and methods. As is often evident in their work, many artists constantly push the boundaries of art and the tools and materials with which they work. New mediums are not burdened by the weight of history, and they provide the artist with a fresh means of expression. Digital art can be generally divided into two areas: art that is either made with or relies on computers and can be printed out or is otherwise three-dimensional, and art that is completely contained within the digital world. Early physical pieces were mostly printouts from computer

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graphics programs, but a November 1998 show at the School of Visual Arts in New York City included elaborate interactive art.

One piece at this show, Office Plant #1 (1998), is a sort of mechanical flower that blooms or wiltsand even groansin reaction to the contents of e-mail messages on an attached computer. Other pieces have audio soundtracks, video displays, and moving parts. Another show, the Boston Cyberarts Festival held in May 1999, included a wide variety of new technology art. One featured example was the work of French artist Christian Lavigne, who is a pioneer in the field of cybersculpture (virtual sculpture on the Web) and robosculpture (sculpture done with the aid of computer-controlled machines). One unique approach to computer art is the path taken by British artist Harold Cohen, who became interested in computers and art as far back as the late 1960s. Cohen, a well-known abstract painter in his own right, has spent more than two decades creating and refining a

“robot artist” he calls Aaron. Cohen has painstakingly programmed Aaron to draw and paint

with a mechanized arm, from basic shapes to, more recently, human forms. Cohen has had to program the computer with data on proportion, depth, visual angles, color, and other concepts. No two of Aaron's paintings are alike, and the results are impressive enough to cause some people to wonder who is actually creating the art, the human programmer or the computer. With the explosive growth of the Internet and World Wide Web, much recent attention has focused on online art. In December 1995 art critic and writer Robert Atkins wrote in the

magazine Art in America that the 1994-1995 art season would be known as “the year the art world went online.” The first commercial art galleries opened on the Internet, and physical installations such as Antonio Muntadas's The File Room (1994)a detailed look at the history of censorshipalso went up on the Web. Other works soon followed that mixed Web-based design with artistic statements. Artists began to see the Internet not just as a means for publicity or distribution of art works but also as a medium of expression in itself. A little over three years later, Atkins described in the same publication the growing number of

“original, interactive works that can only be experienced on the Net, rather than the digitized

images of paintings or photographs that characterize most gallery or museum [Web] sites. Many online pieces now capitalize on the burgeoning capacity of the Web to deliver video and sound,

as well as text and graphics.” Atkins points to one striking work, American Friederike Paetzold's

I-Section (1998), in which the visitor “dissects” a torso, removing organs to reveal multiple layers of imagery and text. By combining elements of hypertext fiction and computer music with visual media such as photographs and video, digital artists are breaking down old artistic barriers and producing works for all the senses. Science fiction and fantasy author Richard Grant sees this as the ultimate goal. “When I think of hypertext—and computer-driven art forms in generalthese days, I think of opera. Specifically, I think of [German composer] Richard Wagner, his idea of

the Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work), a sort of Grand Unified Field Theory in which opera is seen as the final summation of all previous art forms: music, literature, drama, painting, sculpture (present in the construction of the sets), poetry, dance, public ritual, and sheer spectacle (or what would now be called special effects).” Increasingly, academic programs—such as the Consortium for Research and Education in the Arts and Technology (CREAT) at the University of Central Florida in Orlandoare bringing students from various disciplines together to generate such innovative multimedia pieces.

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Future Shakespeares?

New technology has always led to innovation in the arts. After all, the favorite watchword of

the poet, painter, or composer is “Make it new.” For this artists can use new tools, and the

computer is one of the most powerful tools in human history. As the digital future looms ever closer, the biggest difference may be that the artists of tomorrow will use digital tools as a matter of course. The next genius to reshape the world of the artsthe next Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Pablo Picasso, or William Shakespearecould be a 14-year-old just now beginning to experiment with her home computer. And she will not be alone. At the cusp of the new millennium, digital technology seems poised to make artists and creators of us all.

About the author: Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for the Washington Post Book World. He received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

For further reading:

Atkins, Robert. “State of the (On-Line) Art.” Art in America. April 1, 1999.

Cope, David. Experiments in Musical Intelligence (Computer Music and Digital Audio Series, Volume 12). A-R Editions, 1996.

Dewitt, Donald L. (ed.) Going Digital: Strategies for Access, Preservation, and Conversion of Collections to a Digital Format. Haworth, 1998.

Dodge, Charles, and Jerse, Thomas A. Computer Music: Synthesis, Composition, and Performance. Schirmer Books, 1997.

Dodsworth, Clark, Jr. Digital Illusion: Entertaining the Future with High Technology. Addison-Wesley, 1998.

Foster, Donald W. Elegy by W.S.: A Study in Attribution. University of Delaware Press, 1989. Holtzman, Steven. Digital Mosaics: The Aesthetics of Cyberspace. Simon & Schuster, 1997. Joyce, Michael. afternoon, a story. Eastgate, 1990.

Joyce, Michael, and Synder, Ilana (eds.) Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era. Routledge, 1998.

Lovejoy, Margot. Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media (2nd ed.) Prentice Hall, 1996.

McCorduck, Pamela. Aaron's Code: Meta-Art, Artificial Intelligence, and the Work of Harold Cohen. W. H. Freeman, 1991.

Spalter, Anne Morgan. The Computer in the Visual Arts. Addison-Wesley, 1999.

Theberge, Paul. Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Wesleyan University Press, 1997.

Source: Encarta Yearbook, May 1999.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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The social, cultural, and technological developments of the 20th century have vastly

expanded the Western critical tradition. Indeed, many critics question just how “Western”

this tradition can or should remain. Modern critics in the established cultural centers of Western Europe must heed not only Central Europe and North America but also areas once

considered remote, including Russia, Latin America, and, most recently, the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa. At a growing number of universities, professors of literature and related fields pay increasing attention to long-neglected areas of studyfor example, works by women and by non-Western writers. The following sketch of various 20th-century approaches names few living critics because it is impossible to predict who among the tens of thousands of writers publishing criticism today will ultimately outshine the others.

A Formalism, Structuralism, and New Criticism

A text-based critical method known as formalism was developed by Victor Shklovsky, Vladimir Propp, and other Russian critics early in the 20th century. It involved detailed inquiry into plot structure, narrative perspective, symbolic imagery, and other literary techniques. But after the mid-1930s, leaders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its subsequent satellites in Eastern Europe demanded that literature and criticism directly serve their political objectives. Political leaders in those countries suppressed formalist criticism, calling it reactionary. Even such internationally influential opponents of extreme formalism as the Russian Mikhail Bakhtin and the Hungarian Georg Lukács would often find themselves under attack.

The geographical center of formalist orientation started to shift westward in 1926 when scholars of language and literature, most of them Czech, founded the Prague Linguistic Circle, adopting and refining some of the methods of formal analysis developed by their Russian colleagues. Beginning in the late 1940s anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, critic Roland Barthes, and other mid-century thinkers and scholars initiated French structuralism by applying linguistically inspired formal methods to literature and related phenomena. Structuralism attempted to investigate the “structure” of a culture as a whole by “decoding,” or interpreting, its interactive systems of signs. These systems included literary texts and genres as well as other cultural formations, such as advertising, fashion, and taboos on certain forms of behavior.

The text-centered methods of the formalist critics were also welcomed in the United States because they meshed well with the concerns of so-called New Critics, who focused on the overall structure and verbal texture of literary works. By the 1940s, when Russian linguist Roman Jakobson and Czech literary theorist René Wellek settled at Harvard and Yale universities, respectively, the study of literature in North America had been greatly influenced by the work of Cleanth Brooks and other New Critics. Like his British contemporary Sir William Empson, Brooks applied the skill of close reading chiefly to the analysis of ambiguities, paradoxes, and ironies in individual texts.

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Many New Critics looked at metaphor, imagery, and other qualities of literary language apart

from both a work’s historical setting and any detailed biographical information that might be

available about the author. Other New Critics, however, were more historically or philosophically inclined. New Criticism as a whole was therefore meaningfully supplemented by the work of German-born literary historian Erich Auerbach and of American philosopher Susanne K. Langer, who sought to place individual texts into larger historical and theoretical contexts. Auerbach emphasized historical development in his 1946 book Mimesis, which chronicled changing styles of the literary representation of reality from Greek poet Homer to English author Virginia Woolf. Langer in turn argued that the significant emotions depicted or aroused by literature and other arts are universal human feelings symbolized by the work rather than personal sentiments expressed by a particular writer or artist.

B Other Critical Methods

In and after the 1920s American-born British poet T. S. Eliot explored how well individual European writers measured up to his aesthetically liberal but politically conservative view of the Western tradition. Canadian critic Northrop Frye, in contrast, opposed any viewpoint narrowed by regionalism or specific ideologies; he attempted to find common elements in the worldwide multiplicity of literary traditions in his book Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Frye and like-minded critics around the globe saw literature and other art forms as manifestations of universal myths and archetypes (largely unconscious image patterns) that cross cultural boundaries. In advocating this view they took cues from British anthropologist Sir James George Frazer and Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung.

In the 1960s and 1970s German philosopher-critic Hans-Georg Gadamer and French

philosopher and historian Michel Foucault offered contrary models for addressing literary and cultural traditions in literary criticism. Gadamer sought to engage past texts in fruitful dialogue with the present by examining different interpretations of literature throughout history; so do German critic Wolfgang Iser and other proponents of Aesthetics of Reception,

which examines readers’ responses to literature in a cultural and historical context. In

contrast, Foucault wanted to challenge certain basic notions about the Western tradition that most Westerners take for granted. He hoped to discredit Western heritage and its powerful institutions by exposing, or “demystifying,” the repressed origins and oppressive applications of that power. Among literary critics, American Stephen Greenblatt and other so-called New Historicists have similar objectives.

Today’s widespread tendency to interpret texts as hiding rather than revealing what is most significant about themselves has three major sources: the writings of German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche and of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Influential studies along Marxist lines of the social and economic underpinnings of culture were undertaken by German critic Walter Benjamin before World War II and by Welsh critic Raymond Williams between the late 1950s and the early 1980s. Marxist and Freudian methods of literary criticism were productively combined from the 1920s on by several American writer-critics, including Edmund Wilson and Kenneth Burke. Viewing humans as symbol-using and symbol-misusing animals, Burke approached literary works as often

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deceptive or self-deceptive symbolic actions that should be critically reenacted, rather than passively contemplated, by their readers.

In a comparably skeptical spirit, current feminist critics in many countries draw attention to literary evidence of ingrained prejudice against women or stereotypic views of women. Their methods often emulate Marxist critiques of oppressive ideologies or Freudian excavations of repressed desires. Contemporary feminist writings are also influenced by the gender- conscious essays of English novelist Virginia Woolf and by The Second Sex (1949), a book- length plea by French thinker and novelist Simone de Beauvoir against the second-class treatment of women. Feminist criticism explores issues relevant to women as authors, as readers, and as fictional characters, and also raises the controversial question of the possible existence of distinctly female writingrecognizably different in the character of its language from discourse shaped by male patterns of thought.

Like feminist, Marxist, and some Freudian critics, nonwhite Western critics and critics emerging in countries newly freed from colonial rule also have challenged many aspects of European and North American culture as socially and psychologically oppressive. Although these so-called multiculturalist critics are united in their opposition to Western domination, they take many different positions on particular issues of race, class, gender, language, and national or ethnic identity.

The frontal attack, initiated by Nietzsche, on any use of language as an instrument of mystification and domination has its most unwavering advocates today in scholars who practice the interpretive technique known as deconstruction. Following French philosopher Jacques Derrida and Belgian-born American critic Paul de Man, deconstructive critics assume that attributing even the most complex single meaning to a text violates the boundless signifying potential of language in a world where there are no facts but only indeterminate meanings and unresolvable conflicts of interpretation. Proponents of deconstruction elaborate on textual ambiguities and paradoxes that most earlier interpreters (including the New Critics) attempted to resolve. For deconstructors and other so-called postmodern critics, special difficulties in the interpretation of complex literary works forcefully suggest the general resistance of all texts to definitive meanings.

Recent nontraditional criticism does not represent a complete break with a critical tradition that has always proven hospitable to challenges to its principles. In fact, so-called Western criticism has already begun absorbing the insights of its best contemporary challengers. Undergoing transformation once again, it prepares to encounter what German writer and critic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe hoped would eventually emerge as Weltliteratur: the diverse but intertwined literatures of the world.

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Web Links:
Web Links:

CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture: A WWWeb Journal

CLCWeb is an online learned and peer-refereed journal for comparative literature and


A Celebration of Women Writers

This site provides an extensive directory of links to biographical and bibliographical

information about women writers, along with the complete texts of books written by women.

IPL Online Literary Criticism Collection

The Internet Public Library provides a database of more than 2,000 critical and biographical

Web sites about authors and their works.

American Comparative Literature Association

The American Comparative Literature Association is the principal learned society in the United States for scholars whose work involves several literatures and cultures; it offers

information about its organization and membership.


Further Reading:
Further Reading:

Criticism, literary

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. 2nd ed. Manchester University Press, 2002. A guide to 11 major types of theoretical thought encountered in school literature courses.

Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. 3rd ed. Prentice Hall, 2002. Examines each school of literary theory and criticism.

Cuddon, J.A., and Claire Preston. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 4th ed. Penguin, 2000. Definitions of technical terms and descriptions of literary movements.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2000. A good starting point for understanding contemporary schools of literary criticism.

Guerin, Wilfred L., and others. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 1998. Offers readers and students a variety of ways of looking at literature.

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Murray, Chris, and Frank Northen Magill, eds. Encyclopedia of Literary Critics and Criticism. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999. A two-volume set that includes 375 entries on both Western and non-Western literary traditions.

Richter, David, ed. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 2nd ed. Bedford, 1998.

Contributed By:

Paul Hernadi

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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