The precritical response in literary criticism

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The Precritical Response
First, a Note on Traditional Approaches
Once upon a time, a story was making the rounds in academic circles and was received in good humor by all the enlightened teachers of literature. A professor of English in a prestigious American university, so the story goes, entered the classroom one day and announced that the poem under consideration for that hour was to beAndrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” He then proceeded for the next fifty minutes to discuss Marvell’s politics, religion, and career. He described Marvell’s character, mentioned that he was respected by friend and foe alike, and speculated on whether he was married. At this point the bell rang, signaling the end of the class. The professor closed his sheaf of notes, looked up, smiling, andconcluded, “Damn’ fine poem, men. Damn’ fine.”
The story was told to ridicule the type of criticism that once dominated the study of literature and that is still employed in some classrooms even today. In this approach the work of art frequently appeared to be of secondary importance, something that merely illustrated background. Such an approach often (many would say inevitably) led to the study ofliterature as essentially biography, history, or some other branch of learning, rather than as art.
Well into the twentieth century, however, a new type of literary analysis emerged in which the literary work per se (that is, as a separate entity divorced from extrinsic considerations) became the dominant concern of scholars. The New Critics, as the proponents of this position were called,insisted that scholars concentrate on the work itself, on the text, examining it as art. This method revolutionized the study of literature. It frequently divided critics and teachers into opposing factions: those of the older school, for whom literature provided primarily an opportunity for exercising what they perceived to be the really relevant scholarly and cultural disciplines (for example, history,linguistics, and biography) and the New Critics, who maintained that literature had an intrinsic worth, that it was not just one of the means of transmitting biography and history. Now that the controversy has lessened—indeed, it took several different turns later in the twentieth century—the rationale of the New Criticism seems to have put into clearer focus what a poem or play or piece offiction is trying to do; it has unquestionably corrected many wrongheaded interpretations resulting from an unwise use of the older method. To this extent it has expanded our perception and appreciation of literary art.
Nevertheless, in their zeal to avoid the danger of interpreting a literary work solely as biography and history—the end result of the traditional method, they thought—manytwentieth-century followers of New Criticism were guilty of what may well be a more serious mistake, that of ignoring any information not in the work itself, however helpful or necessary it might be. Fortunately, the most astute critics since then have espoused a more eclectic approach and have fused a variety of techniques. They have certainly insisted on treating literature as literature, but they have notruled out the possibility of further illumination from traditional quarters…
In any event, while we may grant the position that literature is primarily art, it must also be affirmed that art does not exist in a vacuum. It is a creation by someone at some time in history, and it is intended to speak to other human beings about some idea or issue that has human relevance. Any work of art for thatmatter will always be more meaningful to knowledgeable people than to uninformed ones. Its greatness comes from the fact that when the wisest, most cultivated, most sensitive minds bring all their information, experience, and feeling to contemplate it, they are moved and impressed by its beauty, by its unique kind of knowledge, and even by its nonaesthetic values. It is surely dangerous to...
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