2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism
New Criticism's Modernist Canon
In this chapter, I wish to explore the questions posed by New Criticism, that is, the "frame of reference" within which this particular strain of early twentieth-century criticism sought to find meaning and hence attribute value to literary texts. The purpose is not to produce a comprehensive study of New Criticism in its breadth, nor to trace its "sources" through the centuries, nor to chronicle every turn it has taken in the last sixty years--the serial and simultaneous deviations and recoveries which have marked its development and sustained its hold upon British-American critical and literary imagination. One might endlessly debate the outer boundaries, originality, theoretical integrity, and indeed the very existence of something called "New Criticism" without approaching the historical phenomenon to which the very debatability of New Criticism testifies: the fact that sixty years after the "Revolution of the Word," New Critical modernism remains our Modernism; its canon, "The Canon" against which all alternatives announce their meaning. It is with this in view that I seek to identify and discuss only those concepts and modes of analysis that have proved most polemically effective in securing the hegemony of New Critical modernism. Clarity requires a preliminary examination of the critical discourse of New Critical modernism upon its own terms, within its own "frame of reference," as if it existed in isolation, separate from the literature it interpreted and valued. But to treat New Criticism thus, as a theory in abeyance of its object, is justifiable only if we continuously bear in mind the historical and analytical insufficiency of such an approach. The early practitioners of New Criticism, though they may have couched their analysis in universal terms, were not confused as to their role as determined advocates of a "new departure in taste." And it was no mere theoretical revolution, but a confluence of critical and practical discourses that produced both a "New Criticism" and a paradigmatic "New Novel" about which the meta-fiction of the novel could be successfully rewritten.
Therefore, even as I begin by treating New Criticism in isolation, the focus will be upon its theories as they bear upon textual interpretation, that is upon its theoretics as a literary "praxis." Stuart Gilbert's 1930 study James Joyce's 'Ulysses' will be examined as a juncture, crucial to the ultimate hegemony of New Critical modernism, where critical theory and literary practice meet such that thereafter it seems, as Henry James said, that the modern novel's "face has been, once and for all, turned in one way, and that it has only to go straight before it." Toward the latter half of this chapter, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer will be used to represent a class of novelistic practices relying upon a fundamentally narrative organization. As invoked here, Miller's "representativeness" is negative. While his Paris narratives have exercised a decided influence upon twentieth-century American fiction, my concern is not to trace an occluded legacy. Instead, I take New Criticism's inability to come to terms with Miller's detourous narrative form to suggest a class of devalued and excluded writing, past and present, "realist" and "modernist," larger than any class Miller might be taken positively to represent. Reserving analysis of the distinctive qualities of Miller's narrative strategy for subsequent chapters, I focus in this upon aspects of Tropic of Cancer that have led it to share the fate of other narratives neither understood critically nor valued aesthetically within New Criticism's "frame of reference." My contention is that this devaluation of narrative texts is not a failure of New Criticism, but an essential dimension of its collaboration in an ultimately victorious struggle to establish the aesthetic value of symbolist texts.
Critical analysis of structure and creative experimentation with language are characteristic of our time because critics and writers tend to conceive of the literary work--the real poem or story or novel--as residing primarily in language and as consisting primarily of word arrangements. The strategy of modern criticism is to give "language" a kind of autonomy by conceiving of it as a realm of meaning, and the structure explored is discovered in the language, not behind the poem in the writer's mind or in front of the poem in the external world.
Although Feidelson judged the theory and practice of twentieth-century literature "a consequence of certain basic problems of modern thought," i.e. rooted outside literature in philosophy, the manner in which he described the rise of the "distinctive spirit of the literature of our day" suggests the far reaching effects of choices made by critics and writers within their own particular sphere of influence. Modern criticism deploys what Feidelson aptly calls a "strategy": a notion of the true medium of literature and its proper organization, that, within the literary artifact itself, differentiates between what constitutes "the real poem or story or novel" and, implicitly, those residual elements which are not "the real poem or story or novel." In the struggle for hegemony, interpretation is valuation. The hegemony of New Critical modernism rests not simply upon a canon, but upon a critical method that attributes aesthetic and intellectual, indeed, philosophical meaning and value--the weight of "reality"--to certain "structures" present but by no means preponderant even within canonical novels. We may indeed say with Roland Barthes, "While the work is held in the hand, the text is held in language: it exists only as discourse." But we must qualify which language, which discourse. Outside the pale of New Criticism lie novels and aspects of novels New Criticism does not merely devalue, but about which it cannot speak. To come to terms with the power of New Critical interpretation, we must negotiate its blindness as well as its insight. In rendering some works and some aspects of works intelligible, New Criticism rendered others critically unintelligible. The relation between "blindness and insight" is not incidental, not a "weakness," but systematic and essential to the strategy of this particular strain of early twentieth-century critical discourse.
New Criticism is part of a broader critical discourse and is itself discursive. Thus, the New Critical deployment of the concept of "structure" has been loose, varied, and subject to debate. Underlying this debate, the conceptual root--but not first--sense of "structure" is that in which Cleanth Brooks spoke of the "structure of the poem" in Modern Poetry and the Tradition. Brooks' brand of analysis offers a "close reading" of the tensions and discords introduced into the "structure" of poems through the aggressive use of metaphor. From this sense of "structure," one could without much difficulty imagine the germination of "structuralism" proper and even "post-structuralism." But Brooks' "structure" is fundamental without being such an origin or a source in that his explication of the tensions and discords of metaphor lays bare the first premises and most defensible posture of New Criticism's interpretive strategy. If metaphor is not the heart of the text, New Criticism in all its dissenting varieties loses its explanatory power. New Criticism's rise to hegemony, however, depended upon a more exacting delineation of the notion of structure so that critics might differentiate between "good" and "bad" metaphor. In its hegemonic function, "structure" means "good" organization of a particular type.
For the dominant strain of modern British-American criticism, which was "New Critical" long before John Crowe Ransom popularized the slogan, "good" novel form was poetic. The poeticization of the novel facilitated, and was partly a consequence of, the elevation of the novel's critical discourse to a serious academic pursuit. Prior to the early decades of the twentieth century, serious novel criticism found its home in journals, magazines, newspaper columns, and novels themselves. Within the academy, the study of the novel was circumscribed, a dabbling interest of professors whose primary intellectual claims were made in poetry, classical drama and the epic, and aesthetic philosophy. The novel found its only significant place in the curriculum in "writing courses," such as Harvard's daily themes course, "English 22," which Frank Norris took repeatedly because he could find no other means to study his intended art. The subsequent elevation of the novel required its more thorough integration into the disciplines of the humanities. This elevation inevitably produced perturbations not only in the theory but the practice of novel writing, where for so long the very exclusion of the novel from the "Fine Arts" had helped underscore its claim to be "the historical genre," that is, closer to "life" than to "Art."