Modernism and New Criticism
The ways in which we define the importance of texts is constantly changing. We can look back and see critical theories used, such as Historical Criticism, Reader-Response Criticism and Psychoanalytic Criticism. Each of these theories offers a different way to interpret a text. However, when looking back over the texts of a specific era, shouldn’t the type of criticism we used for a book be based on that time period?
Defining the Modernist Era of literature seems almost impossible, since the definition of modernism often seems to constitute anything from being “new and common” to “new and uncommon” (Barzun). This term seems to be able to stretch from the 1500’s to present; but for the sake of this essay the Modernist Era in question is that from the early twentieth century (circa 1910-1940’s). Out of, and during, this era the critical theory named New Criticism came into play. Although, nowadays, the use of New Criticism is unpopular, it is essential to use when defining the Modernist Era.
Even though New Criticism isn’t used anymore, many of its basic constructs are. For example, the idea of close reading and using textual evidence (as will be done in this essay) are characteristics that were important to New Criticism. Now it is practically impossible to be in an English class, be it high school or college, and not have to use these skills when talking about a text. New Criticism basically theorized that the text itself was the most important aspect of writing; therefore, to understand the meaning of a piece of literature one must look to, and in, the text, rather than trying to define it by outside components, such as those used in Historical and Biographical Criticism (Tyson 117-120). It should be noted that prior to the use of New Criticism, Historical/Biographical Criticism were widely used in defining the meaning of a literary text. Thus, New Criticism was a reaction against Historical Criticism, which tended to focus on the outside forces, such as those that influenced a writer or even a reader, and not the text itself.
Despite the New Critics separating the text from its author and the time period, often the historical and sociological aspects inside the text were still made relevant. These aspects could not be completely ignored by New Critics, but since they were inside the text they could still be used to understand the texts meaning. These aspects pertained to the text themselves and shouldn’t be confused by the use of literary criticism, which may use these influences and how they were outside of the text.
Oddly enough, what I’m about to say almost seems to deconstruct the whole idea of New Criticism, as I use Historical Criticism to talk about the relationship of New Criticism and Modernism. The Modernist Era was a time when traditions began to fail. A lack of faith in the security of old traditions, mostly a result of WWI, made many people...