In the introduction to his collection of essays, Learning to Curse, cultural historian Stephen Greenblatt describes the time he spent in graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s under the tutelage of the magisterial William K. Wimsatt, who was at that time the doyen of the New Critics. Wimsatt, along with Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and many others at the time, espoused the theory that poetry was an autonomous realm, to be understood largely on its own terms as an aesthetic act. Greenblatt admits to be only mildly interested in that approach.
[Wimsatt’s] theory of the concrete universal—poetry as “an object which in a mysterious and special way is both highly general and highly particular”—seemed almost irresistibly true, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a celebrant of the mystery. I would go in the late afternoon to the Elizabethan Club—all male, a black servant in a starched white jacket, cucumber sandwiches and tea—and listen to Wimsatt at the great round table hold forth like Doctor Johnson on poetry and aesthetics. Wimsatt seemed to be eight feet tall and to be the possessor of a set of absolute convictions, but I was anything but certain.
Greenblatt had earlier spent two years as a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge, and he had been struck during his time there by the “intellectual power and moral authority” of the Marxist critic Raymond Williams. The New Critics didn’t think much of Marx. In one then-popular text, Wimstatt and Cleanth Brooks had written that “Marxism and the forms of social criticism more closely related to it, have never had any real concern with literature and literary problems,” and that the Marxist approach fundamentally “destroys the literary viewpoint.”
Greenblatt, on the contrary, had found Williams’ approach to literature fascinating, and also liberating.
In Williams’s lectures all that had been carefully excluded from the literary criticism in which I had been trained—who controlled access to the printing press, who owned the land and the factories, whose voices were being repressed as well as represented in literary texts, what social strategies were being served by the aesthetic values we constructed—came pressing back in upon the act of interpretation.
Greenblatt eventually chose this path, which he describes as “a shift away from a criticism centered on ‘verbal icons toward a criticism centered on cultural artifacts.” He originally described the work he was doing as Marxist aesthetics, but later began to apply the terms “cultural poetics” and “new historicism” so as not to unduly circumscribe the approach.
I find this personal narrative interesting not only for what it describes, but also for what it leaves out. The path Greenblatt chose became popular, and nowadays I suspect you would be hard-pressed to find anyone at the university level considering poetry or any other art form from a purely aesthetic point of view. That's really a shame. What Greenblatt fails to note, and perhaps doesn’t even recognize, is that the two approaches to poetry have nothing in common except the text they might happen to be scrutinizing.
Greenblatt recognizes that his focus has changed, but he doesn’t quite see how. It isn’t away from verbal icons toward cultural artifacts. What he meant to say was, “I thought I was interested in poetry. In fact, I was interested in sociology.”
There is nothing terribly wrong with the field of sociology, of course, and using literary texts as indicators of social conditions or historical change might have a certain validity, too. But it’s a mistake to image that such an approach has anything to do with literature itself. The conflation of these two realms has done serious harm to the modern psyche by excluding the possibility that life can be seized and appreciated in its fullness (which is what poetry does) rather than merely picked apart to expose examples of injustice and oppression (which is what both sociology and literary “theory” tend to do.)
Let me give you an example of how far the rot has spread. In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, critic Ben Ratliff takes up the case of the Beach Boys, on the lookout, it would appear, not for beauty but for “relevance.”
Time and social change have been rough on the Beach Boys. Their best-known hits (say, “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “I Get Around”) are poems of unenlightened straight-male privilege, white privilege, beach privilege. It is hard to imagine that they helped anyone toward self-determination or achieving their social rights. Brian Wilson’s great integrative achievement as a songwriter and producer was absorbed in bits and pieces by others—Paul McCartney especially—but it mostly worked for him alone. In their rhythm and humor the Beach Boys sound squarer all the time compared to Motown, the Beatles, and the Stones, and a lot of Phil Spector.
It never occurred to me that the Stones or Paul MCCartney might be socially relevant, but be that as it may, is that what art is supposed to do? Help people toward social rights? Influence other artists? I don’t think so. At least not exclusively, or even primarily. I don’t listen to the Beach Boys now, but I did when I was twelve, and I still get a kick out of their vocal harmonies … for about thirty seconds. And having spent quite a bit of time on the California coast, I now see more clearly than I did as a teen how liberating and eternally cool surfing can be.
The New Critics were right, in other words, when they defended the autonomy and universality of works of art and the inadequacy of biographical and sociological interpretations to take their full measure. Such things as "beauty" aren’t easy to discuss in class, however, and recourse to phrases such as “concrete universal” soon become tiresome and unilluminating, as Greenblatt points out. A remark by John Crowe Ransom that I came upon decades ago, when I was an undergraduate, has stuck with me, though I might not be remembering it accurately: “A piece of literary criticism is a small work of art that we dedicate to a great work of art.”