Criticism, Literary, 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 writers—like painters and sculptors—as 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 audience—the 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 Sappho—as well as from orators, historians, philosophers, and the first chapter of Genesis—to 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.”
MIDDLE AGES AND RENAISSANCE
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 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 17TH AND 18TH CENTURIES
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 moderns—the critical comparison of Greek and Roman authors with more recent ones—was 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 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 believe—implausibly 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.
THE 19TH CENTURY
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” (1865).
“The good critic tells the adventures
of his soul among masterpieces.”
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.”
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 study—for 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.
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.
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.
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.
Foucault wanted to challenge
certain basic notions about the
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 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 writing—recognizably 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.
The New Criticism, Deconstruction And Beyond, Bibliography
When the definitive account of post-1960s intellectual technologies is written, the history of literary movements will constitute a key chapter. Perhaps paradigmatic of the closing decades of the twentieth century in its dramatic shifts and realignments, literary criticism at the opening of the twenty-first century shows all the earmarks of specialized knowledge, professionalization, and market maneuvering that have successfully permeated the precincts of human activity in advanced industrial society since the end of World War II. Virginia Woolf’s “common reader,” for all intents and purposes, has disappeared, replaced by professional practitioners trained in the efficacies of “close reading” and highly conscious of a critical landscape represented by “schools” of criticism, from mythic to Marxist, from structuralist to feminist, from psychoanalytic to poststructuralist. Deconstruction and postcolonial critiques have joined a range of cultural studies that encompass race, gender, and sexual orientation. With allied movements in linguistic, rhetorical, narrative, and semi-otic theory, criticism at the turn of the twenty-first century accommodates the study of ethics regarding nonhuman species as well as conduct toward the environment. English and American literature at the university level cut across interdisciplinary formations; thus, the English department, situated in the humanities, could as easily play host to the analysis of legal documents, congressional legislation, aspects of the medical archives, and the fashion modes of hairdressers, as to the recurrence of images of senescence in William Shakespeare’s sonnets, or the irreality of closure in Toni Morrison’s novels, or the rhythm of repetition in William Faulkner’s fiction. The field of literary criticism is a growth industry, its latest paradigm shift related to global transformations brought on by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Regarding its susceptibility to change, then, the critical field offers a good example of centrifugal movement.
Literary criticism had rather complicated beginnings, apparently unrelated to the project of literary study. Richard Ohmann argues in English in America: A Radical View of the Profession that the “technology of the Industrial Revolution gave knowledge a new and central place in the business of making a living” (p. 264; emphasis added). The modern American university is dynamically linked to the centrality of knowledge, “the regularizing of technical innovation, and the bending of knowledge to profit” (p. 266). An older technological model, with industries localized in the domestic sphere and skills transmitted from generation to generation, through hands-on experience, was displaced onto the site of the factory, which brought the worker together with the organizational talent of the manager and the stochastic innovations of the entrepreneur. As Ohmann explains, this new model required “a high concentration of special and theoretical knowledge, of the capacity to create more knowledge as needed, and of the managerial skill to bring this about.” If these changes necessitated the systematization of knowledge, as well as its spread across “a large and diverse corps of people whose main work is generating, communicating, and developing ideas” (p. 271), then the modern university of the late nineteenth century would become fully complicit with the new social order and its growing market demands. The university would answer both the will and the imperative to knowledge and the demand for skills in an increasingly national population.
According to Ohmann, then, the humanistic project and its situation in the modern university springs from material grounds. Ohmann’s work is subtitled “a radical view,” playfully reinforced by the book’s original cover collage, which superimposes the facial images of Edgar Allan Poe and Karl Marx. The graphic conveys the interarticulations of the aesthetic and materialist realms, and poses the conditions by which it is possible to understand not only the role of the university and the ascent of ideas in a market economy, but also the specific performances of criticism and theory. Not at all an oppositional movement to a “business civilization,” the view usually taken by humanists, the “business” of the English department, for Ohmann, is compatible with the rationalizations of the “technostructure” and owes its prosperity to that structure’s interventions.
Terry Eagleton pursues the provenance of literary criticism and theory back to the “rise of English” and the modern sense of literature that emerged with the English Romantics of the nineteenth century. A counterweight to the alienation of workers bred by the ravages of the industrial revolution, the literature of the Romantics “appears as one of the enclaves in which the creative values expunged from the face of English society by industrial capitalism can be celebrated and affirmed” (p. 19). The Romantics’ “creative imagination” was enlisted on the side of the “intuitive, transcendental scope of the poetic mind” (p. 19) and marshaled in the interest of a “living criticism of those rationalist or empiricist ideologies enslaved to ‘fact'”(p. 19). The literary work as a “mysterious organic unity” was opposed “to the fragmented individualism of the capitalist marketplace,” and whereas the latter yields rational calculation, the former offers spontaneity. In time, the literary artifact would emerge “as an ideal model of human society itself” (p. 22).
Under the impact of scientific development and the related decline of religious sentiment, literature became in this context a decisive moral and aesthetic regimen: according to one of Eagleton’s sources, English literature would in time be solicited “‘to save our souls and heal the State'” (p. 23). From Matthew Arnold on, “English,” in a period of religious decline, “is constructed as a subject to carry the ideological freight of social cohesion” (p. 24). The “poor man’s Classics,” English literature marked the route to a liberal, humanizing education, first institutionalized as an academic course of study in unexpected venues—not in England’s great universities, Eagleton contends, but in the “Mechanics’ Institutes, working men’s colleges and extension lecturing circuits” (p. 27). Installed in the British curriculum during the final quarter of the nineteenth century, English literary studies commenced as a “subject fit for women, workers, [and, given England’s colonial project] those wishing to impress the natives” (p. 29).
Though Eagleton’s and Ohmann’s respective accounts of the development of English critical studies are contrastive, what they have in common is the attempt to put in perspective the relationship between manifestations of the creative and imaginative impulses as curricular objects and the material and political bases on which the former are predicated. Not some glorious abstraction, English, which will become the place of habitation of literary criticism and theory, belongs, one way or another, to the industrial phase of capital. Either as a preserve of creative values or as an elaboration of a radically transformed scene of labor, English in the twentieth century would supersede the old, time-honored trivium of the curricula of the Middle Ages—grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
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.