The Virtues of Studying Literature – New Republic


LITERARY CRITICISM: A CONCISE POLITICAL HISTORY By Joseph North Harvard University Press, 272 pp., $39.95

For all the
debates that have roiled literature departments over the past 60 years, the
history of the discipline itself is a source of surprising consensus. According
to the standard narrative, mid-twentieth-century literary studies served a
conservative agenda, fostering traditional values and upholding a canon of dead
white men. The dominant school of interpretation was New Criticism, whose
defining method—close reading—consisted of scrutinizing short passages of
literary works detached
from their political context.
A theory underwrote this method: that literature could be understood apart from
politics; that its meaning and power transcended the social conditions within
which it was produced. From roughly the 1940s through the early 1960s, this was
the prevailing approach. But new schools of interpretation, energized by the
anti-establishment political movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s—poststructuralist,
feminist, anti-racist, Marxist, postcolonial, new historicist, queer—rejected
New Criticism’s conservatism and usurped its central position within literature
departments.
These new methodologies are committed to the notion that a work of literature
should be understood as responsive to its time.

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