In writing this brief generalized survey of twentieth-century literary criticism, I am giving short shrift to the cultural/historical literary approaches that have dominated academic study from the decline of Deconstruction to the rise of New Formalism. In its focus on the historical/cultural context or the polemical/political content of the literary work, in my opinion, postcolonial and new historicist criticism, not to mention women’s studies, gay studies, and studies devoted to the writings of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, etc. have shown more concern for social issues than for the art work. Consequently, they have shown very little or no interest in the literary short story, which has seldom emphasized social issues.
In his 1986 Presidential Address to the Modern Language Association, J. Hillis Miller called attention to the fact that in the early to mid eighties, the study of literature had a sudden, almost universal turn away from an orientation toward language to “history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender conditions, the social context….” Miller attributes this shift to the academy’s demand to make itself “ethically and politically responsible” in its teaching and writing—“to grapple with realities rather than with the impalpabilities of theoretical abstractions and barbarous words about language….” To which Stanley Fish responded in his own polemical 2008 book, Save the World in Your Own Time.
It is not surprising that academics became fed up with theory, for as Frank Kermode pointed out in his 1988 review of Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations and Steven Mullaney’s The Place of the Stage--two early and influential examples of the so-called New Historicism--literary theory had reached a point that university teachers of English only seemed to be talking to each other, publishing works with such obscure titles that external observers probably gave up hope. Furthermore, says Kermode, the techniques of deconstruction seemed to have become “indistinguishable from the older kind of formalism only by the use of the patented jargon and by an interpretative liberty that some old fogeys cannot distinguish from license. Thus, the academic call for a return to what “really mattered” in society, or a “return to history,” gave rise to ethnic studies, multicultural studies, postcolonial studies, and the new historicism.
The first and most prominent of these various social or content approaches--Feminist Criticism—was generated out of the so-called Women's Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Feminist Literary Criticism as an academic field of study began with several primary projects. First of all, feminist critics focused on the sexist biases male writers were often guilty of embedding in their works that became unquestioned paradigms of belief in our culture. Secondly, feminist critics argued that the established "canon" of so-called great literary works in Western culture was developed and maintained by males and therefore needed to be expanded to include valuable but previously ignored works by female writers. Another important project for Feminist Criticism was the establishment of female writers as a "counter-tradition" of literature characterized by a radically different consciousness and value system than those embodied in the so-called "great tradition" of male writers.
Such critics as Patricia Meyer Spacks in The Female Imagination (1975) and Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own (1977) argued that women writers have often been concerned with matters considered peripheral by men and that they have thus expressed the values of a subculture within the framework of society at large. Perhaps the best-known and most-influential study to focus on what has come to be known as a female literary tradition is The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979) by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who argued that the very idea of authorship and thus literary authority has always been unyieldingly paternalistic.
Whereas Feminist Criticism marked a divergence from modern theory's predominantly formalist approach to literature simply because it was more interested in the social content of the literary work than its form, a group of critics loosely termed the New Historicists mounted a direct assault on the formalist tradition and urged a return to approaches which focus on the authorial "intention" of the work, its socially human referent, and its socio-historical context.
The New Historicism's basic attack against modern literary theory was outlined by Berkeley professors Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels in two articles published in 1982 and 1987 in the journal Critical Inquiry, entitled "Against Theory" and "Against Theory II: Hermeneutics and Deconstruction." The philosophic basis of Knapp and Michaels' arguments and assumptions are primarily derived from German thinker Hans-George Gadamer, who argued that criticism cannot find a basis for an absolute meaning in a literary work unprejudiced by history; and from his best-known follower, Hans Robert Jauss, who argued that the literary work must be studied in terms of the various historical moments of its reception.
However, the most dominant figure of the New Historicism is Stephen Greenblatt, who introduced the term in an introduction to a special 1982 issue of the journal Genre, entitled “The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance.” Basically, the New Historicists scorned literary formalism, especially for its neglect of the social and political “context” of literary works. D. G. Myers, in a 2001 essay in the journal Academic Questions, summarizes the basic principles of the New Historicist method as follows: (1) Literature is historical; it is not the record of one mind, but a social construct shaped by multiple consciousnesses; “the proper way to understand it, therefore, is through the culture and society that produced it.” (2) Literature must be assimilated to history; (3) There is no such thing as a human nature that transcends history, just as there is no such thing as a literary work that transcends history. (4) No one can rise above his or her own ideological upbringing; since no modern reader can ever read a work as its contemporaries read it, one can only try to reconstruct the ideology that gave rise to it.
The problem with such an approach is, as Frank Kermode says in his review of Greenblatt’s Shakespearian Negotiations, is that while it unearths a great deal of peripheral detail about a work, it does not seem to evince much interest in the work itself. As Kermode has it, “There is a great quantity of sexological or political sack, but only a pennyworth of interpretative bread.” Or as Terry Eagleton says in a November 3, 2011 review of two new historicist studies of the novels of Daniel Defoe: “Both writers add to our understanding of the social context of Defoe’s writing, but neither would spot a shift in tone, an unreliable narrator or a pattern of imagery if it leapt into their laps.”
Postcolonial Studies, which has been described as part of a larger multicultural educational reform, is said to have originated with the 1978 publication of Edward W. Said’s book Orientalism, which argued that the predominant western approach to what was then called oriental studies, had the effect of maintaining power over Arabs and Islam. Homi Bhabha, a critic of Commonwealth literary studies, made use of the work of the activist Frantz Fanon to continue the attack against a “Western mode of thought.” Postcolonial studies became a continuation of sixties and seventies Multiculturalism in America, for the disenfranchisement of racial minorities was called a form of colonization. While faculty began developing departments on university campuses to teach writings by women, African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and gays, scholars began to be hired to teach the writings of so-called Third World, i.e. Postcolonial, counties. The first introduction to the new postcolonial studies, pop- culturally entitled The Empire Strikes Back.
In a brief essay in PMLA in 2003, playfully subtitled “Still Crazy After All These Years,” W.J.T. Mitchell admits that the concept of “form” seems to have outlived its usefulness in discussions of literature. However, in spite of the fact that so many literary scholars and academic critics think they have moved beyond formalism into “more capacious arenas like history, culture, and politics,” Mitchell thinks that formalism, like other discredited notions such as imagination and beauty and spirit, keeps returning. Mitchell concludes that although the old notion of form “some new notion of form, and thus a new kind of formalism, lies before us.”
And that “new notion of form,” for lack of a more imaginative term, is beginning to be known as the “new formalism.” Perhaps the best-known review of the new formalism is the long essay by Majorie Levinson in the “changing profession” section of the March 2007 issue of PMLA, entitled “What is New Formalism?” [An even longer version of this review, which is the version I have read, is available online at: sitemaker.umich.edu/pmla_article
Levinson begins by suggesting that new formalism (she does not capitalize the phrase) is “better described as a movement than a theory or method.” She divides new formalist studies into two groups: those who want to restore to historical criticism its original focus on form (which she calls “activist formalism”), and those who wish to bring back a sharp division between history and literature (which she calls “normative formalism”) Both kinds of formalism, however, she says want to “reinstate close reading,” which she defines as a “multilayered and integrative responsiveness to every element of the textual dimension.” The central work of new formalism, Levinson says, is “rededication” to the idea of form, noting that words common to several of the essays are “commitment,” “conviction,” “devotion,” and “dedication.”