Tuesday, July 17, 2012

New Formalism and the Short Story: Part I: The Modernist Background

I have been working regularly on my new book on the short story—tentatively titled Reading the Short Story, aka How to Read Short Stories, and hope to finish a draft within the year and send it out to seek a publisher.  The audience I am writing for is the kind of audience I seem to have attracted for my blog:  intelligent, educated writers, readers, and students of the short story.  Although I plan to make the book theoretically sound enough to convince literature professors who have previously ignored the form that the short story is worthy of serious study, I intend to write it in a clear and concrete style that will be accessible to a wide range of readers.

Since the short story is, like poetry, highly dependent on form, and since in the last few decades, a “formalist” approach to literature has been derided by theorists and cultural critics, I must not only establish, but I must also justify, my own approach to the short story--which has always been and will continue to be, formalist.

Literary criticism in the twentieth century has followed certain trends depending on what aspect of literature is most emphasized, e.g. the author, the historical context of the work, the form of the work, the philosophical justification of literature, literature’s relationship to other human studies, the social content or intent of the work, etc.  Usually one aspect will be emphasized in the classroom and in academic critical studies until established professors tire of it and introduce a new emphasis to graduate students, who get their degrees and then teach that approach in the classroom and publish their own articles to build a respectable resume that will earn them tenure and promotion, and sometimes fame and fortune. 

Then the cycle begins all over again.  For example, long before there was a “new historicism,” there was an historical approach to literature that provided historical and cultural background for the work, biographical background of the author, and casual discussion of the work’s content and/or theme.  However, some critics begin to think this approach was neglecting the actual way the work of literature “worked,” that it, its form.  Thus, a “New Criticism” developed, often called “formalism.”  When that reached a point of focusing so much on individual trees that the forest—i.e, literature as a general enterprise—was lost sight of, formalism mutated into structuralism and deconstruction and various other high level philosophic approaches.  When that became so rarified that much of the theory became unreadable, the cry went up for a “New Historicism,” which was something like the “old historicism, but with a difference—the difference being all the formalism and theory that had come betwixt and between. When that became too focused on the historical details, the cry went up for a focus on the political and social importance of literature—thus culture studies, ethnic studies, gender studies, queer studies, etc. 

It only seems inevitable, given this action/reaction development of literature criticism that the time is now ripe for a “New Formalism.”  And, what, pray tell, is that?  What is “new” about the new formalism that differentiates it from the “old formalism” that used to be the “new criticism”?

Last month, I received a blog comment from Kelcey Parker, a college professor and fiction writer at Indiana University, South Bend, who has an article forthcoming in a collection, New Formalisms and Literary Theory  (edited by Linda Tredennick and Verena Theile, Palgrave Macmillan), in which she argues that the renewed interest in Formalism and the rise of New Formalism corresponds directly to the rise of creative writing in English departments, for creative writers always read and think and teach in formal terms.  It is a good argument, and I will come back to it later.

As an unrepentant “old formalist,” I am, of course, interested in the so-called “new formalism” and asked Kelcey to send me a copy of her essay, which I have read with much interest.  I have also been reading other articles on the “new formalism,” such as W.J.T. Mitchell’s essay, “The Commitment to Form” in 2003, Marjorie Levinson’s long article “What is New Formalism” 2007), the essays in a 2000 special issue of Modern Literary Quarterly, and several other pieces.  I plan to do further research on the “New Formalism” in the weeks ahead and report on my findings here.  However, I thought it best to establish the groundwork for my readers by providing a brief and simple survey of the “old formalism.”  This summary is intended for the educated general reader, not the super theorists who so often become entangled in the complexities of their ideas and the convolutions of their prose that they become unreadable.

Twentieth-century literary theory began with an effort by English and American critics to understand and justify literature as a type of discourse essentially different from other discourses such as those of the physical and social sciences.  It may at first appear to be obvious that a poem or a story differs from a psychological case history or a scientific report.  After all, both kinds of discourse can use the same words and sometimes even the same sentence patterns, and both kinds of discourse make statements about some phenomenon, sometimes the same phenomenon.  For example, a book on the history of whaling in New England may make some of the same kinds of statements that Herman Melville's Moby Dick makes. 

However, most readers feel that somehow the "purpose" to which language is put in poetry is different than the purpose to which it is put in a psychological report.   Moreover, most readers feel that the statements in a novel "refer" to something different than the statements in a history book; whereas the first refers to a "made-up" world, the second refers to a "real" world.  Finally, most readers feel that in some way the "effects" of statements in a scientific or historical discourse are somehow different than the effects of statements in poetry.

Such issues as these are not as simple as they at first appear.  Indeed, before the beginning of modern literary theory's efforts to understand and to justify literature as different than other kinds of discourse, literature was often felt to be secondary to other verbal forms; literary works were studied as historical documents which played cultural roles, or else they were studied for what social content or philosophic theme they seemed to contain and communicate.  Modern literary theory, beginning primarily with the great modernist British poet and critic T.S. Eliot, changed all that forever.

This is not to say that everyone before T. S. Eliot believed that literature, particularly poetry, used language the way other verbal forms did.  For example, the 19th-century British poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge noted that poetry differed in an essential way from other kinds of language use, for its purpose is a unique kind of pleasure that results from the reader's perception of the intrinsic unity of all its parts.  And in America, Edgar Allan Poe argued strongly that both poems and short tales depended on a highly unified structure to communicate their singular effect. This point of view became even more pronounced at the end of the 19th century with the advent, especially in England and Europe, of the so-called aesthetic school of poetry, which insisted that a poem was important for its own sake, not because it contained important ideas. 

Actually, what T. S. Eliot contributed to this development of a particularly "modern" notion of literature was a group of critical pronouncements about literature's uniqueness that crystallized the views of other poets and thinkers.  For example, Eliot suggested that art is more concerned with expressing emotion than the logical ideas on which other verbal forms focused; furthermore, Eliot argued, the only way of expressing emotion in literature is by means of a verbal "objective correlative," a set of objects, a situation, or a chain of events which, even though it seemed to be made up of mere concrete, sensory details, served as a verbal equivalent of the emotion.   This idea that poetry communicated meaning by means of concrete detail rather than by means of abstractions was an important step in the critical effort to establish that poetry used language differently than other forms of verbal communication.

Eliot's perception that the language of poetry was unique was soon followed by the arguments of British critic I. A. Richards that the kinds of "statements" poetry used were different than those in other forms of discourse. In Science and Poetry in 1926, Richards noted that although poetry does make statements, they are not statements that have to be verified as they do in scientific forms; they are instead "pseudo-statements," which are justified not because they correspond to the facts they point to but rather because they serve the attitudes of the speaker or organize the attitudes of the reader.  The "truth" of poetry is relative to the perspective of the speaker; it does not depend on its correspondence to that which it seems to refer.
     These and other ideas of Eliot and Richards found their way into American criticism primarily due to the enthusiasm and efforts of a small group of teachers and students at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.  Lead by John Crowe Ransom, a young faculty member at Vanderbilt, the group included Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Cleanth Brooks. Although Ransom was the first to use the term "New Criticism” in a book of that name in 1941, the circulation of the central ideas of what also has been called "formalist," "contextual," or "objective" criticism was mainly due to the publication of two highly influential literature textbooks in the 1930's by Brooks and Warren: Understanding Fiction and Understanding Poetry.  In addition to these texts, other important books to develop the New Critical approach were Ransom's The World's Body (1938), Tate's Reason in Madness (1942), Brooks’ The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), and William K. Wimsatt's The Verbal Icon (1954).

Next Week:  The New Critics and the Russian Formalists

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