Return of The New Critics: A Critical Analysis of R. V. Young’s At War With the Word

Brook Johnson
9 min readOct 27, 2020
Photo by Glen Noble

In chapter 1 of R. V. Young’s At War With the Word, he contends that the past 30 years of hostile criticism directed at the New Critics has been ideologically motivated (xi). Young calls the attack, a “campaign of disinformation,” which attempts to discredit the New Critics’ methodology in favour of a radical form of literary activism (4). With a disparagement of the New Critics comes a leveling of literary works to the status of ordinary texts (20). Contemporary literary critics reduce literary texts to cultural relics that contain either politically desirable or undesirable material to be fashioned by the interpreter’s will (21). Ideologically motivated readings are considered superior to interpreting works, making value judgments, and allowing the texts to educate us (22). Young argues that a return to the New Critics’ perspective on literature is essential to restoring English to its central place in the humanities (x-xi). This essay will critically engage with Young’s argument for reinstating the New Critics’ viewpoint and discuss his critique of the contemporary objections to New Criticism.

1. The New Critics

Young emphasizes the historical importance of the New Critics’ methodology that allowed English to become a respectable discipline in the University (2). The New Critics’ reaction to literary gossip, romantic genius worship, and a superficial “school of literary history” generated a highly influential, rigorous analytical toolset that became “institutionalized” (9,15). Their pioneering work ought to have inspired respect and admiration instead of the disdain they now receive (3).

Given Young’s high view of the New Critics’ influential work, it is problematic that he never mentions the ways in which they are heirs to a legacy of literary criticism found in Aristotle, Horace, Longinus, St. Augustine, Sir Philip Sidney, and others. The New Critics’ view of literature as a mode of delighting and teaching that conveys truth, beauty, and goodness to a universal human nature is directly in conversation with these ancient authors. Young’s decision to exclude the history of literary criticism from this discussion is an oversight, though it does not undermine his argument for the New Critics’ perspective.

Young notes that contemporary critics charge the New Critics with being formalists, but this is a misconception (5). They do not emphasize form to bypass human experience and focus solely on the design of the text in relation to genre. Rather, Young argues, they viewed form as a “structure of significance, an embodiment of human experience” (5). The author’s choice of form in which to embed human experience and ideas sections off the text from material history (5). It is an act of creation which “could have significance in and of itself” (16). The text transcends its material causes by becoming an independent object. However, far from ignoring the historical context in which a text was created, the New Critics treat the work of art as a gateway into the history of the author’s world (5). The relationship between history and text is one in which the text “transcends” authorial intentions, the original audience’s expectations, and the political, cultural, and economic conditions (5). Without a commitment to the text as an independent object, the work is only significant on the basis of “cultural anthropology,” an ideological product of its history (22).

The New Critics’ emphasis on the text as an independent object is valuable to contemporary discussions surrounding the relevancy of the Western canon. They believed that great texts convey universal human experiences and timeless ideas without requiring any knowledge of the particulars surrounding the creation of the work. Young uses the New Critics’ emphasis on the text to exonerate them from the charge of treating literature as an abstract science (6). The New Critics maintained that encountering a great literary text actually increases our understanding of reality (6). For them, the study of great literature is fundamentally practical.

Young points out that New Critical methodology operates as an effective teaching device precisely because it enhances our view of reality (20). Its usefulness extends far beyond the undergraduate classroom because it “instill[s] in students the habit of critical discrimination,” which allows one to see how the “intellectual and moral effort required” to read a great literary text demonstrates its superior craftsmanship and excellence (13). It leads the student out of their self-absorption and into the “norms of thought, feeling, and behaviour” of classical tradition (20). Literary study acquaints us with works like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which reminds us of our “moral and spiritual being” and leads us into contemplation of the human condition (11). Professors help students identify masterpieces and further demonstrate how they “represent and reveal the nature of reality” (20). The study of literature “enhance[s] the response of students to books,” which confront us with meaningful questions about life, questions that will inevitably enter into the public discourse and influence public policy (11).

The New Critics received their bitterest condemnation for their formative view of literature. They insisted that we interpret texts to discover meaning and that human activities have inherent meaning: we do not confer meaning on them (7). They believed literature was evidence of “a free, rational agent” who can create a transcendent and meaningful work (16). They regarded literature as a “testimony to the inherent significance and purpose of human life” (5–6).

It should be noted that the New Critics presupposed a theistic worldview — even if they were unaware of doing so. It is only because we have a transcendent creator who created us with a purpose and conferred value on us that our actions have significance and we have intrinsic value. William Lane Craig argues that if God does not exist, a naturalistic, evolutionary view of humanity guarantees that we are neither intrinsically valuable nor do our actions carry inherent significance or meaning (175). Humans and their actions would only have relative value, significance, and meaning that depends upon the subjective standards of people (175). The New Critics’ objective view of human value, significance, and meaning depends upon a metaphysical commitment to a creator. Without a theistic understanding of humanity to ground a high view of literature, it is understandable why contemporary critics either reject or ignore such discussions and focus on the ideological and material causes of texts.

The New Critical methodology is a rejection of materialism (16). Its focus is on interpreting literary texts laden with meaning and rendering value judgments (16). They believed we must “respect the integrity of the text” and cannot make it mean whatever we want (17). “Literature,” for the New Critics, “helps us to know life…[and] dramatizes experience by establishing a vantage point outside it” (29). This objective vantage point, according to contemporary critics, is invariably oppressive.

2. Contemporary Literary Critics

Young notes that modern literary academia is heavily influenced by Marxism. To suggest that a work of art transcends its material origins and its specific place in socio-historical reality is contemptible. The literary text is not an object with discoverable meaning that necessarily requires interpretation. Instead, we should look at the material trends surrounding its generation and reception, that is, treat it as a cultural relic. Literature needs to be handled like scientific phenomena with its object, the literary text, dissected of its material causes. We can explain its existence and learn nothing from it. Literary texts do not represent anything universal about human nature or provide instances of the true, good, and beautiful. Literary texts do not contain meaning. Meaning is “given” through the “literary institution,” a human construction based upon arbitrary standards (7). Literary texts do not evidence human freedom and dignity; they are a matter of cause and effect (5–7, 14).

Marxist ideology, Young argues, is comparable to Gnosticism: both view everything in terms of physical causation. For them, the material world is structurally evil, which turns humanity into slaves who are inculpable for their actions due to determinism. There is a further denial of the limits of human nature with an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual. This leads to the interpreter dominating the text. Like Gnostic interpretations, the correct interpretation of a literary text is not explicated; instead, the text is a pathway for the reader to achieve self-realization. The New Critics’ view cuts against the Marxist and Gnostic vision, and thus it must be eradicated (14, 17, 19).

Young’s negative portrayal of Gnostic interpretations seems to foreclose a charitable view of a reader’s response to a text. The nature of Jesus’ parables operated on the assumption that the reader would find himself in the story. This is an activity that many readers perform intuitively across a variety of stories. When I read about Daniel in the lion’s den, I see my own problems and adversities metaphorically instantiated in the lions that surround Daniel (who stands in for me). The fact that I read my story into the text does not preclude the text from transforming me. While this is bracketed off from a proper interpretation of the story, a text becoming “malleable to the will of the interpreter” is not inherently detrimental to the reading experience (18). It is only when the reader’s experience is substituted for the meaning of the text that Young’s criticism becomes applicable.

The problem with contemporary critics, Young observes, is that they read their political ideology and particular sets of grievances into the texts and call that the text’s meaning (21). In the process they reduce all literary texts to mere texts, because they assume value judgments are only subjective (19–20). We now read what is politically, culturally, and historically important to present times — not what is excellent literature. When all texts are leveled, this opens the door to the claim that there are different types of “cultural knowledge”: knowledge of trivial pop-culture is only a different type of knowledge than knowledge of the Western canon (13). Literary texts become ideological tools, not instances of universal values. It is up to the interpreter to shape the text and score a political point by persuading his audience of his agenda (22). The New Critics defended a standard of qualitative excellence that contemporary critics either cannot see or refuse to recognize.

While not a direct criticism of Young’s defense of the New Critics, he neglects to point out how the language of some English literary texts has become foreign to a new generation of readers accustomed to iPads, Netflix, and video games. This is surely one of the factors influencing the choice of literary texts in the university. If Shakespeare and other notoriously difficult English writers were taught using an adapted version in the modern vernacular — similar to how Chaucer’s middle English is adapted or how modern biblical translations replace the King James Version — it would give more readers access to the timeless themes, universal values, and truths contained in texts they would otherwise dismiss. Further study of difficult literary language contained in some classic English texts could be postponed until graduate studies without the loss of meaning for undergraduates. However, the fact that Young does not explore this controversial area does not diminish his argument. Young reminds us that we are “in dialogue with a work of human intellect and imagination” (7). No matter what we think of the author’s language, we must respect the integrity of the author’s work.

Young’s defense of the New Critics is a refreshing perspective compared to the reigning literary establishment’s insistence on material causes. If literature is to matter at all in the universities, it must perform its transformative role. As the New Critics maintained, literature operates most effectively as a humanizing instrument by reaffirming the freedom and dignity of the individual; it grows our capacity to grasp nuanced aspects of the human condition while teaching universal values, objective morality, and truth. Contemporary critics devalue literature at their own peril. When we treat literature like scientific phenomena, we devalue ourselves. We become cultural relics with the text: curious, insignificant objects that flourished for a brief period of time due to purely material causes. It is not long before we become advocates of an outmoded, regressive ideology. We have mistaken the literary text for our own ideas. We have suffocated the nature of literature.

Works Cited

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. 3rd edition, Crossway, 2008.

Young, R. V. At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education. Isi Books, 1999.