Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism
By Mark Royden Winchell
University Press of Virginia, 510 pages, $34.95
I still own and still make frequent use of my paperback copy of Cleanth Brooks’ The Well Wrought Urn, which I purchased for $1.35 more than thirty years ago. What is more, I still have fond memories of Brooks’ hospitality during an English Department picnic held at his country home while I was a graduate student at Yale a quarter century ago. Finally, Brooks’ incisive talk and gracious conviviality during the following reception at the school where I teach, some fifteen years ago, still remains with me as an exemplary image of the proper conduct of academic life. So I am not the most objective reviewer of Mark Royden Winchell’s literary biography of the man who, perhaps more than any other, made the study of English literature of central importance in the modern university curriculum. It may be, however, that my personal debt to Cleanth Brooks can serve as an indication of what he has meant to the world of humane letters and higher education during this century in America, and of the loss that world sustained in his recent death.
An unexpected virtue of this book is that the life of Cleanth Brooks turns out to be quite as interesting as that of most poets and novelists. Of course much is owing to Mark Royden Winchell’s skill as a biographer. His style is clear and unobtrusive, and he knows how to provide a full picture of his subject without swamping the reader in trivia. Most important, Winchell recognizes that what matters about a man of letters is his work, and details of his life are significant insofar as they explain and illuminate that work. This account of the life of Cleanth Brooks furnishes valuable information about the Southern Agrarian movement, the literary scene at Oxford and Cambridge in the late 1920s, when Brooks was a Rhodes Scholar, the curious relationship between Louisiana State University and the political machine of Huey Long, the crucial role of the Southern Review (of which Brooks was a founding editor) in the rise of Southern literature and literary modernism in America, and the development of literary criticism at Yale (where Brooks taught from 1947 till 1975).
In addition, Winchell introduces the numerous novelists and poets, critics and scholars who were Brooks’ friends and associates through a long and productive career: Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert B. Heilman, Maynard Mack, Louis Martz, Rene Wellek, William Wimsatt—and the list goes on. In providing details of these relationships, Winchell creates the intellectual context for the theme that is indicated by the second half of his title: The Rise of Modern Literary Criticism.
What we learn about Brooks’ personal life, apart from the intrinsic interest of learning about the life of a good man, is largely important as an indication of the kind of life that is open to an academic literary man and the kind of model that he can furnish. The “New Criticism” (by now the old New Criticism) that Brooks championed, with its insistence on the intrinsic meaning and value of the literary text and its identification of paradox and irony as the essential features of imaginative literature, has often been decried in recent years as “elitist”—as the purely leisurely pursuit of privileged white men.
Although Brooks was a man of substantial affluence by the time of his death, largely as a result of the commercial success of the textbooks he helped to edit, he certainly did not start out that way. The son of a Methodist minister, Brooks grew up in very modest circumstances in a family that moved from one parsonage to another as his father was transferred from church to church in rural Kentucky and Tennessee. Brooks made his way through Vanderbilt and Tulane and eventually was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship by dint of sacrifice, hard work, and the unremitting application of his considerable intellectual gifts. He labored at LSU for nearly fifteen years under the burdens of a daunting teaching schedule and the editing of the Southern Review with a small salary and little local appreciation. Still, he managed to write and publish scholarly and critical works of sufficient substance to win him national recognition and appointment to the Yale faculty. If he was an elitist, it was in the sense that everyone associated with a university and the life of the mind should be: He strove always to attain and promote excellence.
The New Criticism that Brooks championed seems to have been a means of coming to terms with the literary modernism that emerged in the early twentieth century in the writings of Eliot, Yeats, Pound, and Joyce, and in their successors. The criticism of T.S. Eliot, in particular, sought a critical and historical justification for his own difficult and obscure poetry in the French symbolists and the English metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, and Eliot’s revaluation of these poets implied a revision of literary history—or of the literary canon, to put it in contemporary terms.
Brooks’ achievement was to apply the method of close reading, with its emphasis on poetic tension, or paradox, or irony, to virtually the entire English and American literary tradition, including prose fiction and drama as well as nondramatic verse. His early critical works like Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) and, especially, The Well Wrought Urn (1947) were very influential in this development; but undoubtedly his most enduring contribution to literary education arises from the anthologies he edited for college students in freshman composition and introductory literature courses: Understanding Poetry (1938), Understanding Fiction (1943) with Robert Penn Warren, and Understanding Drama (1945) with Robert B. Heilman.
These textbooks all went through more than one edition and influenced the way in which literature was taught for decades. It is important to recall that they were conceived and composed not at Yale but at Louisiana State for students who would typically be majoring in agriculture, accounting, or mechanical engineering. What Brooks and his collaborators offered such students was a means of independent interpretation and judgment of virtually any literary work they might encounter. Perhaps the most important legacy of the New Criticism is thus pedagogical: it made English courses the principal vehicle for teaching the average American college student how to read and think critically; it provided the lower and middle class students who began to flood higher education in the fifties and sixties (among whom I number myself) with the opportunity for intellectual and imaginative cultivation. It is hard to conceive of a more democratic form of elitism.
Brooks was himself a practicing Christian (as an adult he moved from his boyhood Methodism to the Episcopal Church), but there is little overt treatment of religion in his literary criticism. In one of the exceptions, The Hidden God (1963), he remarks that at least some of the new critics did not stress the religious dimension of literature because—despite Matthew Arnold’s expectation that poetry would replace Christianity—religion and literature are different, if not unrelated, activities.
A fundamental theme of Brooks’ theory is that literary works are not sermons or treatises; stories, novels, and poems are, like plays, essentially dramatic, not rhetorical. Hence a work of literature will be most effectively religious not by propounding abstract dogma, but by representing human experience concretely and honestly—whatever the professed beliefs of the author. The thesis of The Hidden God is that the work of unbelieving writers like Yeats and Faulkner, or of Eliot before his conversion, can present a vision of reality of profound significance to Christians insofar as it is faithful to the truth of human experience. Though Beethoven’s final religious views are somewhat obscure, and Mozart was associated with the Masons, their settings of the Mass furnish far greater enhancement to the liturgy than the hymns being composed by devout believers in our time. By the same token, the first thing a Christian should ask about a work of literature is whether it is honestly and skillfully crafted.
Mark Royden Winchell has crafted a fine biography of Cleanth Brooks. He not only presents an effective narration of his subject’s life, but he also shows why that life was important to American education and culture. This book provides a real sense of how much Brooks contributed to the academic study of literature, and of what a decline has occurred since he has been displaced by Michel Foucault as the most influential thinker in university English departments.
R. V. Young is Professor of English at North Carolina State University.