Ransom, John Crowe

Assigned: Ransom, John Crowe. “Criticism, Inc.” (901-911). Also read the editors’ introduction (899-901).

“Criticism, Inc.” (1938)

Section 1

1. On 901-02 (“It is strange, but nobody…”), how does John Crowe Ransom, writing in 1938, describe the basic task of his own profession of literary criticism? What question is he trying to answer, and from whom, in his view, might we suppose such an answer ought to come? When he says that “Criticism must become more scientific” and that “what we need is Criticism, Inc., or Criticism, Ltd.” (902), how do you understand the connotations and implications of such terms: that is, what effect does the adjective “scientific” seem designed to provoke in readers, and what implications might arise from yoking the word “criticism” to the corporate terms “Incorporated” and “Limited”?

Section 2

2. On 902-04 (“Professor Crane published recently…”), Ransom praises the initiative of Professor Ronald Crane of the University of Chicago in advocating a move away from the longstanding dominance of the historical approach to studying literature; i.e., an approach that treats literary works not as complex pieces of language deserving detailed attention but rather as occasions for recovering the past. By contrast, what weaknesses, in terms of the aims and objects of their scholarship, does Ransom find in New Humanists such as Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More as well as the Marxist critics who (like Crane’s Chicago School at least in this) tried to displace old-fashioned historical scholarship from its entrenched position in English academic circles?

3. On 904-06 (“On the whole, however…”), after evaluating those who have preceded him in opposing purely historical criticism, how does Ransom assess the current (circa 1938) position and self-understanding of even the most impressive English departments at major universities? How does the historical-research-based “old guard” protect itself against newcomers’ incursions into the English departments they control, and how do the members of this old guard conceive of their mission as educators, if it isn’t the study of literature for its aesthetic value? Why, according to Ransom, are English departments controlled by such scholars unable to achieve and maintain institutional autonomy (i.e., a sense that they are a dedicated group of professors engaged in the study of a legitimate field of inquiry, “literature”)?

Section 3

4. On 906 (“Presumably the departments of English…”), Ransom discusses criticism grounded either in public performance of literary masterpieces (as when a professor gives a masterful, sensitive recitation of, say, Book 4 of Milton’s Paradise Lost) or in requiring students to memorize copious passages from great literary works. In so far as these approaches lead students towards enthusiastic “appreciation” of excellent literature, says Ransom, one can respect them; however, with particular regard to the sensitive recitations, how does Ransom convey his pointed critique of them in terms of a “museum” metaphor? In what sense are recitation-happy professors like museum curators, and what does that metaphoric role suggest about what is (or isn’t) being accomplished in the English departments where they preside? What relationship between professors and literature, and between students and literature, does Ransom’s metaphor gesture towards? What kind of being or status does it lead us to attribute to the work of art itself?

5. On 906-08 (“Behind appreciation, which is private…”), Ransom returns to the role of historical research in literary studies. In previous sections, he noted the inadequacy of historical criticism as a method for studying literature. To what extent does he now partially revalidate such criticism, or rather historical research, as an honorable and necessary element in the broader field of literary criticism? That is, what does Ransom suggest is the most authentic and valuable way for historians of literature, along with linguists and perhaps other practitioners in the social sciences, contribute to the endeavor we call “literary criticism”? How might the contemporary theoretical dictum of Fredric Jameson, “Always historicize” (Leitch 1734), aptly be applied to what Ransom is promoting in the 1930s? Finally, how would Ransom’s approach, in his view, help contemporary literature receive more competent and consistent attention from professional critics?

Section 4

6. On 908-09 (“What is criticism? Easier…”), what does Ransom identify as practices that are not properly the work of criticism? What reasons does he give for excluding each? Do you find his statements in this regard persuasive or adequate? Why or why not? (In responding to the latter three questions, cover at least two items and go into some detail on them.)

7. On 908-09 (“What is criticism? Easier…”), wherein Ransom lists those practices he considers inadmissible to the bar of genuine criticism, focus on his rejection of criticism that offers “Personal registrations, which are declarations of the effect of the art work upon the critic as reader” (908). This precept would forbid older-style “impressionist” criticism of the sort practiced by, say, Oxford professor Walter Pater (Leitch 711-19), whose first rule for critics was, “know your impression.” (One might also cite art critic John Ruskin, author of The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters.) Ransom, a formalist like his colleague Cleanth Brooks (Leitch 1179-95) and therefore a believer in the autonomy of literary texts, strongly opposes criticism that refers us back to the critic or that refers us to the public’s feelings in experiencing a given text. (The latter is called “reader response” criticism today; see Wolfgang Iser, Leitch 1450-60.) How does he state his main objections to the impressionist brand of criticism? Do you find his reasoning compelling? Why or why not?

Section 5

8. On 909-10 (“With or without such useful…”), Ransom turns to a consideration of “the critical act itself” (909). On what basis does he criticize the notion he ascribes to Professor Austin Warren that we might simply “let all sorts of studies, including the critical ones, flourish together in the same act of sustained attention…” (909-10)? According to Ransom, what would be the better course of action for English departments to pursue, and why isn’t he worried that this course would result in serious problems regarding its “foundations in scholarship” (910); i.e., its inclusion of necessary background research and understanding? What does he also say about the practice of reviewing books, presumably the sort done by professional reviewers? What should such reviewers keep always in their zone of awareness?

9. On 910-11 (“Studies in the technique of the art…”), Ransom says that “technical studies of poetry” (910) are perhaps the best example in his own day of a criticism that understands what its dedicated aims and objects ought to be. What activities does such a practice, when carried out by “the superior critic” (910), consist in, and towards what fundamental question and insight about the distinctness of poetry from prose does it drive such a critic? In the course of addressing these issues, how does Ransom define poetic style? In what sense does he cast the critic as a defender of what is most worth preserving in human language? That is, even though a critic “has to take the poem apart” (911; one may recall Wordsworth’s trenchant line “We murder to dissect”), what is the integral aim of the respectful, right-minded critic who performs that operation?

10. General question: In his 1938 essay “Criticism, Inc.,” John Crowe Ransom, like his fellow “New Critic” Cleanth Brooks, outlines a formalist theory of literature that posits an autonomous literary object, one that has an integrity and separateness all its own and that isn’t dependent on any outside frame of reference for its meaning. As in the case of Brooks, how do you assess this formalist approach to engaging with literature? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Furthermore, to what extent do you think formalism is still part of the intellectual environment in your own English or other humanities department—for example, are you often asked to engage in “close readings” of poems and works of fiction? Do the professors at your school mostly talk about literature in a rather isolated way, or do they combine the study of literature with other disciplines such as history, psychoanalysis, critical theory, and so forth? Do you prefer a formalist approach, or a more open or combinatory approach? Explain.

11. General question: In his 1938 essay “Criticism, Inc.,” John Crowe Ransom, in criticizing  Austin Warren’s idea that a variety of disciplines and approaches should be simultaneously brought to bear on individual literary texts, briefly touches on an issue of considerable interest today. Fields such as cultural studies, critical race theory, and similar areas of study (generally with the New Historicism as their precursor), bring to bear an at-times bewildering (though exhilarating, in some instances) variety of approaches and fields of inquiry to bear upon literary texts, often in ways that deliver sensitive literary-style analysis of language and literary properties, so-called, of the text under examination. What do you suppose John Crowe Ransom would say about “cultural studies” inquiries into literary texts? Would he most likely accept them as fully legitimate, or would he disagree with them? Why do you think he would respond in the manner you specify?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake