In his otherwise excellent column “The Illusions of Democracy” (Perspective, January 1996), Thomas Fleming writes: “We, however, send our children to a school where they are taught theories of English grammar, theories of literary interpretation (New Criticism, Reader Response, feminist interpretation—it is all the same) and scientific theories they will never understand, much less apply.” I have taught in both high schools and universities (why dignify them by use of the upper case?) and would (I think) consider this pessimistic view unfair or at least overdone. I restrict myself to one point, however: Does Dr. Fleming really consider New Criticism no different from feminist interpretation? Does he consider, for example, John Crowe Ransom’s essay on “Lycidas” the equivalent of Eve Sedgwick’s “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl?” Are the essays of Robert Penn Warren, John Hollander, or Christopher Ricks on a par with the garbage published in the MLA quarterly, which I use to line my cats’ litter box? Dr. Fleming’s condemnation is too sweeping. I hope he will reconsider.
Dr. Fleming Replies:
I am grateful to Mr. Alpert for his polite response, but I am sticking to my guns. Obviously, the various schools of criticism have different levels of mischief. Ransom and Warren both wrote good poetry which display the essential soundness of their literary instincts, but in their criticism all the New Critics, even the most brilliant and learned, were perpetrating the same sort of fraudulent theoretical exercises as the structural linguists and anthropologists who were their contemporaries.
Literature needs to be read, not interpreted, and hermeneutics should be restricted to sacred texts. As a would-be poet and student of Greek, I found the New Critics stultifying. The literary criticism practiced by my English professors filled me with horror. It was as if ghouls had disinterred Elizabeth Siddal not to retrieve Rossetti’s poems but to paw over her corpse. To escape the depredations of the critics, I fled into pedantry and have remained there ever since.