Image of U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren

Image of U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The field of English is in shambles, and the Modern Language Association is a gaggle of voices for various interest groups based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Dissertations in English appeal to Derrida and Foucault long after they became passe in France. A presentation on any topic by any writer at a conference sponsored by a college or university English Department that does not mention the four “code words” listed above will be considered quaint and out of date by most of the audience. Much of the radicalism in academia stems from English Departments (although other departments can be guilty as well–philosophy, with its analytic bent, may be narrow in methodology, but at least it eschews the relativism of many people who call themselves “postmodern”). Although many English professors are old-fashioned social democrats who are liberals, not radicals, the radicals have a missionary-like zeal in pushing their agenda. This agenda is anti-Western Culture, anti-traditional Christianity (and Muslims take note–if Christianity were to falter in the West, Islam would be the next target of the radicals, who are engaged in a “divide and conquer” strategy now). When radicals take over, ideological diversity dies, and the departments become as one-sided, closed-minded, Puritanical, and bigoted as religious Fundamentalists.

I long for the days of John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and T. S. Eliot. They may have failed to give psychological and sociological factors sufficient treatment in literary criticism, but their focus on a close reading of the text is surely a better approach than seeking the alleged hidden motivations of the authors. From the New Critics I have read, I see no evidence that they denied the existence of polysemy, but they limited their discussion of polysemy to what was suggested by the text and various historical and mythological allusions found in the text. Postmodern criticisms of the New Critics seemed to confuse the New Critics with European Structuralists–Structuralism was more narrow in approach than the New Criticism, must more Platonic than Aristotelian in approach, much more abstract than concrete. Structuralism deserved the scathing critique of Derrida. The New Criticism was a horse of a different color.

With the emphasis on “newness” in academia, the decline in the New Criticism had to be replaced with something, and that something included Marxist, feminist, womanist, African-American, and queer approaches to literature. Some approaches (such as Marxism) were not necessarily subjective, but the other approaches I listed are largely subjective. Since the advocates of radical theories consider themselves social reformers, including reformers of the academy, they push their agenda like a Fundamentalist preacher pushes being saved from hell fire. The resulting cultural rot spreads to other humanities departments, to the extent that it is difficult to blame students who do not want to major or minor in the humanities. Frankly, I cannot blame them–the New Criticism probably offered more that is relevant to their lives–Shakespeare’s plays concern the universal human experience of revenge, pain, suffering, and happiness. The New Critics could at least point out where the text does relate to students’ lives. Poststructuralists focus so much on polysemy and a political reading of the text that students walk away in disgust. They should be disgusted. Let’s bring out some “New New Critics” to restore intellectual coherence and sanity to English Departments.