Too Good to Be True: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler

By Mark Royden Winchell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
A Newer Criticism

WHEN LESLIE Fiedler began making a name for himself as a literary critic, the dominant approach to reading fiction and poetry (and, to a lesser extent, drama) was a version of aesthetic formalism associated in the public mind with John Crowe Ransom and the Kenyon Review. The term New Criticism (with its built-in obsolescence) was inadvertently coined by Ransom when he used it as the title of a book he published in 1941. Although he might just as well have called the book “Some Recent Trends in Criticism, ” because the figures he discussed were espousing different critical methods, the term New Criticism stuck and has since become a fixture in the literary history of the twentieth century.

While encouraging the search for new exegetical techniques, the first generation of New Critics was generally undogmatic about the ways in which one might read the difficult texts of modernism. Unfortunately, a later generation threatened to turn what had once been an innovative approach to reading into a stale orthodoxy. As Christopher Clausen has noted: “A bright student who knew little history, no philosophy, and no foreign languages could learn to analyze literary structures in terms of a small number of technical concepts. After that, nothing more was needed than a good anthology ... , a supply of paperbacks, and perhaps, for the adventurous, a subscription to the Kenyon Review.1.

It would be wrong to link Leslie with this lockstep formalism simply because of his relationship with Ransom and his journal. Although Ransom is popularly regarded as the godfather of the American version of New Criticism and his magazine as its unofficial house organ, the truth is actually more complicated. The Kenyon Review, like the original series of the Southern Review before it, was a remarkably eclectic journal, equally hospitable to contributions

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1.
Christopher Clausen, “Reading Closely Again, ” 55.

-78-

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