Early twentieth-century approaches to literature

Reading for Character: the early twentieth century

Before the study of English literature was really established, conveying a sense of the characters and the moral world a writer created was a frequent critical approach. For example, in the early twentieth century George L. Kittredge presented Chaucer as a brilliant painter of personalities. According to this approach:

  • The Links, the prologues and the frame-story - the chattering Canterbury Pilgrims - is the really important book. The stories which the pilgrims tell are better seen as speeches in which each pilgrim reveals his or her personality
  • The Pardoner, sunk in sin and exploitation of others, is seen as the one really lost soul among the pilgrims
  • Chaucer's intention is not concerned with reforming abuses in the Church, nor was Chaucer a satirist: ‘His aim is . . . ‘‘to depict certain characters'', and to let them tell stories'

Kittredge writes as if there are real people, behind the words on the page.

Today, such a way of talking about a literary text seems extraordinary. However, it reflects the heritage of the great Victorian realist novelists, in which creating the impression of ‘rounded' personalities seemed one of the highest achievements which a literary artist could attain.

See George L. Kittredge, ‘Chaucer's Pardoner', reprinted in Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Edward Wagenknecht (Oxford, 1959), 117-25.

Critical reading / practical criticism

The skills of analysing how a piece of literature works were first set out as a coherent way of studying by I.A. Richards, early in the twentieth century. He called this type of careful analysis of structure, wording, imagery, etc. practical criticism.

More on the background to practical criticism:

I.A. Richards developed his technique in reaction to the way in which people discussed literature after the nineteenth century:

  • Rather vaguely and generally, in terms of how it exemplified its period, certain ideas, or the language of its time
  • Just to praise its beauty, moral power or its lifelikeness, without studying how effects are created. 

He insisted that artistry itself could be subjected to rigorous analysis and would yield important insights into what the text was and into its significance.

Since then the study of literature has always made practical criticism or ‘close reading' —   careful analysis of devices in the text — the absolute centre and basis of all critical judgements. Richards' approach may not be followed completely (he thought students should study texts without knowing  their date or author, for one thing) but the principle has continued.

Leavisites and ‘New Critics'

Richards' approach underlies two extremely influential mid-twentieth century critical movements:

  • The so-called New Criticism of the USA
    More on the 'New Criticism' of the USA: Something that tended to get thrown out of the study of literature after I.A. Richards' ‘practical criticism' revolution was the historical aspect of texts and that also applies to the New Criticism which followed its lead in the mid twentieth century..     
  • Leavisite criticism in Britain and Australia
    More on Leavisite criticism in Britain and Australia: named after F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, Leavisite criticism paid more attention to historical factors, though its focus tends to be moral — finding universal, eternal, values in good writing — rather than being concerned with seeing experience as historically situated.

Between 1900 and the 1960s, literary scholars and critics often presented historical context as merely ‘background' to authors, literary movements and styles (though it might affect the text's content, language or style). In other words, they regarded literature as an independent artistic entity, rather than as being intrinsically affected by its period.

Leavisite approaches

The English husband-and-wife pair of teachers and critics of literature, F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, were among the most influential critics of the twentieth century. Characteristics of Leavisite criticism include the following:

  • Focus on the qualities of the writing, especially those which seemed to convey human experiences profoundly, vividly and truthfully
  • Interest in types of Englishness in literature. This often took the form of looking for ‘folk' elements and stressing the heritage of specifically English writing, such as medieval romances, that lay behind (for example) Chaucer's achievement
  • Being mindful of the native, even homely, culture of the bygone period, even though the importance of foreign authors, genres and styles was acknowledged
  • Foregrounding narrative, especially the novel
  • Leavisite criticism of Chaucer therefore tends to see him as a forerunner of the great novelists: a writer who can convey the inner depths of humans' moral consciousness and sensitivity in apprehending the world
  • A general opposition to the tendency in the early twentieth century to make philology (the study of the history of the English language) central to the study of English literature in colleges and universities.

Examples of Leavis-influenced critical approaches include the well-known Age of Chaucer anthology of critical essays, edited by Boris Ford and published by Penguin in the mid- twentieth century Penguin Guide to English Literature series. John Spiers was another Leavis-influenced critic of medieval literature

The commentary throughout this guide, and the investigative questions, help students get to grips with this style of criticism. It also helps to be aware of:

‘New Criticism'

Characteristics of the American ‘New Criticism' of the early and mid twentieth century include the following:

  • Treating a work of literature as if it were a self-contained set of literary devices which needs close reading
  • Cherished ways in which a text can display ironies, and multiple simultaneous or ambiguous meanings (a central feature, of course, of Chaucer's writing)
  • Generally ignoring the author's context, or historical and cultural contexts.

‘New Criticism' (now of course very old) worked well with many kinds of literature and its eye for irony and ambiguities suits Chaucer's characteristic ways of writing and presenting life. However, its lack of interest in historical perspectives makes it less significant as a critical approach to Chaucer.

Princeton / Exegetical criticism

An American critical approach, developed at Princeton University in the 1960s, had a distinctive approach:

  • All medieval literature is created to teach Christian and moral truths
  • Texts which do not obviously do this need often to be read as allegories and also as being ironical. 

The approach rightly asserted the importance of centuries of Christian ideas about literature for the criticism of medieval literature. However, its readings of actual passages and texts often prove reductionist and unconvincing.

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