Understanding Criticism: An Institutional Ecology of USAmerican Literary Criticism
Hines, Andrew Joseph
"Understanding Criticism" argues that the dominant narrative of the disciplinary history of literary studies has thwarted an analysis of the entanglement of anti-blackness and literary criticism. In the 1940s and 1950s, the New Critics defined literary criticism and its history as an ongoing progression of critical theories. In doing so, however, the New Critics created a disciplinary object that covered over the relationship of theory to material, social, and institutional practices. As such, it became difficult to evaluate and to track modes of literary critical activity that neither hewed to this narrative, nor manifested in the institutionally endorsed forms of literary theory. In recovering this narrative with methods informed by science studies, ecocriticism, and critical university studies, "Understanding Criticism" illustrates how our sense of the history of literary criticism has been narrowed by the New Critical narrative of disciplinary development and, in particular, how that narrative has concealed practices of literary criticism employed by black intellectuals in the mid-century. By recognizing criticism that did not rely on the cultural capital levied upon institutionally endorsed methods of literary reading, "Understanding Criticism" highlights writers that are not normally associated with the history of literary theory. This dissertation puts Melvin B. Tolson, Langston Hughes, Parker Tyler, and Ann Petry into conversation with those who have long been understood to have a pivotal role in formulating literary criticism, such as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren. This broader network of critics and critical practices delivers access to an expanded archive of approaches to the interpretation of literature. Ultimately, to apprehend criticism from the interdisciplinary perspective of ecology means to redefine the discipline with renewed attention to activity and unlikely collaboration across social spheres.
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