The Argument of Reading

  • David Bartholomae


It is almost impossible to find a recent account of English (or English as a school subject) that does not begin with a reference to the problem of the new criticism and its legacy in the American classroom. The new criticism is everywhere, we are told; its hold on practice seems firm in spite of the ways its key texts and key figures have been routed by recent developments in theory and critical practice. Here, for example, is Frank Lentricchia (in “Someone Reading”) on the new criticism:

The American New Criticism, the critical movement which made formalism famous in this country, and whose death has been periodically announced ever since the late 1950s, remains in force as the basis (what goes without saying) of undergraduate literary pedagogy, so that, having passed into the realm of common sense, the ideological effect of the New Criticism in the United States is to sustain, under conditions of mass higher education, the romantic cult of genius by dispossessing younger readers of their active participation in the shaping of a culture and a society “of and for the people” — by stripping those readers of their right to think of themselves as culturally central storytellers: an extraordinary irony for a critical method whose initial effect was entirely democratic — to make the reading of classics available to all, even to those of us whose early cultural formation did not equip us to read Shakespeare and Milton, but a predictable irony, in retrospect, when we remember that new critical formalist reading at the same time defined and valued itself as secondary reading of explication. So while the New Criticism taught us to read, it simultaneously taught us how to subordinate our reading powers and humble ourselves before the “creative” authority of superior primary writing. (323–34)


English Study Close Reading Literary Practice Undergraduate Curriculum Student Writing 
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Copyright information

© Bedford/St. Martin’s 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Bartholomae
    • 1
  1. 1.University of PittsburghUSA

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