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Heilman of Letters

Teacher first, critic second, guardian of values.

Mar 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 24 • By JAMES SEATON
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Heilman of Letters

Robert B. Heilman

His Life in Letters
edited by Edward Alexander, Richard J. Dunn, and Paul Jaussen
University of Washington,
808 pp., $60


The New Criticism of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, first gained national attention in the 1940s, though the criticism of precursors like I. A. Richards and T. S. Eliot had been appearing since the ’20s. Brooks’s Modern Poetry and the Tradition came out in 1939, and Ransom published The New Criticism in 1941. Probably most influential in spreading the New Criticism to classrooms throughout the United States were the “Understanding” anthologies: Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry (1938), Understanding Fiction (1943), and Understanding Drama, edited by Brooks and Robert Heilman (1948). 

A large part of the success of the New Criticism derived from its demonstration that literary criticism could be an academic discipline. The older emphasis on bibliographical and historical studies provided little or no guidance in distinguishing good poetry from bad other than personal taste or sensibility, qualities that could not be taught. Judgments about poetry and literature were ultimately inexplicable; you either got it or you didn’t. There was a general feeling in English departments that people from non-English-speaking countries, and Jews from anywhere, couldn’t get it. It therefore followed that aspirants for teaching positions from such groups, no matter how intelligent they might seem, were not really qualified to teach in prestigious departments of English. (It took the personal intervention of President Nicholas Murray Butler to get Lionel Trilling on the tenure track at Columbia.) 

The New Criticism changed all that by demonstrating that the literary quality of poems and stories could be analyzed, discussed, and demonstrated by close reading and analysis of the text. Almost anybody willing to make the effort could come to understand how a poem or a short story worked. Poetic greatness was no longer something mysterious, capable of being grasped only by those with the right blood or proper cultural heritage. It was open to inspection, analysis, and debate. Criticism was not merely arbitrary impressionism but a discipline that could be taught.

Although its effect in the classroom was to open up the study of literature to all those willing and able to make the requisite effort, the New Criticism was condemned in the 1960s as politically reactionary. The new critical emphasis on irony, ambiguity, and paradox did, indeed, cast suspicion on poems and stories whose literary rank derived less from literary merit than from the affirmation of an unironic, easy-to-understand political message confirming the politics of those doing the ranking. 

Not that the new critics were alone in this suspicion. Lionel Trilling had argued in The Liberal Imagination that the novels of writers like Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck were ranked far above their literary deserts only because their messages affirmed the progressive worldview. But at least Trilling was himself a liberal, if a contrarian one, and a New Yorker. Some of the original New Critics, on the other hand, were Southerners, and at least three of the major figures (Ransom, Warren, and Tate) were on record supporting the culture of the South against the North in I’ll Take My Stand (1930), an anthology that both criticized the industrial North along lines that would later be taken up by environmental critics usually associated with the far left, and defended segregation as part of the Southern way of life. It was all too easy to move from justified opposition to the racism expressed in I’ll Take My Stand to an unjustified attack on the New Criticism’s focus on “the text itself” as somehow implicitly racist.

Not all the new critics were Southerners, of course. Robert Heilman coedited Understanding Drama with Cleanth Brooks and wrote the first new critical studies of Shakespeare, including book-length analyses of Othello and King Lear. Heilman was of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry, earned a doctorate at Harvard, and lived in Seattle from 1948 until his death at 98 in 2004. He did spend 12 years (1935-48) at Louisiana State, where he found Brooks and Warren already beginning their collaboration on the series of textbooks that included Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction. 

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