Literary and Critical Theory John Crowe Ransom
Kieran Quinlan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0070


John Crowe Ransom (b. 30 April 1888–d. 3 July 1974) was an American poet, Southern Agrarian, literary critic, and editor of the Kenyon Review, arguably the most influential “little magazine” of the mid-20th century. Educated at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Ransom began writing poetry as a member of the Fugitive group that included Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren and had its own short-lived magazine in the early 1920s. Most of the poems on which his reputation rests—often on love or death, never long, sometimes quirky, and with intermittent archaic wording—are to be found in Chills and Fever (1924) and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927). Ransom won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1951 and the National Book Award for his Selected Poems in 1964. Following their Fugitive period, Ransom and his associates moved on to become Agrarians, arguing in their 1930 I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition that the South’s distinctive characteristic was its agrarian culture, separating it from both the capitalist industrial North and Soviet Communism. As an English professor at Vanderbilt where historical studies of literary texts took precedence, Ransom argued and eventually won the cause of the literary critic, a victory that over time changed the hierarchies in the profession at large. The text itself, its structures and images and their complex interrelationship, was what was most important. His 1941 volume of theoretical essays, The New Criticism, made Ransom the quasi founding father—there were many others—of a movement that would dominate the academy for the next three decades. Always fascinated by, but wary of, the sciences as their place within the university increased exponentially, Ransom sought over and over to define the kind of supplementary but equally essential knowledge that poetry offered. As founding editor of the Kenyon Review in 1939 and director of the Kenyon School of English, Ransom exercised enormous influence on both the teaching of literature at American colleges and universities, and on several emerging poets and novelists, most notably Robert Lowell. By the mid-1960s, however, many of Ransom’s critical and social positions had come under challenge, as has his status as a “major minor poet” in several recent critiques. Nevertheless, current studies are also finding overlooked fissures in his poems, and, in the age of digitized textuality, fresh inspiration in his Agrarian and New Critical forays.

General Overview

Ransom’s creative and academic --careers fall neatly into two phases—the first at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee (1919–1937), the second at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio (1937–1969); both of these phases themselves split rather neatly again in two: that at Vanderbilt into his poetic (as a member of the Fugitive group) and Agrarian pursuits, respectively; the Kenyon phase into his New Critic and journal-editing activities. There are two important consequences: (1) Apart from Young 1976 (cited under Biography), there is no comprehensive study of all phases of Ransom’s career, though there are numerous accounts of one or more of them, even if most of his late essays go relatively unexamined; (2) most of the book-length studies of Ransom tend to include the other Fugitives and the other Agrarians; the same is true for his involvement in the New Criticism. Hence the annotations here take these circumstances into account in dealing with the more comprehensive studies. Also included are chapters and sections of books that deal significantly, if briefly, with Ransom’s entire career. Overall, Ransom published about 150 poems and roughly the same number of essays and articles; about a dozen of his poems and an equal number of his essays have continued to attract scholarly attention and sometimes unexpectedly diverse interpretations. Cowan 1959 is essential reading on the Fugitives’ inauspicious beginnings in Nashville, their transition from discussing philosophical matters to writing and workshopping their poetry, and some of their early intellectual differences before they moved on to their Agrarian phase; Parsons 1969 (cited under Commentary on Poetry), is confined to opinionated studies of Ransom’s poems ; Rubin 1978 offers a short overview of Ransom as Fugitive, Agrarian, religious thinker, and critic; Quinlan 2015 is an introduction to the three main Fugitives, Agrarians, and New Critics; Vendler 2016 re-evaluates Ransom’s achievements while finding fault with his understanding of irony and use of lyric; the selection of essays in Young 1968 covers all phases of Ransom’s career from a fairly traditional viewpoint.

  • Cowan, Louise. The Fugitive Group: A Literary History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

    The focus here is decidedly on the Fugitives as a group, but the study does consider the individual participants, with a traditional Ransom as leader and a modernist Allen Tate (formerly Ransom’s student) as his admiring but contentious nemesis. Comprehensive up to 1928. Essential reading.

  • Quinlan, Kieran. “Tracking the Fugitive Poets.” In The Cambridge Companion to Modern American Poetry. Edited by Walter Kalaidjian, 116–127. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    Overview of the Fugitives and Agrarians aimed at undergraduate and graduate students. Focus is on a handful of poems from Ransom, Tate, and Warren and an assessment of the current status of their respective legacies. Includes basic commentary on Ransom’s criticism.

  • Rubin, Louis D. The Wary Fugitives: Four Poets and the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

    A very readable account by one of the most prolific scholars of Southern literature in the second half of the 20th century. Ransom is considered on pp. 1–62 in a chapter that covers his career as poet but also delves into God without Thunder (Ransom 1930, cited under Prose), his Agrarian phase, and his theoretical claims; offers close readings of a few of Ransom’s most important poems.

  • Vendler, Helen. “Poet of the Violent and the Chaste.” New York Review of Books 63.7 (2016): 44–46.

    Essay-review of the Collected Poems (Ransom 2015, cited under Poetry) edited by Mazer; revisits Ransom’s entire opus to determine his current status. Ransom’s essays praised for their wit and readability, the Kenyon Review for its unparalleled influence, the original New Critics for starting out as well-informed poets concerned with the labor and constraints of composition, rather than ignorers of history; however, many of Ransom’s poems expose “damaging weaknesses” (p. 44).

  • Young, Thomas Daniel, ed. John Crowe Ransom: Critical Essays and a Bibliography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.

    Convenient overview that with its introduction and sixteen essays covers all phases of Ransom’s career as it was seen in the late 1960s. Notable contributions include Robert Penn Warren on irony, Randall Jarrell on Ransom’s best poems, Vivienne Koch on his use of archaic language, Karl F. Knight on symbol, Graham Hough on Ransom as poet and critic, and F. P. Jarvis on the influence of F. H. Bradley’s philosophy.

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