Literary and Critical Theory Louise Rosenblatt
John R. Shook
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0077


Louise Rosenblatt (b. 1904–d. 2005) was a highly influential thinker in literary and critical theory, reading pedagogy, and education. She was professor of education at New York University from 1948 until 1972, and she continued to teach for many years at other universities. The impact of her writings extends to aesthetics, communication and media studies, and cultural studies. Her transactional theory of reading literature earned a permanent place among methodologies applied to the study of reader comprehension and improving the teaching of reading, from preschool to college-age years. She is most widely known for her “reader response” theory of literature. The process of reading is a dynamic transaction between the reader and the text, in which meaningful ideas arise for readers from their own thoughtful and creative interpretations. Her first book, Literature as Exploration, which was published in 1938, has gone through five editions and remains in print in the early 21st century. Her last book, Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays, was published in 2005 and contained selected essays from each decade of her career. Rosenblatt’s view of literary experience threw down a challenge to a dominant paradigm during the 1940s and 1950s, namely the New Criticism. New Criticism held that authentic meanings of a piece of creative writing—a novel, story, drama, poem, and so on—are already within the text itself, requiring attention to that somewhat concealed yet objective truth. Rosenblatt took the pragmatist approach, starting from the aesthetics of reading. As a member of the Conference on Methods in Philosophy and the Sciences at Columbia University during the 1930s, she studied John Dewey, Charles Peirce, and William James. During this time, she married the pragmatist philosopher Sidney Ratner. Rosenblatt applied her knowledge of pragmatism to the question of understanding creative writing. For pragmatism, all experiences are creative fusions of intersecting processes, some from within and some from without. Any comprehension of a text blends the reader’s particular approach for appreciating it together with the capacity of the text to provoke a variety of stimulating ideas. The emotional and the factual are rarely found in pure forms; only a gradual range from the affective to the cognitive can characterize lived experience. Understanding the process of reading in its fundamental experiential situation has been a revolutionary philosophical position, impacting both childhood education and literary theory. Rosenblatt’s work continues to inspire fresh academic research and curricular innovations.

Major Writings

Rosenblatt’s central text is Literature as Exploration (1938), which went through five editions and remains in print. Her other widely studied work is The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978). Many of her impactful articles were gathered in Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays (2005). The Louise Rosenblatt Papers (1904–2005) are held at the Southern Illinois University Special Collections in Carbondale, Illinois.

  • Rosenblatt, Louise. Literature as Exploration. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1938.

    Rosenblatt’s primary work about her reader response theory, her methods of reading pedagogy, and her views on literary theory in general. The fifth edition (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1995) includes her “Retrospect and Prospect” chapter.

  • Rosenblatt, Louise. “Toward a Cultural Approach to Literature.” College English 7.8 (1946): 459–466.

    Her comparative approach to world literature offers a culturally sensitive method that elevates our conscientiousness toward other ways of life. That sensitivity promotes the growth of toleration and thoughtfulness, and those capacities in turn promote democratic values.

  • Rosenblatt, Louise. “The Acid Test for Literature Teaching.” English Journal 45.2 (1956): 66–74.

    Discussing literature with students allows them to personally relate to their reading. Imposing standardized interpretations only obstructs an authentic and meaningful experience of a text by each person.

  • Rosenblatt, Louise. “Literature: The Reader’s Role.” English Journal 49.5 (May 1960): 304–310, 315–316.

    Teachers must balance the willing engagement of student readers with the need to read important works of literature as well as popular contemporary texts. Reading for lifelong development is the point of education. How a piece of literature can be appreciated by a reader will change over one’s lifetime, which is to be expected.

  • Rosenblatt, Louise. “Toward a Transactional Theory of Reading.” Journal of Reading Behavior 1.1 (1969): 31–51.

    Rosenblatt elaborates and defends the transactional view of meaningfully aesthetic experiences. This view illuminates how her reader response theory evaluates various ways to read literature.

  • Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

    Rosenblatt applies her reader response theory to the experience of poetry, as an illustration of the transactional approach to literary works of art. The poem as read, like a piece of music as played, is an event incorporating the performer’s own characteristics and abilities. The quest for “the poem itself” is a chase after a false objectivity, and the evaluation and criticism of a poem must avoid reducing the role of the reader.

  • Rosenblatt, Louise. “The Literary Transaction: Evocation and Response.” Theory into Practice 21.4 (1982): 268–277.

    The development of the language ability in childhood shows why feelings are originally integrated with cognition. In maturity, efferent and aesthetic readings can diverge because the efferent gets oriented toward the social context. Teachers of literature should promote the primacy of aesthetic readings.

  • Rosenblatt, Louise. “Language, Literature, and Values.” In Language, Schooling, and Society. Edited by S. N. Tchudi, 64–80. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook, 1985a.

    The perspective on literary studies taken by Rosenblatt through the transactional theory of experience shows how personal and prosocial values are promoted in the process.

  • Rosenblatt, Louise. “Transaction versus Interaction: A Terminological Rescue Operation.” Research in the Teaching of English 19.1 (1985b): 96–107.

    The transactional view of experience cannot recognize any criteria for deciding how a text is objectively literary, independent from aesthetic features of a reader’s response. Depicting reading as a mere interaction between separate matters is insufficient. Only each reader’s engagement could determine whether a text is literature.

  • Rosenblatt, Louise. Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005.

    A new preface (“To My Readers”) and “Theory and Practice: An Interview with Louise Rosenblatt” start this collection. Prominent chapters are: “The Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing,” “Viewpoints: Transaction versus Interaction: A Terminological Rescue Operation,” “Toward a Cultural Approach to Literature,” “The Acid Test for Literature Teaching,” “The Literary Transaction: Evocation and Response,” “Literature—SOS!,” and “What Facts Does This Poem Teach You?”

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