In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cleanth Brooks

  • Introduction
  • Critical Histories, Histories of Criticism
  • Anthologies, Synoptic Surveys of Criticism and Theory, Intellectual Contexts
  • Modernism and “The Chaos of Critical Theories”
  • The New Critical Decades, 1940–1970
  • Tradition and Thematic Theory
  • Theory and Other Disciplines
  • Discouragement, Desperate Projects, and Revaluations

Literary and Critical Theory Cleanth Brooks
Leroy Searle
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0112


Cleanth Brooks (b. 1906–d. 1994), after T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards, was arguably among the most influential modern literary critics. He is commonly identified as the representative American “New Critic,” who was subject accordingly both to high praise and to relentless attack through nearly seven decades. The son of a Methodist minister, Brooks studied at Vanderbilt, Tulane, and Oxford, having close and lasting associations with Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom, subsequently accepting faculty positions at LSU and Yale. He presents, in this regard, a unique problem: critical appraisals of his work are commonly embedded in arguments over New Criticism as if it were a coherent “movement”—a point of view Brooks resisted consistently, but with civilized skepticism. Brooks had no explicit ambitions of being a system-building theorist, nor any eagerness to adopt or take up theoretical enterprises advanced by others also identified as “New Critics.” In this tendency he was prescient: virtually all explicit New Critical theoretical claims have proved to be unsustainable or seriously controversial (Cf. Searle 2005 and Schryer 2012 [both cited under Critical Background and Summaries]). Mentions of Brooks are abundant, but focused studies of his writing are surprisingly rare. His frequent complaints that his positions had been misrepresented had the ironic consequence that he appeared to be the de facto defender of New Criticism, because he replied to complaints in detail. Brooks as a colleague (see especially Grimshaw 1998 [cited under Critical Background and Summaries]) was most effective in shaping university literature programs and modeling critical practices, affecting almost all areas of professional disciplinary concern. Brooks was intent on the teaching of literature “as literature,” refining strategies of “close reading” through publications of textbooks, essays, literary history, studies of major authors, and textual scholarship and lectures, always accompanied by professional and public service, as part of the rise of “New Criticism” to dominance, but also grounding English departments as central to humanities education. The complication is Brooks’s ambivalence as to whether comprehensive theoretical systems, including proposals by other New Critics, were compatible with the reflective nature of literature itself. After the 1970s, the fracturing of the loose professional and disciplinary consensus that New Criticism had come to represent, and the crisis-laden proliferation of “newer” approaches and theories supplementing, supplanting, or replacing New Criticism, severely complicated inherited or traditional views of what “theory” in criticism should be, driven in part by the impetus of progress. The vitality and endurance of Brooks’s career—and the theoretical ambiguity of “New Criticism”—lies in his conviction that literature was an essentially civilizing and moral force, dependent less on doctrine than imaginative discovery through reflective engagement with literature.

Overviews and General References

Brooks’s career spans most of the 20th century, from early generations of “modernist” writers, in an era of war, revolutionary scientific, and philosophical developments, and major expansion in the US university education system, extending through the recovery from the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean conflict, and the era of civil rights legislation and Vietnam. Within the framework of modern criticism, his career may appear deceptively undramatic and continuous, but it is unquestionably central to the growth of college English departments and the institutionalization of literary curricula. A central difficulty is that no single description serves to identify Brooks’s professional “field”: in virtually all aspects of English studies he established a visible and distinguished reputation, with exemplary work in pedagogy, criticism, literary history and theory, textual editing, language studies, rhetoric and composition as well as editorial positions with major journals, national literatures (English, Irish, American) and specific periods and regions (Renaissance, 17th century, metaphysical poetry, romanticism, modernism, Southern American literature), with work in all major literary genres. Walsh 1990 (cited under Bibliographies, Biographies, and Interviews) is the most extensive bibliography, though examples of Brooks’s writing are widespread beyond that date. Winchell 1996 (cited under Bibliographies, Biographies, and Interviews) requires supplementation to present professional elements of Brooks’s biography more fully, presently accessible through interviews, letters, and topical collections. Brooks was a tireless correspondent, just as he was remarkably generous in accepting invitations to speak or contribute to special editions or volumes. These collections, while varied, are essential resources. Warren 1976 (cited under Bibliographies, Biographies, and Interviews) provides an irreplaceable record of conversations between Warren and Brooks. Leggett 1979 (cited under Bibliographies, Biographies, and Interviews) offers an unusual and very valuable interview of a dialectical kind, with sharp exchanges on issues of controversy. Simpson 1995 (cited under Bibliographies, Biographies, and Interviews) offers a unique perspective on Brooks’s involvement with the Fugitives movement, while Spurlin 1995 (cited under Bibliographies, Biographies, and Interviews) is especially valuable for views of later theorists concerning the New Critics. It requires special mention of the importance of collections of letters to perceive the scope and consistency of Brooks’s communications with his colleagues. Grimshaw 1998 (cited under Critical Background and Summaries) provides a superbly edited collection of the correspondence of Brooks and Warren, and Vinh 1998 includes all known letters between Brooks and Tate. In both cases, these are conversations of remarkable energy and insight. Among collections of essays and recollections, Simpson 1976 (cited under Bibliographies, Biographies, and Interviews) is the most comprehensive and focused. Critical studies and histories typically treat Brooks almost exclusively (frequently misleadingly) in relation to New Criticism. Krieger 1956 (cited under Writing about Poetry: Grounding Practical Criticism) is still the most comprehensive critical treatment, but see Graff 1987 and Leitch 1988 (both cited under Critical Histories, Histories of Criticism). Encyclopedia treatments are contextually useful: Searle 2005 and Schryer 2012 (both cited under Critical Background and Summaries). Specific histories of criticism constitute a large and growing body of work, frequently rather narrowly focused on particular themes, trends, or “approaches,” while more general histories of criticism and comprehensive critical anthologies offer broader historical perspectives. Histories of both kinds will be separately considered in later sections. Controversies targeting Brooks have been extremely plentiful, since as noted (Leggett 1979) as being taken as the representative of New Criticism, he was therefore often the occasion for attacks on “New Criticism”—Brooks notes in detail that they were diverse, theoretically inconsistent, and somewhat scattered—making many complaints presumptive evidence of misunderstanding or ignorance of what Brooks actually wrote. Without Brooks, neither mid-20th-century criticism nor the development of subsequent professional literary study could be adequately understood or fairly evaluated.

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