The Assault on Prose: John Crowe Ransom, New Criticism, and the Status of the Essay
What follows is a little bit of literary history that grew directly out of my curiosity as to why the traditional or familiar essay went into decline for so many decades of the twentieth century. I see the rise of the “New Criticism” in the 1930s as a major contributor to the essay’s diminished literary status. One enduring effect of that critical movement was its relegation of the essay to a minor or even sub-literary genre, a relegation that led to the genre’s rapid disappearance from serious literary study. This attitude in large part developed out of John Crowe Ransom’s assimilation of Paul Valery’s aesthetic principles, which argued for the inherent primacy of poetry over prose. These principles-- reinforced by the work of a Chicago semiotician, Charles W. Morris—are central to Ransom’s enormously influential criticism that, as I try to set out in a small space here, would shape the study of literature for many years and, in some ways, despite formidable theoretical rivals, still shapes it.
I believe the essay is currently experiencing a revival—at least editors and publishers no longer seem afraid of the E-word, as they did when I first proposed an annual series of essays back in the early 1980s. (“Isn’t there another word we can use?” my editor asked). But when it comes to the promotion and marketing of literary works, and book review attention, essays can’t compete with fiction. And when it comes to literary status, essays can’t compete with poetry. How many essayists do you think are short (or even long) listed for the Nobel Prize? And when it comes to literary theory, essays have none that I know of aside from studies that are mainly rhetorical. Yet, as I suggest below the long association of the essay with rhetoric has prevented the genre from being wholeheartedly classified as literature.
So, essayists, though their tribe may be increasing, will still, in my opinion, be denied the awards and attention a novelist receives, will be less esteemed creatively as are poets, and will continue to be read without a coherent criticism that would enhance their literary achievements. But perhaps that’s what makes essayists essayists.
When I decided back in the early 1980s that an annual collection of outstanding essays seemed like a good idea, I was surprised by the negative responses I received from the publishers I approached. Some were put off by the E-word and its marketability while others doubted essays had serious literary value or, if they did, that not enough of them were published in a year to form a collection. Finding a publisher for the series was largely an uphill climb.
I began to wonder about the resistance I encountered. My interest for years had been to advance the essay as a literary genre but here were many editors afraid to use the word “essay” in a title. One literary magazine editor wrote me to say that no one ever submitted personal essays to his journal. His larger point was that essays were written about literature—they weren’t in themselves literature.
At the time I realized that essayists—and by that term I mean writers who regularly compose personal, familiar, or reflective essays—knew they worked in an underappreciated genre. Just a few years before I proposed an annual series, E. B. White (in 1977) famously lamented in a preface to a collection of essays that he was not “fooled about the place of the essay in twentieth century American letters.” “The essayist,” White continued, “unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen.” I wondered how this situation had come about.
As I studied the twentieth-century essay, I began to think that its marginalized literary status could be connected to its place in the university writing program. Although well-known to a reading public, E. B. White may never have realized it, but his work was—and perhaps still is—read and admired at the university level only in composition courses. For at the time, well before the growing popularity of MFA programs, such courses were with few exceptions the only places where essays were assigned, studied, discussed, and imitated.
Was the essay tossed out of the literature curriculum as a bone for composition teachers? Was the essay identified as some sort of literary degenerate to be sentenced and exiled to an academic Gulag? Did literary studies deliberately and systematically “purify” itself of the essay? What exactly happened in the English curriculum? For let’s acknowledge that at one point there was a strong belletristic curriculum in which the essay played a vital role. This was back in the days when belles lettres was not a pejorative term, when novels, short stories, and lyric poems didn’t sway the syllabus. Years ago, in a Partisan Review essay, “What Henry James Knew,” Cynthia Ozick made an eloquent plea for the essay: “A while ago,” she writes, “coming once again on Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Virginibus Puerisque’—an essay not short, wholly odd, no other like it, custom-made, soliciting the brightness of full attention in order to release its mocking charms—I tried to think of a single periodical today that might be willing to grant print to this sort of construction.”
The process that resulted in the death of belles lettres and the essay’s loss of literary status is, of course, a complicated phenomenon. (A valuable recent study is by Ned Stuckey-French, The American Essay in the American Century, 2011). The process involves a spectrum of cultural, social, and economic factors; by the 1930s, for example, the nation’s leading magazines were already starting to turn down essays in favor of topical articles. This trend, bemoaned by a number of the leading essayists of the time, was also reflected in a peculiar book that will be the focus of what I have to say about the decline of the literary essay, a decline that began during the Great Depression and lasted into the late 1980s or early 1990s, when the personal essay received a robust boost with the ascent of the confessional memoir.
The book I want to consider was published by Henry Holt & Company in 1935; it was directed to college composition courses. Its catchy title: Topics for Freshman Writing: Twenty Topics for Writing with Appropriate Materials for Study. What especially interests me about this collection is that it was compiled and edited by none other than the illustrious poet and critic, John Crowe Ransom, one of the most influential literary figures of his time and a founder, along with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, of a formalist methodology that would come to be called The New Criticism (after the title of Ransom’s 1941 book).
Ransom chose the no-nonsense title of his college reader deliberately. The older belletristic essay is conspicuously absent from the collection. Instead of recommending the literary prose of such notable essay stylists as William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Walter Pater, or Robert Louis Stevenson, Ransom turned instead to contemporary magazines to find pieces for such elevated essay subjects as “The Planned Society,” “Machinery, Overproduction, and Unemployment,” or “Nationalism and Foreign Trade.” Nearly a fifth of the selections were written by his students, all identified in the table of contents as “anonymous.” Clearly, though compiled by a distinguished poet and one of our major literary aestheticians, this was no guide to the belletristic or familiar essay.
In fact, it was decidedly anti-belletristic. A question I want to pose here is this: why was Ransom, a poet-critic whose own literary essays would surely be classified as belletristic, so resistant himself to the older familiar essay? He refuses to expose students to the genre in his reader and rarely refers to it in his criticism. Why would this be?
Actually, Ransom’s choice of selections for his college anthology should not be surprising to anyone who closely follows Ransom’s literary criticism. The only surprising thing about his textbook venture is that—given his literary disposition—he didn’t assemble a volume of poetry instead. Of course, his colleagues Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren would do just that and make both critical and pedagogical history in 1938 with the first edition of Understanding Poetry, a book whose announced literary agenda was not much different from Ransom’s; was, in fact, quite indebted to him. Although he helped promote the poetry textbook, Ransom was never entirely in agreement with the overly “scientific” way his new critical colleagues approached the understanding of poetry.
Throughout an illustrious career—in well over one hundred published critical essays—Ransom kept returning to a single literary theme: the primacy of poetry over prose. I say this at the risk of reduction, since his is such an agile and fertile intelligence. Yet—as we read essay after essay we can see why two literary scholars (Thomas Young and John Hindle) began the introduction to their fine collection of Ransom’s criticism as follows: “No other literary critic of this century has devoted so much time and intellectual energy as John Crowe Ransom in attempting to distinguish between scientific prose and poetic discourse.”
The differentiation between poetry and prose was consistently valorized—always in favor of poetry--and it often inspired an array of polarities that Ransom would entertain in the course of an essay. I’ll cite just one example, an astonishing extended analogy taken from a 1941 essay, “Criticism as Pure Speculation:”
“A poem is, so to speak, a democratic state, whereas a prose discourse—mathematical, scientific, ethical, or practical and vernacular—is a totalitarian state. The intention of a democratic state is to perform the work of state as effectively as it can perform it, subject to one reservation of conscience: that it will not despoil its members, the citizens, of the free exercise of their own private and independent characters. But the totalitarian state is interested solely in being effective, and regards the citizens as no citizens at all; that is, regards them as functional members whose existence is totally defined by their allotted contributions to its ends; it has no use for their private characters, and therefore no provision for them…”
As we read through Ransom, we can easily construct two columns reminiscent of Norman Mailer’s old “hip v. square” or Nancy Mitford’s “U v. Non-U” types (I realize how these references date me!). At the top of one column put Poetry, at the other Prose, and as you read Ransom the list of opposites begins falling into place nearly at once. If poetry is art, prose is argument; if poetry is iconic, prose is statement. We can keep going: poetry is agrarian, prose industrial; poetry is mythic and traditional; prose scientific and progressive; poetry is religious, prose secular; poetry is concrete, prose abstract. Poetry is intuitive, prose logical and rational. This list branches out into all sorts of literary and cultural areas, even to the point that poetry is considered ecologically sensitive and prose environmentally aggressive. Ransom never quite gets around to saying it, but it’s also clear that, from his perspective, in the regional scheme of things poetry represents the South, prose the North.
It’s not hard to see, then, that in this binary scheme poetry is literature and prose is…well, let’s say prose is composition. For if we look closely at Ransom’s schematic we see that the critical dichotomy is not so much between poetry and prose as between poetics and rhetoric, between the aesthetic uses of language and the practical—or, I think it’s fair to say—between literature and the essay. Consider again the passage describing poetry as a democracy and prose as a totalitarian regime; Ransom’s value-laden analogy makes apparent just what it is about prose that devalues it as an aesthetic experience. Prose discourse is functional, purposeful, and efficient; it surrenders all its elements to expository or persuasive ends. To put it bluntly, prose is rhetorical. And whatever poetry means for Ransom, at its best, it is never rhetorical.
The old conflict between rhetoric and poetics wears many disguises, like the old philosophical debate between the One and the Many. It surfaces in one shape or another just about everywhere we look in modern critical theory and it has had a profound influence on literary and academic politics. As James Berlin once put it: “a number of powerful groups of academic literary critics have divided discourse into two separate and unequal categories: the privileged poetic statement and the impoverished rhetorical statement, the one art and the other “mere” science.” Berlin takes this split even further, discovering behind it an academic conspiracy in which literary critics within English departments seized on the dichotomy as an opportunity to leverage departmental and curricular power. According to Berlin, for these critics to “demonstrate the unique and privileged nature of poetic texts, it has been necessary to insist on a contrasting set of devalorized texts, the kind of texts described in current-traditional rhetoric.” What are these discredited texts other than our familiar types of prose discourse—mainly essays?
Although Berlin doesn’t reference him, Ransom was one of the early academic critics who consistently fought the older philologists and belletristic instructors—those duffers who gladly taught essays, resisted the New Criticism, and had no stake in carving out imaginative literature as a special domain of discourse. If Berlin is correct, John Crowe Ransom might be seen as part of this literary conspiracy, a very significant part given his enormous academic influence. In his career-long assault on prose he did everything he could to elevate the poetic statement over the rhetorical. “Something,” he once wrote, “is continually being killed by prose which the poet wants to preserve.”
His college reader, Topics for Freshman Writing, it seems to me, was no mere cynical or opportunistic production, but was specifically designed to further Ransom’s own critical agenda as well as the pedagogical regimen of the New Criticism. I’m by nature skeptical of conspiracy theories, but by promoting only a serviceable, topical prose, Ransom helped keep the essay in its place for years—that is, inside the first-year composition program and outside of serious literary study. A few years after Ransom’s textbook, Brooks and Warren would begin theirs with the following words to the instructor: “This book has been conceived on the assumption that if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry.” Even now it’s hard to imagine an introductory textbook on the essay opening with a similar assumption.
Note: this essay, largely revised, is based on a talk I delivered in Nashville, TN (birthplace of “The New Criticism”) in the mid 1990s. I wanted to revisit it for some time and I thank Ander Monson for offering me the opportunity to expand it and get it into circulation.
Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of The Best American Essays. The 2013 volume, the twenty-eighth in the series, is guest-edited by Cheryl Strayed and has just been released. His most recent essay, a fictional retelling of The Great Gatsby from the point of view of the novel's villain, Tom Buchanan, can be found in six installments at http://logger.believermag.com/post/52795097781/that-summer-1922-a-counter-memoir-by-thomas-buchanan.