The Barbarian Moment: Southern New Criticism and Social Change

Precoda, Karl , Department of English, University of Virginia
Levenson, Jacob, English Language & Lit Dept, University of Virginia
Kett, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia

Although Southern New Criticism was still in its infancy in 1942, young New York intellectuals like Lionel Trilling were already expressing the fears of a growing number of scholars that John Crowe Ransom and his disciples were leading American criticism astray, from a "sense of the past" and into the "barbarian moment" of formalist analysis. Ever since Trilling, moreover, the nominally objective approach sponsored by the southerners and their fellow travellers has been accused of "barbarism" in many forms, whether repressing history, capitulating to the forces of social and political reaction, or even deliberately fostering what some have seen as the academy's entrenched elitism, racism, and sexism. For many poststructuralists, the New Criticism has become, in F.W. Dupeeā€™s phrase, an "immortal scapegoat." The irony, however, of the Jewish outsider Lionel Trilling scapegoating the Southerners so easily, can hardly have escaped Ransom, who nevertheless invited Trilling to join the editorial board of Kenyon Review that same year, and six years later to help found the Kenyon School of English. By then, of course, both were institutional insiders, but neither could forget the view from beyond the city's gates.

My study examines the complex interrelations between criticism and barbarism by placing Ransom and company into two contexts: first, the "New South" movement, the promoters of industrialism and factory life who dominated academic and public discourse during the 1920s and 30s, and second, the southern Renascence, the literary response to the unalloyed hubris of wholesale modernization. A concern with material history therefore underpins my analysis of the submerged connections between Southern modernism and the more dominant American tradition associated with such figures as Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Santayana, William James, and Wallace Stevens, and to international modernists like Laura Riding, Walter Benjamin, and Julia Kristeva. From this wide-ranging conversation, the portrait that emerges of the Southern New Critics, Ransom, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and their successor Marshall McLuhan -- all of whose works wrestle with the competing claims of indigenous and non-native cultures, with a pervasive sense of exile at home, and with the utopian temptations of a "new class" of intellectual workers -- anticipates many of the theoretical designs of contemporary "postcolonial" criticism.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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