The "Deep Inner Meaning" Debate
Once upon a time, when the world was young, literature teachers lectured on the biographical details of the lives of the great authors and discussed in broad, general terms how their ideals furthered the values and visions of the nation. After the literary rebellions of the early 1900s, new tools became available to help us understand ourselves. When Freudian psychotherapy became a fad in the roaring 1920s, literary critics started to see phallic symbols everywhere. In the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, intellectuals turned from sex to economics to find out what really pulls our strings. During that era, Marxism replaced Freudianism as the theoretical lens through which literature was read. In the 1940s and 1950s, a group of scholars, wearied to tears by all that pompous "literary history" of the previous century and the trendy fads of the previous two decades, began to insist that close readings of the text alone ought to be the subject of scholarly concern. These "New Critics," as they were called, judged the texts under their scrutiny for internal thematic organization, which they called "unity," and for internal paradoxes, subtle allusions, and verbal nuance, full of classical, mythological, and religious significance. Rejecting earlier approaches, they took up the battle cry that a text was a text and only the text itself mattered, that the reader should not care if a poem were written in China before Christ or yesterday in the Bronx.
Literary and historical studies owe these New Critics considerable credit for rescuing us from the oxygen-starved heights of noble generalities and the doctrinaire obsessions of the Freudians and Marxists. The New Critics may have rejected the old tradition of bringing outside interests to the text, but they more than made up for it by finding profound depths of meaning in the subtle internal details and symbolic suggestions. They deserve huzzahs for emphasizing close readings of the text, readings in which a student studies a paragraph or sentence and carefully analyzes each word as if it were a multifaceted prism reflecting a different color on each face and then comparing words to words within the same text. But students also have the New Critics to blame for the mind-numbing search for some secret, hidden, "deep inner meaning" that all too often seems to be what college professors are asking for.
In the 1960s, a passion for the political concerns surrounding texts came in with the passionate politics of the era. No longer the tool of stuffy old literary historians or party-line Stalinists, concern for relevance and historical context brought history and biography back to the study of literature with a new sense of purpose. Suddenly it mattered considerably if an author were white or black, male or female, WASP or Asian, gay or straight, rich or poor, a hawk or a dove. The New Critics became an enemy to be denounced for failing to make the study of literature relevant to the struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Worse, some seemed complicit in defending traditional views about race and society. That some of the most vocal New Critics were agrarian Southerners with conservative views about race and neoorthodox views of religion has done little to help their reputation.