*2023 Note. Most links have been removed from this archival version of the syllabus.

COURSE INFORMATION. English 456: Literary Criticism of the 20th Century. Thursdays 4-6:50, 111 Wilkinson Hall. Instructor: Alfred J. Drake, Ph.D. Email: Office: 21 Wilkinson Hall. Office Hours: 3-4 p.m. Thursdays and by appt. Catalog description: “Prerequisite, Eng 104. An introduction to the rich and varied forms of modern criticism and theory. Focusing on important critical questions (the role of the reader in determining the meaning of a literary text; the social role of literature; the problems of censorship), students explore modern critical approaches ranging from New Criticism, structuralism, and the “new” historicism, to deconstruction, feminist criticism, and semiotics. (Offered spring semester.) 3 credits.”


Davis, Robert Con and Ronald Schleifer, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies. 4th edition. New York: Longman, 1998.

English 456 Packets on 2-hour reserve at the library. These folders contain readings from Hazard Adams’s Critical Theory Since Plato (New York: Harcourt, 1992) and from other sources. Tell the librarian that you need “English 456 Packet #1” and provide them with my name.


FOCUS AND OBJECTIVES. My initial aim is to ground you in the theories behind current movements in literary criticism. We will first study significant predecessor texts from the Western philosophical tradition and thereby gain historical perspective on key insights that run through contemporary theory. Among the frameworks we will move on to study are the American New Criticism, Marxism, structuralism, post-structuralism, post-colonial theory, cultural studies, and feminism. In his introduction to Critical Theory since Plato, Hazard Adams writes that we may categorize literary theories “according to where the critic ‘locates’ the literary work, or poem—in the nature it copies, in the audience it finds, in the author, or in its own verbal structure. . . .” Following Meyer Abrams, he correlates these orientations “the mimetic, the pragmatic . . . the expressive, and the objective.” This schema helps us deal productively with the diffuseness of theory: most practitioners generally fit within, span, or criticize these basic orientations. Finally, trust that you can master difficult material by successive approximations. You may not fully grasp the readings the first time you study them, but soon, you will start to make their insights your own and adapt them to your purposes as a student of literature.

ACTIVITIES. In class, there will be a mix of lectures, whole-class and smaller-group discussion, occasional quizzes, a midterm exam, and a final exam. I encourage questions and comments—class sessions improve when students take an active part. Outside class, do the assigned readings before the relevant discussion dates and start planning and drafting your essay early. In literary studies, the aim is to read and discuss actively and thereby to develop your own voice in response to the texts you read. Insightful interpretation and the ability to make compelling connections are central goals. The essay, discussions, and journal-keeping should combine to help you work towards these goals.


COURSE POLICIES. Please review the course policies page early in the semester since it addresses matters such as attendance, incompletes and withdrawal, late or missing work, and academic integrity.

METHODS OF EVALUATION. A 5-7 page paper, a midterm, and a final exam. The relevant paper/exam dates will be mentioned below on this page. A likely grade breakdown would be 15% for paper one, 25% for paper two, 25% for the midterm, and 35% for the final exam. Students are encouraged to keep a journal of responses to study questions available on our course web site. You cannot pass this class without completing all requirements. Due dates are subject to change.

PAPER REQUIREMENT. Here is the prompt: Write a 5-7 page essay that discusses the two critical studies you find most significant among those you have read concerning a literary work of your choice. In the course of your paper, be sure to explain to your reader each critic’s basic orientation and methods, and identify what each critic’s analysis clarifies especially well (or, alternately, what it notably fails to clarify) concerning the literary work in question. Why does the approach taken seem especially appropriate or inappropriate? At the end of your essay, attach a separate section called “Annotated Bibliography.” (It should come after your paper Works Cited page.) There should be at least 6 entries to show that you have read six or more articles on your chosen literary work. List each article in proper MLA style, summarize the contents, and briefly set forth the article’s strengths and weaknesses as you see them.

STRATEGY FOR READING OUR TEXTS. Skim the assigned readings quickly, several times. This may sound conducive to shallowness, but it isn’t. The justification is that if you try to understand everything at once with a long slow reading, you’ll quickly become frustrated. Latch on to passages you understand, and try to connect them with other passages. It is acceptable to reduce difficult theorists, at least initially, to some key point or points that make sense to you. Then you can work outward and re-read the fuller selection with regard to these points. You must begin somewhere, and there’s no need to allow yourself to become overwhelmed by the task.



Th. 02/28. Your previous instructor had assigned from the Davis/Schleifer textbook’s (CLC) “Pt. I. What Is Criticism?” T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and Northrop Frye’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” We will discuss those texts this evening, along with the Adams schema that I mentioned above.


Th. 03/07. Kant’s “Analytic of the Beautiful” from Critique of Judgment (CTSP 376-86), excerpts from Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (e-text), and New Critic Cleanth Brooks’ essays “The Heresy of Paraphrase” and “Irony as a Principle of Structure” (CTSP 960-74).


Th. 03/14. Course in General Linguistics selection by Ferdinand de Saussure (CLC 265-79), and on the following selections by Roland Barthes — “The Structuralist Activity” and “The Death of the Author” (CTSP 1127-33); “What is Criticism?” (CLC 280-83); and “The World of Wrestling” (Mythologies 15-25; on library reserve in the English 456 packet along with the CTSP selections.)


Th. 03/21. Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Truth and Falsity in an Ultramoral Sense” (CTSP 628 intro, 634-39) and Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” (CTSP 1116-26)


Th. 03/28. Spring Break holiday. However, please read Paul de Man’s “The Resistance to Theory” (CLC 100-14) and study for the mid-term exam.


Th. 04/04. Mid-term in-class exam of 90 minutes’ length. After the exam, Paul de Man’s “The Resistance to Theory” (CLC 100-14).


Th. 04/11. Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” (CLC 364-76) and “Truth and Power” (CTSP 1134-45).


Th. 04/18. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s selections from The German Ideology and Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (CTSP 624-27) and Raymond Williams’s “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” (CLC 489-501). Also peer work on annotated bibliographies — bring at least two annotations to class.


04/25. Excerpts from Victorian critic Matthew Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (e-text), Edward Said’s “The World, the Text, and the Critic” (CTSP 1210-22), Gauri Viswanathan’s “Lessons of History” (CLC 68-86). Rough draft of the paper is due this week. I will return drafts next week with comments.


Th. 05/02. Sigmund Freud’s “Creative Writers and Daydreaming” (CTSP 711-16) and Jacques Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage.” (CLC 404-09).


05/09. Selection from Chapter 11 of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (CTSP 993-1000), Hélène Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa,” and Judith Butler’s “Variations on Sex and Gender” (CLC 611-23). Papers and Annotated Bibliographies due at beginning of class.


Final Exam Thursday, May 16, 4:15 – 6:45 p.m. The final exam will take place in class, but you may bring your books and notes. Be careful not to rely too much on them.