The critical essay has its distant origins in Aristotle’s Poetics, especially in his analysis of the work of Sophocles, and in the work Peri hypsous (On the Sublime), attributed to the firstcentury Greek critic Longinus. But true critical prose in the modern sense—cultural criticism that takes full advantage of the rhetorical possibilities of the familiar essay— only began during the late 17th century in Europe, coming fully into its own as a genre with the rise of literary periodical journalism in the 18th century. One might reach back in time to include a few earlier seminal expressions of criticism, including such Renaissance works as the Poetice (1562; On Poetry) by the Italian scholar Julius Caesar Scaliger, which gave classicism its first voice, or Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (wr. 1580–82, pub. 1595), perhaps the earliest example of modern literary criticism. But it was the appearance of John Dryden’s An Essay of Dramatic Poesy in 1667–68 that firmly established the critical essay in prose as a distinct and culturally influential genre. Dryden’s essay took ownership of the literary space between the older form of the treatise, with its theoretical preoccupation, and the soon-to-evolve review, with its emphasis on the evaluation of texts. The critical essay after Dryden has continued to mix a general appreciation of literary history with the analysis of specific works and authors, and has always set its discussion within the contexts of contemporary cultural and political discourse. Whether or not it employs a theoretical framework, the critical essay is always textually grounded and very much preoccupied with the sociological and psychological process of reading.
The 18th century saw a proliferation in production of the critical essay across Europe.
John Dennis, the first professional critic, found a popular readership in England and France for criticism in which he stressed the primacy of passion in the literary arts; he published controversial essays on The Usefulness of the Stage (1698), The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (1701), The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704), and An Essay upon the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare (1712). Dennis’ generation of writers included Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, whose Spectator (1711–12, 1714) was the first periodical to adapt literary criticism to serious journalism. In this periodical Addison published serialized essays on Milton, the ballad, and the theory of the imagination, and did much to make literature a conversational topic in the coffee houses. But it was Samuel Johnson who made of the critical essay in English something definitive: his Lives of the English Poets (1779–81), a series of critical prefaces written for a ten-volume historical collection of English poetry, developed an essay style that mingled moral and aesthetic criticism of literature while showing equal appreciation for classical and contemporary works. Among Johnson’s earliest attempts at criticism, his Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744) emphasized the humanist values that would continue to underpin most critical essays for the next three centuries, even in writers otherwise as diverse as Denis Diderot, Matthew Arnold, and Edmund Wilson.
The French encyclopedists, especially Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and of course, Diderot, did much to advance the critical essay on the continent, having themselves been influenced by the style of Addison in particular. They added to the sophisticated classicism of their English models a radicalism that in turn affected much late 18th- and early 19th-century critical writing. The Scottish encyclopedist, essayist, and editor William Smellie and his colleague, the historian Dr. Gilbert Stuart, launched the Edinburgh Magazine and Review (1773–76), which took the radical combination of literature, politics, and opinion to its ultimate expression. They wrote and published regular critical essays which undertook to review current publications against an erudite and idiosyncratic background of selective literary traditions. Their aggressive and very personal critical postures were often inflammatory, and even libelous, but always intelligently original. Their approach to criticism was somewhat before its time, but they defined the anarchic end of the spectrum of critical essay writing, in opposition to Samuel Johnson’s position of consolation: where Johnson, even when derogatory, sought to instruct his reader with informed wit, Stuart and Smellie undertook to outrage and alarm.
This Scottish style made its real mark in the 19th century in the essays of John Gibson Lockhart, a chief contributor to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and editor of the Quarterly Review, both important trend setters in their day. The criticism of most English-language essays down to the 20th century can be grouped around one or other of the two poles defined by Johnson and the Scottish reviewers: there are the antagonists like Thomas Carlyle, Oscar Wilde, and F.R. Leavis, and the consolers like Matthew Arnold, Henry James, and Lionel Trilling.
While the English-language critical essay became more polemical as the 18th century closed, criticism in German tended toward the philosophic and speculative. Following the publications of the classicist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (Laokoon [1766; Laocoon] and Hamburgische Dramaturgie [1767–69; Hamburg Dramaturgy]), German Romanticism produced lasting contributions to critical-essay writing in the nationalistic work of Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich von Schiller, especially Herder’s Über die neuere Deutsche Litteratur: Fragmente (1767; Fragments on modern German literature) and Schiller’s Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (1795–96; On the Naive and Sentimental in Literature). The German critical essay became obsessed with the intricacies of language, in particular etymology, and developed an almost exclusive concern for philology as it proceeded through the 19th century. Friedrich Schlegel’s essays in the Athenäum (1798–1800) laid the groundwork for the German critical focus on irony and the inadequacy of literary language. Meanwhile, French criticism in the 19th century continued to reflect the more sociological concerns of the earlier form of the critical essay. Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, in such works as his Critiques et portraits littéraires (1832–39; Literary critiques and portraits) and the collected volumes of his essays in criticism, Causeries du lundi (1851–62; Monday Chats) and Nouveaux Lundis (1863–70; New Mondays), carefully positioned his studies of an author’s work against an understanding of the life and times. Hippolyte Taine extended SainteBeuve’s portraiture into a fully racial and historical account of literary culture in his Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863–64; History of English Literature). But it was Émile Zola who epitomized the French style in criticism, centering his approach on an exhaustive consideration of literature and the arts as a reflection of the human social condition.
The critical essay became a literary institution in 19th-century Europe when periodicals and magazines as well as daily newspapers established review criticism as the public forum for a nation’s examination of its artistic identity. The Scottish reviewers of the early 1800s, so devastatingly satirized by Lord Byron after an Edinburgh Review essay attacked his poetry (English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, 1809), can in fact be credited with making the critical essay an important political and sociological exercise.
Blackwood’s (established 1817) and the Edinburgh Review (established 1802) greatly influenced both the form of the critical essay and the development of publications in which it was to appear. Scrutiny (1932–53), the Paris Review (1953–), the Times Literary Supplement (1902–), and the New Yorker (1925–) all trace their genealogy back to these sources by one route or another.
If all critical essays can be said, despite their otherwise apparently diverse thematic concerns, to have one common defining feature, it is this: the critical essay is chiefly concerned with engaging its audience in a reflective analysis of the politics of the act of reading. The best essayists of this kind value the texts they critique not for what is said but for how it is said, struggling with the ambiguity of literary language to describe a rhetoric of reading.
The English Critical Tradition: An Anthology of English Literary Criticism, edited by S.Ramaswami and V.S.Seturaman, Bombay: Macmillan, 2 vols., 1977–78
The Great Criticism: An Anthology of Literary Criticism, edited by James Harry Smith and Edd Winfield Parks, 3rd edition, New York: Norton, 1951 (original edition, edited by Smith only, 1932)
Literature in America: An Anthology of Literary Criticism, edited by Philip Rahv, Cleveland: World, 1957
The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989– (in progress)
Hall, Vernon, Jr., A Short History of Literary Criticism, New York: New York University Press, 1963
Saintsbury, George, A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe, from the Earliest Texts to the Present Day, New York: Humanities Press, 3 vols., 1961 (original edition, 1902–04)
Wellek, René, A History of Modern Criticism, 8 vols., New Haven, Connecticut and (vols. 7–8) London: Yale University Press, 1955–92; vols. 1–2, and 5–6, London: Cape, 1955, 1986; vols. 1–4, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981–83
Wimsatt, W.K., and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History, New York: Knopf, and London: Routledge, 1957
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