“Pond Scum: Why Do We Love Henry David Thoreau?”


This assignment is like the Russian Nesting Dolls of analysis – analyze Thoreau, then discuss literary criticism, then read Kathryn Schultz’s criticism of Thoreau, then criticize Schultz’s criticism.

As we have analyzed the work of Thoreau and discussed different types of literary criticism that can be utilized when reading literature, I wanted to direct your attention to an article that was published in The New Yorker this week by Kathryn Schultz, entitled “Why Do We Love Henry David Thoreau?”. Rarely do the texts we read in class end up as current event articles in the news, so when it happens we need to stop and take a closer look.

As you read Schultz’s article, consider the questions she is posing about Thoreau and his work –

  • Why had Thoreau been so cherished?
  • How did his work make it into the ‘canon’ of American Literature?
  • What is the ‘canon’ and who decides what texts end up there?
  • Can a text ever leave the canon?
  • What critical lens has Thoreau been viewed with in the past? Is this wrong?
  • Is there a ‘right’ critical lens to use when examining a text?
  • Why is Schultz re-examining Thoreau now?
  • What critical lens is she using?

You will also need to generate your own questions to ask each other and prompt discussion during Socratic Seminiar tomorrow! If you lost your copy of the article from class –

You can download a PDF version of the article here.

Or you can visit the New Yorker website and read the article.

11th Grade American Literature Fall 2015

Literary Criticism


“Let’s read the Declaration of Independence from a Marxist perspective…”



We have flitted around the edges of discussimg literary criticism for a few weeks now – many of you have already begun asking insightful questions about WHY we read texts a certain way in class, and whether or not this was the author’s intent. This is the perfect time then to discuss the types of literary criticism that we can use, and have been using, in class. Below you will find eight camps of literary criticism – make sure you have these in your notes for future reference, and see if you can identify the types of literary criticism we have used in class, and the texts we applied them to. Would our understanding of the texts have been different if we had used a another type of critical lens?

history matters1. New Historicism: A reading of a text that deems the historical political, economical, and sociological context of the time the text was written in order to truly understand the work(s).

Advantages: This approach works well for some works which are obviously political in nature. It also is necessary to take a historical approach in order to place allusions in their proper classical, political, or biblical background.

Disadvantages: New Critics refer to the historical / biographical critic’s belief that the meaning or value of a work may be determined by the author’s intention as “the intentional fallacy.” Thus, art is reduced to the level of biography rather than universal.

A Checklist of Historical Critical Questions:

  • When was the work written?
  • When was it published?
  • How was it received by the critics and public and why?
  • What does the work’s reception reveal about the standards of taste and value during the time it was published and reviewed?
  • What social attitudes and cultural practices related to the action of the word were prevalent during the time the work was written and published?
  • What kinds of power relationships does the word describe, reflect, or embody?
  • How do the power relationships reflected in the literary work manifest themselves in the cultural practices and social institutions prevalent during the time the work was written and published?
  • To what extent can we understand the past as it is reflected in the literary work?
  • To what extent does the work reflect differences from the ideas and values of its time?

Fitzgerald and Zelda, or Gatsby and Daisy?

2. Biographical Criticism: A reading of a text that deems the biography of the author most important in order to truly understand the work(s).

Advantages: This approach works well for some works which are obviously written about or influenced by the life of the author (Fredrick Douglas’ Narrative, Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I A Woman’) and can allow the reader to learn more about the author being studied through research.

Disadvantages: New Critics refer to the historical / biographical critic’s belief that the meaning or value of a work may be determined by the author’s intention as “the intentional fallacy.” Thus, art is reduced to the level of biography rather than universal.

Checklist of Biographical Critical Questions:

  • What influences—people, ideas, movements, events—evident in the writer’s life does the work reflect?
  • To what extent are the events described in the word a direct transfer of what happened in the writer’s actual life?
  • What modifications of the actual events has the writer made in the literary work? For what possibly purposes?
  • What are the effects of the differences between actual events and their literary transformation in the poem, story, play, or essay?
  • What has the author revealed in the work about his/her characteristic modes of thought, perception, or emotion?
  • What place does this work have in the artist’s literary development and career?

Nothing exists outside of this text!

3. Formalism / New Criticism:  A formalistic approach to literature, once called New Criticism,
involves a close reading of the text. Formalistic critics believe that all information essential to the interpretation of a work must be found within the work itself; there is no need to bring in outside information about the history, politics, or society of the time, or about the author’s life. Formalistic critics spend much time analyzing irony, paradox, imagery, and metaphor. They are also interested in the work’s setting, characters, symbols, and point of view.

 Advantages: This approach can be performed without much research, and it emphasizes the value of literature apart from its context (in effect makes literature timeless). Virtually all critical approaches must begin here.

Disadvantages: The text is seen in isolation. Formalism ignores the context of the work. It cannot account for allusions. It tends to reduce literature to little more than a collection of rhetorical devices. A

Checklist of Formalistic Critical Questions:

  • How is the work structured or organized? How does it begin? Where does it go next? How does it end?
  • What is the work’s plot? How is its plot related to its structure?
  • What is the relationship of each part of the work to the work as a whole? How are the parts related to one another?
  • Who is narrating or telling what happens in the work? How is the narrator, speaker, or character revealed to readers? How do we come to know and understand this figure?
  • Who are the major and minor characters, what do they represent, and how do they relate to one another?
  • What are the time and place of the work—it’s setting? How is the setting related to what we know of the characters and their actions? To what extent is the setting symbolic?
  • What kind of language does the author use to describe, narrate, explain, or otherwise create the world of the literary work? More specifically, what images, similes, metaphors, symbols appear in the work? What is their function? What meanings do they convey?

psychoanalytic literary criticism 1_00014. Psychological Criticism: Psychological critics view works through the lens of psychology. They look either at the psychological motivations of the characters or of the authors themselves, although the former is generally considered a more respectable approach. Most frequently, psychological critics apply Freudian and/or Jungian (archetypes) psychology to works. A Freudian approach often includes pinpointing the influences of a character’s psyche (Greek for “soul”), which consists of the: Id (reservoir of libido or pleasure principle in the unconscious) Superego (the moral censoring agency and repository of conscience/pride that protects society) Ego (the rational governing agent of the unconscious that protects the individual).

Advantages: A useful tool for understanding some works, in which characters manifest clear psychological issues. Like the biographical approach, knowing something about a writer’s psychological make up can give us insight into his work.

Disadvantages: Psychological criticism can turn a work into little more than a psychological case study, neglecting to view it as a piece of art. Critics sometimes attempt to diagnose long dead authors based on their works, which is perhaps not the best evidence of their psychology. Critics tend to see sex in everything, exaggerating this aspect of literature. Finally, some works do not lend themselves readily to this approach.

Checklist of Psychological Critical Questions:

  • What connections can you make between your knowledge of an author’s life and the behavior and motivations of characters in his or her work?
  • How does your understanding of the characters, their relationships, their actions, and their motivations in a literary work help you better understand the mental world and imaginative life, or the actions and motivations of the author?
  • How does a particular literary work—its images, metaphors, and other linguistic elements—reveal the psychological motivations of its characters or the psychological mindset of its author?
  • To what extent can you employ the concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis to understand the motivations of literary characters?
  • What kinds of literary works and what types of literary characters seem best suited to a critical approach that employs a psychological or psychoanalytical perspective? Why?
  • How can a psychological or psychoanalytical approach to a particular work be combined with an approach from another critical perspective—for example, biographical, formalist, or feminist criticism?


5. Feminist Criticism:  Feminist criticism is concerned with the impact of gender on writing and
reading. It usually begins with a critique of patriarchal culture. It is concerned with the place of female writers in the cannon. Finally, it includes a search for a feminine theory or approach to texts. Feminist criticism is political and often revisionist. Feminists often argue that male fears are portrayed through female characters. They may argue that gender determines everything, or just the opposite: that all gender differences are imposed by society, and gender determines nothing.

Advantages: Women have been underrepresented in the traditional cannon, and a feminist approach to literature attempts to redress this problem.

Disadvantages: Feminists turn literary criticism into a political battlefield and overlook the merits of works they consider “patriarchal.” When arguing for a distinct feminine writing style, they tend to relegate women’s literature to a ghetto status; this in turn prevents female literature from being naturally included in the literary cannon. The feminist approach is often too theoretical.

Checklist of Feminist Critical Questions:

  • To what extent does the representation of women (and men) in the work reflect the place and time in which the work was written?
  • How are the relationships between men and women or those between members of the same sex presented in the work?
  • What roles do men and women assume and perform and with what consequences?
  • Does the author present the work from within a predominantly male or female sensibility?
  • Why might this have been done, and with what effects?
  • How do the facts of the author’s life relate to the presentation of men and women in the work? To their relative degrees of power?
  • How do other works by the author correspond to this one in their depiction of the power relationships between men and women?

image-2-300x3006. Marxist Criticism: Marxist criticism is a type of criticism in which literary works are viewed as the product of work and whose practitioners emphasize the role of class and ideology as they reflect, propagate, and even challenge the prevailing social order.  Proletariat: that class of society, which does not have ownership of the means of production. Bourgeoisie: wealthy class that rules society. Power of the Base: Marx believed that the economic means of production in a society (the base) both creates and controls all human institutions and ideologies (the superstructure). This superstructure includes all social and legal institutions, all political and educational systems, all religions, and all art. These ideologies develop as a result of the economic means of production, not the reverse. Alienation — Marx believed that capitalist society created three forms of alienation: First, the worker is alienated from what he produces. Second, the worker is alienated from himself; only when he is not working does he feel truly himself. Finally, in capitalist society people are alienated from each other; that is, in a competitive society people are set against other people. Marx believed that the solution was communism, which would allow the development of our full “potentialities as a human.”

Advantages: History and texts are usually recorded and distributed by those of means, so a Marxist reading shifts the focus to the lower economic classes of society.

Disadvantages: Marxist readings can tend to over simplify texts as simply being about the economic power struggle between the social classes.

Checklist of Marxist/Cultural Criticism Questions:

  • What is the economic status of the characters?
  • What happens to them as a result of this status?
  • How do they fare against economic and political odds?
  • What other conditions stemming from their class does the writer emphasize? (e.g., poor education, poor nutrition, poor health care, inadequate opportunity)
  • To what extent does the work fail by overlooking the economic, social and political implications of its material? In what other ways does economic determinism affect the work?
  • How should readers consider the story in today’s modern economic setting (nationally, globally, etc.)?

nabokov_meme7. Reader-Response Criticism: This type of criticism does not designate any one critical theory, but focuses on the activity of reading a work of literature. Reader-response critics turn from the traditional conception of a work as an achieved structure of meanings to the responses of readers as their eyes follow a text. By this shift of perspective a literary work is converted into an activity that goes on in a reader’s mind, and what had been features of the work itself-including narrator, plot, characters, style; and structure-are less important than the connection between a reader’s experience and the text. It is through this interaction that meaning is made. This is the school of thought most students seem to adhere to. Proponents believe that literature has no objective meaning or existence. People bring their own thoughts, moods. and experiences to whatever text they are reading and get out of it whatever they happen to based on their own expectations and ideas.

Advantages: Reader Response allows readers to interpret the text in various ways and allows readers to bring: personality traits, memories of the past and present experiences to the text. It forces the readers to look past the words of the text, and search for deeper meanings. Allows teachers to connect with their students on a more personal level.Allows readers to see different perspectives of others while reading.

Disadvantages:  Reader Response provides a very skewed outlook on different works of literature.
One brings their personal interpretations to the text rather than examining the meaning that the other created. The reader brings a creates a narrow connection to the text, rather than looking at different perspectives. (connections to the world, connections to other text) – the interpretation can only be as nuanced as the reader’s education and intellect.

Checklist of Reader Response Criticism Questions:

  • What happens when a text and reader interact?
  • Does the real text actually exist in the mind of the reader? Or does it exist through the interaction of text and reader?
  • What is a reader? Are there different kinds of readers?  What makes readers different?
  • Do different texts demand particular kinds of readers?
  • Is our response to a text the same as the text’s meaning?
  • What shapes our knowledge (epistemology) of reading?
  • Do people read in different ways? Are these differences cultural or cognitive?
  • Do people from different eras or cultures read in different ways?
  • What is the purpose of reading?
  • Is reading an individual event or do other readers or communities of readers play in the interpretive process?  Is it a solitary affair or are we shaped by different interpretive communities?
  • Can one reader’s response be more correct than another’s, or are all responses equally valid?

ConceptualCollisionCOMIC8. Deconstructionism: Deconstruction is, by far, the most difficult critical theory for people to understand. It was developed by some very smart (or very unstable) people who declare that literature means nothing because language means nothing. In other words, we cannot say that we know what the “meaning” of a story is because there is no way of knowing.

Advantages: The advantage of deconstruction is that the reader is encouraged to question traditional assumptions and prejudices. For example, there are many assumptions regarding binary oppositions. Many of our thoughts and opinions are fixed in these binary oppositions, such as man/woman, white/black, west/east, good/evil, etc. In these binary oppositions, the first in the pair, man, white, etc., is considered to be the norm and therefore superior, while the second, woman, black, etc., is considered deviant and inferior. We tend to think that these oppositions are definite and fixed, whereas in reality they are often blurred and are in fact artificial. The power of ideology is that it puts forward ideas as natural and factual, but deconstruction helps us to see that they are not natural at all.

Disadvantages: A disadvantage of deconstruction might be the argument that it makes truth or knowledge impossible because everything can be deconstructed. So, truth and knowledge are only relative and often subjective. For example, a literary text will have a different meaning to each individual reader; it will have no absolute or fixed meaning. However, it is debatable whether this is a disadvantage or not.

Checklist of Deconstructionist Criticism Questions:

  • What are the binary oppositions and hierarchies that inform a text?
  • What is the thing that unites these binary terms?
  • What is marginalized in the text? Study the marginal: the discarded, the denigrated, the unessential, the fragment, the subordinate term, the mistake, the frame, the absence or omission, the footnote, the supplement. How does this marginalia enable or call into being what is supposed to be central?
  • Does the text says something different from what it intends to mean?
  • How does the text refers to itself? Here is where you’ll see texts start to
    unravel, to deconstruct themselves.
  •  What are the historical, cultural, social, and political processes that have brought this text into being?
  • What are the conflicting interpretations of a text?
11th Grade American Literature Fall 2015