Obituary: Professor Cleanth Brooks
Thursday 12 May 1994
CLEANTH BROOKS was a learned, gentle Southerner who represented all that was best about the astonishing collection of literary talent at Yale University after the Second World War.
The 'old Yale' had a less attractive side, of social snobbery, outright prejudice, and an Anglophilia so pronounced as to make the most flattered Englishman wince. This was the Yale of 'dollar-a-year' men, who could buy a scholarly career with an afternoon's intelligent buying of manuscripts at Sotheby's (this in the age before university libraries dominated the market). But it was also a university with a unique and extraordinary cast of writers, critics, and scholars that included Brooks himself, Robert Penn Warren, WK Wimsatt, Frederick Pottle, Rene Wellek, and many others.
In his later years, particularly during the heyday in the 1970s of French-influenced critical theory, Brooks was occasionally accused of being, somehow, too popular. Certainly his Understanding Poetry, written with Robert Penn Warren and published in 1938, was a best- selling textbook for a generation of undergraduates. This work, and the essays of The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), brought Brooks to the forefront of the 'New Critics', who paid close attention to the literary text, expecially in poems, rather than to traditional historicist methods of interpretation. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that Brooks also made major contributions as a literary historian, and his two-volume history Literary Criticism (1957), written with his colleague WK Wimsatt, was a notably coherent and readable account of an even more notably abstruse subject.
Brook's interest in American literature remained strong from his student days at Vanderbilt and he belonged to that generation which refused to draw arbitrary lines between criticism and 'creative literature' - his friends included the writers John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Randal Jarrell. Brooks helped edit a massive anthology of American literature with Robert Penn Warren (a fellow Southerner and fellow Rhodes Scholar) and RWB Lewis, American Literature: the makers and the making (1973). He wrote three studies of William Faulkner and helped establish the universal appeal of the small geography of Yoknapatawpha County. But it was to poetry that Brooks brought his greatest energies, and it is as a prime example of the close readings he so fervently espoused that his work will continue to be read.
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