In an essay about the "feud" between the critic Irving Howe and the novelist Ralph Ellison about the role of "protest" in fiction, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington observes:
. . .Whereas Ellison saw a danger in collective generalizations, Howe was attuned to the perils of erasing society. In his autobiography, A Margin of Hope, Howe asks, “Since language has unbreakable ties to possible events in experience, can the meaning or value of a work be apprehended without some resort—be it as subtle and indirect as you wish—to social and moral categories?” The quote is taken from a passage on Howe’s student days, studying the tenets of the New Critics and their aspiration to substitute close analysis of a text for the study of background historical forces. Typically for projects this high-minded, the New Critics failed to see that “the evaluative terms offered by New Criticism—terms like coherence and complexity—were heavily freighted with associations drawn from history, psychology, morality. Is there any evaluative term not so freighted, and must not any attempt to find purely ‘intrinsic’ values wither into sterility?”
Howe's contention that because "language has unbreakable ties to possible events in experience" criticism must attend to "social and moral categories" is an argument that is very frequently made by those who believe that literature transcends mere "art." It is these "unbreakable ties" between language and the reality it represents that make literature different than, say, painting or music. These forms are freer to "be themselves"--to create a closed-off space where aesthetic qualities are allowed a degree of autonomy--than literature because the latter occurs in language and language is the means by which we conduct our everday affairs and through which we make the world meaningful.
In my opinion, however, it is precisely because literature is made from a medium so thorougly tied to modes of conventional discourse and ordinary communication that the creation of genuine art using such a medium should especially be acknowledged and allowed a certain degree of independence from the kind of "social and moral" criticism favored by Irving Howe and his current epigones. Creating literary art is very hard to do, and writers have had to resort to increasingly radical strategies (hence both modernism and postmodernism) to wrest it away from the moral inspectors.
Nothing we do, of course, is entirely beyond the reach of "social and moral categories" if we choose to employ them. But why must we always do so? Why is it necessary to subject that human activity we call "art" to relentless political and cultural analysis even when the artists themselves reject such an analysis as a willful distortion of the purpose of their work? Because we can? Can we not also choose to preserve an aesthetic space for works of literature? Besides, if you really are most interested in sociopolitical or moral interrogation in the first place, why spend your time trying to whip poems and novels into some suitably discursive shape?
Thus, for Howe to say that the kinds of critical terminology associated with New Critical formalism are "heavily freighted with associations drawn from history, psychology, morality" is to say something not very interesting or very useful. That human beings forge their conceptual and critical tools from various sources of human activity is not a very startling revelation. Where else could we get them? No one who ever believed in the efficacy of such terms as "coherence" or "complexity" ever believed they were "instrinsic values" separated from historical forces and derivations. They were just terms that served nicely, right now, to describe the aesthetic goals much of modern literature had set for itself. For me, it is those who cite the historical contingency of everything, as if this were urgent news, who betray a residual longing for absolutes and essences. How awful we don't have them!
Wellington admonishes Ellison for "brandish[ing] a vision of Art with a capital A," for encouraging a fruitless debate that just goes "round and round." But the argument is not circular. The dispute between the view that art is "truth telling" and the view that art is art could be settled if the parties agreed that "Art with a capital A" can exist if we allow it to (that it has its own kind of value if we allow ourselves to find it), but that this doesn't foreclose the possibility that "truth" will emerge for some readers as well (perhaps not so forcefully for others). Those of us who agree with Ellison simply don't want to rush quite so quickly from the immediacy of art to its supplementary implications.