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Modern North American Literature 101: American Literary Criticism and Theories


The series “Modern North American Literature 101” presents the major historic, social, economic, and most importantly, literary events which unfolded within the United States of America, spanning from the 20th century up to the beginning of the 21st century. In contrast to previous phenomena, the 20th century entailed an extreme disruption of morality, ethics, and priorities that affected the rest of the world. This series attempts to assess how the North American literary scene engaged with the socio-political panorama that engorged the patriotic American sentiment of that time, which both World Wars and the Cold War largely contributed to fueling over the period. Furthermore, it will also attempt to analyze how literature became a means and medium to protest against social injustices such as racism, classism, and sexism. This analysis will involve the study and examination of literary movements and literary criticism that clearly influenced the evolution of American literature, resulting in a deep, outstanding, and long-lasting impact on the American sense of identity, only to see it shift further as the 21st century opened.

The North American Modern Literature 101 series consists of eight articles, arranged in the following order:

Modern North American Literature 101: American Literary Criticism and Theories

For many, literature is a refuge; stories and words through which one can escape the real world. The simple comfort of a good story suffices many hobbyist readers. However, those who dedicate their life to professionally reading literature, such as students or academic essayists, approach texts by evaluating the work both for the story and for its pragmatic contribution to the existent literature and social context. In general terms, these people criticize literature according to the literary theories constructed by critical thought and social discussion. In other words, “literary theory is distinct from literary criticism, the latter being the practical application of the former” (Castle, 2009, p. 2). Both concepts, despite being present throughout the history of literature, were only coined in the mid-20th century and in the US with the popularization of structuralist theories in intellectual circles. The idea of categorising and labelling the schools of thought appealed to modernist readers and writers. Moreover, there was great interest in criticising a text from different literary theories. That is, the value extracted from the text can immensely vary depending on the approach taken by the critic. For example, The Great Gatsby can be criticized from a feminist, a Marxist, or a formalist perspective, and even a convergence of them. What is more, the appliance of literary theory in literary criticism is atemporal, thus, the formulation of new theories can be employed to criticise issues that were not present at the time of a text’s publication. In fact,

“The ongoing importance of literary theory suggests that it has become an ever-expanding field of intellectual debate. Yet, because these critical approaches help us to see something about society’s attitudes towards economic factors, the future directions of literary theory necessarily remain unpredictable and will surely depend on how far the production of knowledge regarding human relations and human experience can evolve” (Owen & Pividori, 2021, p. xix-xx)

The establishment of U.S. Literature in the 20th century as a piece of world literature has provoked many current relevant literary theories to be further developed, and some were even theorized on American soil. Some of these are New Criticism, Gender and Queer Theory, and Postcolonialism. That is not to say that the U.S. acquired the main role in literary theory, since French, British, and other academics expanded theories that impacted the theorisation and critique of American literature in the 20th century. Nonetheless, this focus on literary theory has led to a stylistic problem. As Gregory Castle, a researcher on literary and cultural theory at Arizona State University, explains that “many readers are put off by the obscure terms, difficult locations, allusiveness, self-reflexiveness, and linguistic display that they find in so much theoretical discourse. Deconstruction, Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Marxist theory, Postcolonial theory – all are targets of criticism for stylistic extravagance, logical incoherence, or doctrinal rigidity” (Castle, 2007, p. 4-5). For this same reason, this essay seeks to present the complex theory and critique practices that influenced the U.S. literature of the twentieth century in simple terms so as to provide a primary introduction to the study of literary theory and literary criticism.

Figure 1. 'The Critic in the Modern World' by Travière (1830).

Structuralism and Poststructuralism

In the early 20th century, the ruling theory was structuralism, heir to the previous existentialism of the 19th century. This theory perceives every text with a pre-existent structure, for instance, genres, narrative techniques, motifs, and even intertextuality rooted in language. Principally hypothesized by Ferdinand de Saussure, he “formulated a concise argument about the systemic nature of language, as a self-regulating system that forges its own ‘reality’ instead of being a transparent window on reality, and the relational identity of its elements” (Grishakova, 2018, p. 49). Its relation to semiotics and linguistic devices propelled this school of thought as a literary theory that analogized language with narrative structures by focusing on “the idea that human societies and their traditions can be understood according to universal and unchanging structures that are replicated in texts, art works, rituals, and other modes of expression” (Castle, 2009, p. 154). As a heavily ambiguous and complex concept, in the 1960s structuralism as a literary theory “was presented in the United States as a strange concoction of these highly systematized linguistic approaches […I]n the United States, the encounter with scientific structuralism coincided largely with the reception of its critique” (Wolfreys, 2006, p. 28). This critique developed into post-structuralism, a direct response by Michel Foucault to Saussure’s theory. Castle maintains that “poststructuralism, in its principal modes […] precisely by focusing its critical energies upon structured systems, especially binary systems, commits itself to discovering alternatives precisely through the critical project itself” (Castle, 2009, p. 155).

This concept shelters many other theories that challenge these binaries that focused on “rules rather than expressions, grammar rather than usage, models rather than data, competence rather than performance, systems rather than realizations, langue (language) rather than parole (speech)” (Leitch, 2009, p. 204). Therefore, poststructuralism refuses to concede that the world is built upon one opposing the other, in economic, political, gender, and linguistic terms but the intersectionality of many systems that conform to a concept or object. For instance, post-structuralist feminist and queer theory led by Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Hélène Cixous in the 70s, and shouldered by Judith Butler in the 90s, “saw rich possibilities in deconstructing such binaries hierarchies as male/female and hetero/homo” (Kruger, 2018, p. 337). The updated theory of Butler’s gender performativity claims that gender is a performed factor instead of innate in human biology. In other words, female or male behavior is conditioned by social norms in which “gender and sexed bodies come to be felt as inherent, stable entities. But, she emphasizes, this sense of a secure sexed and gendered self does not mean that, at our core, there exists some ‘natural’, given sex/gender that is the cause of our behavior in the world” (Kruger, 2018, p. 339). Furthermore, accounting for the reality and tangibility of these social norms, the post-structuralist feminist theory of the twentieth-century analyses and devitalizes these roles to the extent that currently,

Feminism signifies an interrelated set of theories and actions whose goal is to identify, analyze, and -through activist effort- overturn systematic oppression or discrimination that is based on assumptions about biological sex or culturally conceived gender. feminists proceed from the observation that dominant social cultural and political attitudes and practices have worked to the disadvantage of people positioned as ‘Other’ with respect to the straight, white, elite, abled, male norm” (Warhol, 2018, p. 314).

Figure 2. Poststructuralist and feminist philosopher Judith Butler.

Formalism and the New Criticism

Structuralism and poststructuralism coexisted with Formalism, theorized principally in Russia with formalists Roman Jakobson, Boris Eichenbaum, and others. Essentially, as a literary theory and criticism, formalism rejects all types of social, authorship, and content influence by instead focusing on the textual elements inherent in the text, such as grammar, syntax, or literary devices such as tropes and themes. In fact, quite similar to structuralism itself, it finds its foundations in language more than external concerns. When it reached French territory, philosophers and critics such as Roland Barthes expanded the theory. In Barthes’ case, he reflected on the death of the author and the birth of the reader. In his 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’, he writes: “once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (Barthes, 1977, p. 147). Soon after, formalism reached American shores, where it dominated the literary criticism scene of the time.

Consequently, American academics started to theorize and develop their own literary criticism: New Criticism. This American approach to academic criticism appeared as a beneficiary of formalism. However, Castle (2009) maintains that “whereas Formalism grew out of the science of linguistics and provided a theoretical basis for innovation in a wide variety of other disciplines, the New Criticism emerged out of poetry and poetics” (Castle, 2009, p. 25). In other words, the texts exist separately and independently from their social context and rely solely on close reading. Hence, the new literary American criticism “is in fact part of a long tradition of ethical thinking, a tradition that, in an apparent paradox, is ethical not despite, but because of, its insistence on aestheticism” (Archambeau, 2012, p. 29). The New Critics, such as I. A. Richards, primarily focused on poetry but argued that all literature should be considered independent self-sufficient objects. As a result, the position of the author was questioned and regarded as a distraction from the actual true meaning and form of the poem. In fact, New Critics introduced Barthes’ theory and, thus, maintained that the criticism at the time had derived into the sentimentalism of the Romantics by intruding into issues outside of the text itself. This could easily be summarised into “N.C. = formalist = text only = not interested in ethics/world beyond text” (Archambeau, 2012, p. 31) to explain that American critics strived to break the shell into which literary criticism had been closed into. The New Critics’ approach might have contributed to the discussion about the conformation of items of evaluation in the quality of literary pieces.

Figure 3. Literary theorist Roland Barthes theorised The Death of the Author.


After the geographical and political process of decolonization of the twentieth century, and countries such as India gaining its independence, a new academic discipline appeared: Postcolonialism. With backgrounds in philosophy, history, political science, and sociology, postcolonialism appeared as a critical theory to respond to the imperial and colonial aftereffects the West imposed on the East, both oppressing its population and lands. Even more, it reached out to affairs marginalised by white theorists. Hence, it can be regarded as an encapsulation of theories that account for multiple social realities, primarily those racialised communities. In other words, it “attempts to understand and interrogate the colonial past, see its effects on the present and, at its best, articulates strategies for cultural survival” (Wolfreys, 2006, p. 120).

As a literary theory, multiple concepts emerged to word behaviors or attitudes towards and in the global South. One of the earliest terms is the Other, regarding the East or South in opposition to the West or North. The Other has to be analyzed in contrast to the Self, regarded as an example to follow, and silencing the Orient in the process. Edward Said brought Postcolonialism to the US with his work Orientalism (1978) in which he defined Orientalism as:

“A form of ‘executive’ knowledge that can be used to gain information on native peoples in order better to control them. it is also archival in nature, for its ambitions are to gain total knowledge about these peoples and their cultures. […] Finally, it is a form of knowledge that circumscribes and delimits, constructing the East as an OTHER in relation to the West” (Castle, 2009, p. 137).

Additionally, Said seeks to reveal the prejudices and stigmas with which the East or Orient is represented or fetishized so as to reinforce the supremacy and hegemony of Western and white narratives. Therefore, arguing against literary conceptions and representations naturalized throughout time and present them as unreliable and fictitious.

Figure 4. Edward Said conceptualised Orientalism.

Complementarily to the Other and Said’s Orientalism, Antonio Gramsci coined the term subaltern to conceptualise the position the colonized population occupied in the imperial context as Othered subjects without agency. Feminist critic and literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak developed Gramsci’s concept in her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’. Spivak addresses whether the subaltern, as a collective, has a voice if “between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘third-world woman’ caught between tradition and modernization” (Spivak, 1988, p. 306). The disappearance of the female figure in postcolonial theory led Spivak to conclude that “the subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with ‘woman’ as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish” (Spivak, 1988, p. 308). Consequently, understanding postcoloniality both as a critical and literary theory entails the configuration of intersections that not only includes race, but how this is influences by factors such as gender, class, geography, and even nature.


To sum up, literary theory acts as the conceptualisation of the nature of literature and its analysis. In categorizing literary features, critics can benefit from them by characterizing texts by means of literary criticism, usually focusing on one theory. However, because of the recognition literary theory gained throughout the twentieth century, articulation became increasingly complex, not only in language but in abstractness and intellectuality. As a result, this essay pursues to present the main literary theories and criticism that influenced the North American literary scene of the twentieth century in order to provide readers with an easier understanding of the professional approach mainstreamed by critics. On the one hand, structuralism dominated the first half of the century by focusing on the structure and language of the text. By contrast, poststructuralism reacted to its predecessor by challenging the binaries on which structuralism was based. For instance, Judith Butler with their gender performativity theory challenged the binary gender and sex. On the other hand, formalism focused on the internal and textual elements by dismissing external issues such as the author or social context. From this theory, a literary criticism bloomed in the US known as New Criticism, which further elaborated formalism as a literary theory by focusing mainly on poetry. Lastly, a crucial theory and field of study in the second half of the century was postcolonialism, which concerned itself with the aftermath of colonialism in the East because of the impositions of the West. Three vital concepts were presented: the Other, Orientalism, and Subaltern. All reflect the peripherality on which population and territory stand because of the misrepresentations provided by Western culture. It goes without saying that these theories are in constant development and evolution considering the constant social changes of the 21st century.


Archambeau, R. (2012). Aesthetics as Ethics: One and a Half Theses on the New Criticism. In M. Hickman & J. McIntrye (Eds.) Rereading the New Criticism. The Ohio State University Press.

Barthes, R. (1990). The Death of the Author. In Image, Music, Text (pp. 142-148). Translated by Stephen Heath. Fontana.

Castle, G. (2009). The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory. (1st ed.). Blackwell Publishers.

Grishakova, M. (2018). Structuralism and Semiotics. In A Companion to Literary Theory, D.H. Richter (Ed.). Wiley Blackwell. 48-59.

Kruger, S. F. (2018). Queer Theory. In A Companion to Literary Theory, D.H. Richter (Ed.). Wiley Blackwell. 336-347.

Leitch, V. B. (2009). American Literary Criticism since the 1930s. Taylor & Francis Group.

Owen, D. & Pividori, C. (2021). Introduction. In Theoretically Speaking About Literature: Understanding Theory in the Study of Literary Works / edited by David Own and Cristina Pividori. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Basingstoke: Macmillan. 271-313.

Warhol, R. (2018). Anglophone Feminism. In A Companion to Literary Theory, D.H. Richter (Ed.). Wiley Blackwell. 314-324.

Wolfreys, J. (2006). Modern North American Criticism and Theory: A Critical Guide. Edinburgh University Press.

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Natàlia Vila

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