Published in Conference, 5:2 (1995), 95-99.

Copyright (c) Conference: a journal of philosophy and theory, 1995.

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New Reference Works in Literary Theory

David A. Goldfarb

It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward. Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries.

(Samuell Johnson, Preface n.p.)

Since Paul DeMan's wartime writings for a Belgian Nazi collaborationist journal became a matter of public discussion in 1985, the field of literary theory has been in a state of reassessment and self-examination. The phenomenon of the brief appearance and disappearance of "The New Historicism," for example, demonstrated that for some time the age of the "dominant critical school" like Deconstruction, Structuralism, and before it the New Criticism, is over. We can no longer expect a new method to declare the death of all earlier critical modes as has been norm since the Second World War. The DeMan controversy--fortunately--took away the possibility of the kind of critical faddism that characterized the 1980's.

The publication of no fewer than four new encyclopedias of literary theory in the past year might be seen as the fallout of this reassessment. In addition to providing a reference for the uninitiated and even the all too well initiated who need to sort out the critical confusion of the last fifty years, the encyclopedia relativizes all theoretical perspectives. Forsaking all narrative structure save that of the alphabet, the encyclopedia claims not to choose any one theoretical position, allowing proponents of each theory to stake out their own views and readers to choose among them like items in a vending machine.

This review will consider the new offerings from Princeton, Johns Hopkins and Toronto. Conference did not receive a copy of the new Routledge encyclopedia by press time, but we hope to provide an addendum to this review as soon as it arrives. I have tried to consider particularly the concerns of fellow graduate students in this review: which encyclopedia would be most useful in preparation for comprehensive exams, as a reference for unfamiliar critical terms encountered in the course of general study, and as a source of concise definitions for use in the classroom when teaching. All three works contain essays by the most eminent scholars in the field, so the general quality of the articles is not at issue here. As a way into each work, to test the ease with which information can be accessed and to see what kind of information could be obtained, I thought we might see if we could find an objective correlative for T. S. Eliot's term, "Objective Correlative."

Say that we had no context, but only the term. Toronto's Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms would not be particularly helpful at first. The index includes almost exclusively headwords, and the encyclopedia is not arranged in dictionary form, but in three alphabetical sections, "Approaches, Scholars, Terms," making it impossible to find this term directly. If we got to an entry, we would discover that the entries themselves are extensively cross-referenced, so that if we were to find our term in one entry, we might be referred to other entries for more information, but the "List of Entries" is of little value for this purpose, unless we happen to be looking for a headword, in which case, we would have been able to find it directly, without looking at the "List of Entries."

What entries would we find? As the title suggests, the scope of the Toronto volume is limited to contemporary literary theory. If we looked up something like, "Rhetorical Criticism," then, we would find no discussion of classical or medieval rhetoric, but only of theorists who have taken a rhetorical approach in the Twentieth Century. We would find as headwords currently embattled and frequently mystifying terms like "over-determination," "heteroglossia" and "Differance/difference," but less emphasis on terms from the earlier part of the century in Anglo-American and West-European criticism, like "objective correlative." With that we can set aside the Toronto Encyclopedia, and return when we have more information, perhaps from one of the other volumes.

The "Index of Topics" in the The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, contains four cross references under "objective correlative," listed as "Eliot; Modernist; New Criticism; Santayana." Although Eliot should indeed be the first place we look for this idea, its priority in the index is only a function of the position of "E" in the alphabet, and this index does not distinguish between fuller discussions and passim references.

Balachandra Rajan, under "Eliot," offers a semiotic definition of "objective correlative," after giving us the source of the term, Eliot's essay "Hamlet and His Problems" (1919):

Eliot argues that there is a verbal formula for any given state of emotion that when found and used will evoke that state and no other. We are in fact being offered a decisively representational view of language in which an unmistakable relationship is claimed between the sign and the state. Though not in the manner of ROLAND BARTHES [caps indicate a cross reference] or Foucault, Eliot's view does call for the effacement of the author both in his articulation of this concept and in his description of the manner in which tradition enters contemporaneity. The author is merely the agency through which the infallible sign comes into being. The critic's concern is with the sign and with the one right reading that the sign dictate rather than with the sign's sponsor or catalyst.
We get a compact, one-line definition, a brief comparison to some more recent critical views, a source, and a slightly more nuanced explanation of the initial definition in terms of Rajan's preferred approach. We do not get any history of this idea, however, until we look further to the second cross reference in the index, "Modernist Theory and Criticism," where we learn something of Eliot's "mythical method" (as opposed to a "narrative method") of poetry and the influence of Frazer's The Golden Bough,1 and under "Santayana," who is widely seen as the philosophical source for the idea. The entry on "New Criticism," offers another context for the definition for those unfamiliar with the semiotic approach:
Eliot suggests that there is a unique experience to which the language of the poem corresponds: the poem means just what it says, but it is the "objective correlative" in experience that makes the intellectual and emotional value of the poem intelligible.
This seems a useful redundancy, allowing readers with a range of critical backgrounds access to the original idea.

Armed with more information, we can go back to Toronto to see what we might have found, had we already known something about the history of the term, "objective correlative," and just wanted a concise definition. Under the Eliot entry, Grieg Henderson admirably (and in the spirit of the New Criticism that Eliot inspired) quotes Eliot's definition directly rather than offering a paraphrase, then paraphrases the context of Eliot's "Hamlet" essay, which is the source of this quote from Eliot:

"the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an `objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked"
Now it is the reader's task to figure it out, as it should be. If I were bringing this up in an undergraduate class as a side topic, I would want to work through Eliot's definition, and the Toronto Encyclopedia conveniently offers the key line. We also get a certain amount of context, as in the Hopkins volume, if we continue to read about Eliot and look up New Criticism. There is no discussion, however, of Frazer or Santayana, as far as I could see. It might be there, but without a thorough index, the information is arcane.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, now in its third edition, is of somewhat different scope than the other works. Earlier versions were not particularly theoretically self-conscious, and reflected the general New Critical biases that had become entrenched by 1965, the publication year of the first edition. Its editors continue to see poetry as its central focus, and the work continues to be an excellent source for definitions of the rhetorical terms that were dear to the New Critics as well as overviews of poetry in most of the world's languages. The New Princeton features revised or completely new versions of the older material, as well as articles on many national literatures that were not previously discussed. The most significant change has been the inclusion of many new articles on topics of critical theory particularly as they relate to the criticism of poetry, and a greater awareness of theoretical issues in other articles. We will, then, have no difficulty finding plenty of information on "objective correlative" or "synechdoche," but we will find little or nothing on "Bildungsroman" or theories of the novel except insofar as they relate to narrative poetry.

The style of the dictionary, which has remained consistent in all editions, is an excellent model for such works. In lieu of an index, the volume is arranged in dictionary form with extensive cross-referencing. The first paragraph of a Princeton definition is usually a concise explanation of the term that would satisfy the requirements, say, of a short identifications section of a comprehensive exam or a basic question from a student in an undergraduate literature class. In this case, we find the source of the term and Eliot's definition and brief description of the general context of the "Hamlet" essay. The short definition is usually followed by a more detailed discussion of the term, showing examples of its use in different critical contexts, and a bibliography of secondary sources on the topic. The discussion by Louis Menand relates Eliot's idea to its antecedents in the Nineteenth Century and outlines the generally negative critical assessments of the value of Eliot's thesis in the Twentieth Century. There is no mention of Frazer, however, or Santayana as possible influences.

An excellent reference tool which I have only seen in the Polish Slownik terminow literackich (Dictionary of Literary Terms), and would be welcome in the next editions of our English reference works, is a cross index of foreign literary terms. The Princeton, for instance, sometimes lists foreign equivalents after an English headword. The Polish work does this thoroughly, but also has indices of English, French, German and Russian literary terms that refer back to their Polish equivalents, where synonyms in other languages may be listed as well. Though the definitions, of course, are in Polish, the use of the foreign language indices does not require a knowledge of Polish.

The Toronto Encyclopedia is the most historically limited of the three reference works but might provide a good introduction to the debates of the 1960's, '70's and '80's. The Princeton volume is well referenced and each of its definitions provides an excellent historical evaluation of each term listing sources for further reading, but is limited to applications related to the study of poetry. The Johns Hopkins volume presents a broader historical overview and has a much more useful index than the Toronto Encyclopedia and is not constrained by genre, but we should hope that a more affordable paperback edition is made available soon. The Hopkins Guide is probably the best place to look for an overview of a particular critic, school or the meaning of a theoretical concept, but as a reference for rhetorical and literary terms that one is likely to encounter in the course of reading literary criticism, the New Princeton Encyclopedia is indispensable.


  1. It is perhaps my own peculiar argument that the idea of the "objective correlative" is related to Frazer's notion that there are fundamental human myths which arise in different forms across cultures. [RETURN]

Additional Works Cited


Last updated September 3, 1995. If you have any suggestions or comments on this page or anything in this archive, please e-mail me.

David A. Goldfarb