Godfather of American Modernism

April 30 is the birth date of John Crowe Ransom (1888), who had as much to do with the look of modern American writing as anyone could. He started out at Vanderbilt where he taught poets Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate (and not at Kenyon, as The Writer’s Almanac has it) along with critic Cleanth Brooks, poet Donald Davidson, and poet Randall Jarrell, who also had Brooks and Tate as instructors. He also founded The Fugitive, a short-lived but highly influential literary magazine that featured the talent that grouped around him. He later went to Kenyon, where he taught poets Robert Lowell and James Wright, short story master Peter Taylor, novelist E. L. Doctorow, and influential editor Robie Macauley, among others. He also started The Kenyon Review, one of the great literary journals ever, which gave space to just about everyone important: Warren, Tate, Taylor, Ford Madox Ford, Flannery O’Connor, Dylan Thomas, Boris Pasternak, Bertolt Brecht, Doris Lessing, and Delmore Schwartz, among many others. He was also a renowned poet himself although his output is very small (160 or so poems); he simply stopped writing poems when he felt he’d said all he had to say.

On top of that, he named a critical movement with his book The New Criticism (1941). Main figures in that movement, which focused on close reading and textual analysis, were, unsurprisingly, Brooks, Tate, and Warren, along with Ransom, R. P. Blackmur, and W. K. Wimsatt, and EVERYONE of my generation was trained in New Criticism to some degree or other. There may be more someone could do to shape a literary era, but I’m not sure what it could be.

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