One of the foremost literary critics of the twentieth century, Cleanth Brooks achieved the breadth of his influence through his collaboration with Robert Penn Warren on the collegiate texts that revolutionized the reading of literature in mid-century America. The two, Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1946), followed the analytical practice of the “New Criticism,” described by John Crowe Ransom as employing a close reading of the text in preference to biographical information, with attention to the concepts of paradox and irony and to the effects of tone and rhythm.
Brooks and Warren exerted a significant influence on American literature both together and separately, and the parallels of their lives are striking. Brooks was born in Murray, Kentucky, and grew up in the Kentucky and Tennessee towns where his father, a Methodist minister, served. He received his early classical education at the McTyeire School in McKenzie, Tennessee, and went on to Vanderbilt University in 1924. There he met upperclassmen Robert Penn Warren and Andrew Lytle, attended some meetings of the waning Fugitive group, and revised his dream of the future. He studied under Donald Davidson and Ransom and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1928. After earning a M.A. degree at Tulane in 1929, he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, receiving the B.A. in 1931 and the B.Litt. in 1932.
In 1932 he joined the faculty at Louisiana State University. Brooks married Edith Amy “Tinkum” Blanchard of New Orleans in 1934. Warren also settled at LSU that year, and from 1935 through 1942 the two edited the new Southern Review, a leading literary quarterly. One of a number of southern humanists to migrate to northern universities, Brooks became a member in 1947 of the English department at Yale University, from which he retired in 1975 as Gray Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric. Warren followed his colleague and friend to Yale in 1950. Together, and with additional collaborators, Brooks and Warren published eight extraordinarily influential works on literature between 1936 and 1973: An Approach to Literature (1936), Understanding Poetry (1938), Understanding Fiction (1943), Modern Rhetoric (1949), Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric (1950), An Anthology of Stories from the Southern Review (1953), The Scope of Fiction (1960), and American Literature: The Makers and the Making (1973).
Brooks's works, Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) and The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947), established his reputation as an unexcelled interpreter of verse. Among his eight other literary studies, two works on Faulkner, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963) and William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond (1978), provide benchmarks in Faulkner scholarship.
After his retirement Brooks continued to write and lecture. He memorialized Warren, his friend of sixty-five years. In the early 1990s he selected for publication twenty-two essays that best represent the themes of his life; they were published in 1995 as Community, Religion, and Literature. Cleanth Brooks died May 10, 1994.
Thomas D. Young, ed., The New Criticism and After (1976) and Tennessee Writers (1981)