Louise Rosenblatt

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Louise Rosenblatt (b. 1904–d. 2005) was a highly influential thinker in literary and critical theory, reading pedagogy, and education. She was professor of education at New York University from 1948 until 1972, and she continued to teach for many years at other universities. The impact of her writings extends to aesthetics, communication and media studies, and cultural studies. Her transactional theory of reading literature earned a permanent place among methodologies applied to the study of reader comprehension and improving the teaching of reading, from preschool to college-age years. She is most widely known for her “reader response” theory of literature. The process of reading is a dynamic transaction between the reader and the text, in which meaningful ideas arise for readers from their own thoughtful and creative interpretations. Her first book, Literature as Exploration, which was published in 1938, has gone through five editions and remains in print in the early 21st century. Her last book, Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays, was published in 2005 and contained selected essays from each decade of her career. Rosenblatt’s view of literary experience threw down a challenge to a dominant paradigm during the 1940s and 1950s, namely the New Criticism. New Criticism held that authentic meanings of a piece of creative writing—a novel, story, drama, poem, and so on—are already within the text itself, requiring attention to that somewhat concealed yet objective truth. Rosenblatt took the pragmatist approach, starting from the aesthetics of reading. As a member of the Conference on Methods in Philosophy and the Sciences at Columbia University during the 1930s, she studied John Dewey, Charles Peirce, and William James. During this time, she married the pragmatist philosopher Sidney Ratner. Rosenblatt applied her knowledge of pragmatism to the question of understanding creative writing. For pragmatism, all experiences are creative fusions of intersecting processes, some from within and some from without. Any comprehension of a text blends the reader’s particular approach for appreciating it together with the capacity of the text to provoke a variety of stimulating ideas. The emotional and the factual are rarely found in pure forms; only a gradual range from the affective to the cognitive can characterize lived experience. Understanding the process of reading in its fundamental experiential situation has been a revolutionary philosophical position, impacting both childhood education and literary theory. Rosenblatt’s work continues to inspire fresh academic research and curricular innovations.

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