- Pluralistic Predilections: Surface Reading as Not-Altogether-New Resource
literary theory, literary criticism, critical method, Eighteenth-Century Studies
When Lisa invited me onto this panel I leapt at the chance, mostly out of a rare contrarian impulse triggered by the question implicit in its title. Why do we argue about the way we read? Well, I don’t; I suspect that maybe you don’t really either; I sort of don’t think we should; and I’m not sure, to echo Hamlet, that we could, even an if we would—that we’d be able to even if we wanted to. The premise behind all these claims is roughly the same, and it’s simple verging on simplistic. It hinges on that singular noun in our Trollopian rubric: the way we read now. To which I’d retort that the ways we actually read—not just all of us collectively, but each of us individually, at every given moment in our reading—are so numerous, so complex, and so concurrent as to be insusceptible of full articulation, let alone argument; whatever you might say about the way you read must radically underrepresent (and thereby distort) the ways in which you really read. So I tend to resist polemics, because I suspect (as perhaps do many of you) that all of us are pluralists in practice.
But maybe I’m talking not so much about pluralism as about sedimentation: layered reading habits and methods acquired, winnowed, questioned, but still persistent, and cumulative over time. That’s certainly my case. My own reading life—my predisposition toward a mingling of formalisms new and old (I’m not always able to distinguish between the two)—began with six years of Hebrew day school: some three hours of Biblical exegesis every morning, with all the attendant commentaries in all those distinct orthographies—whole constellations of explication surrounding the central scrap of scripture—and performed as acts of nanoscopically close reading. I’ve always cherished the wary reviewer of my first book who drily and acutely described my method as “Talmudic”; perhaps he had in mind the twelve pages (down from an original twenty-five) that I’d devoted to two sentences in which Pepys describes his walk to Greenwich holding a new watch in his hand.1
Small wonder then that in high school (late Sixties) and college (early Seventies [End Page 133] ) I found immensely congenial both the New Criticism in its twilight and Stanley Fish’s affective stylistics in its first effulgence: all those nuances of syntax and diction minutely tracked across spectacularly slow time. Teaching high school for the remainder of the decade, I remained intoxicated by these tactics; they were, and remain, very good to teach with. Thus sequestered, I missed much of the theory revolution and was later—well after returning to grad school and then entering the profession—scourged for it: how dared I, department colleagues asked, write so belletristically? Revising in the aftermath, I hit upon what at the time seemed to me a surprising critical contiguity. Having thought of myself as close-reading a bunch of clockfaces and diary entries, I was delighted to discover that I’d been speaking almost-New-Historicism all the time. The move from the mere formalism my colleagues deplored to the historicism they propounded entailed no big leap, just a comfortable mid-length stride. Cultural Studies seemed just a kiss away.
The notion of such proximity has become something of a commonplace, on both sides of the debate. It inflects Robert D. Hume’s acerbic description, two decades ago, of New Historicism as merely New Criticism repurposed for different kinds of documents.2 And it informs Richard Strier’s more affirmative argument, two years ago, that the application of old method to new texts renders formalism (old or new) abidingly indispensable: even now, he avers, “very few historical documents—meaning nonliterary and practically significant texts—have been subjected to ‘close reading’ in the formalist sense.”3 For me that pronouncement acts as invitation: in recent years, I’ve found the eighteenth-century theater a wonderful place to mess with documents—newspapers, playbills, advertisements, afterpieces—hitherto...