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Reviewed by:
  • Modernism and Close Reading ed. by David James
  • Jolanta Wawrzycka (bio)
MODERNISM AND CLOSE READING, edited by David James. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 246 pp. $70.00 hardcover, ebook.

Modernism and Close Reading, edited by David James, surveys the early- and mid-twentieth-century developments in literary criticism. It focuses on the history of close reading, with the goal to gain "some sense of its futurity" at the moment of growth of modernist scholarship (1) and to provide an incentive to examine a variety of contexts—conceptual, historical, and institutional—for critical urgencies as they present themselves in the global context of modernist studies (2). The collection is highly serviceable for all academics not only as a handy refresher—or a primer for what some literature departments might have removed from their curricula—but also for its invaluable look into the very recent developments in the discipline. [End Page 382] So, in the spirit of service, I offer an overview of all chapters, eschewing choosing one over the other out of my deep respect for the travails of editorship. And James has done a remarkable job in conceiving and designing the collection, and in recruiting diverse contributors, "brilliant, imaginative scholars" (v), whose virtuosity as critics makes for a truly gratifying read.

Five chapters in Part I of the volume, "Histories of Modernism and Close Reading," survey close reading practices and, in a way, re-canonize the canonized. Chapter 1, "Modernist Close Reading" by Max Saunders, and chapter 2, "Close Reading as Performance" by Peter Howarth, revisit close reading as a product of modernism central to the 1920s Cambridge Practical Criticism and to its subsequent outgrowth, the American New Criticism. The authors study the impact of I. R. Richards, C. K. Ogden, William Empson, Laura Riding, Robert Graves, and the New Critics.1 Saunders, by signaling a particular type of close reading—Ford Madox Ford's parodistic recreation of W. B. Yeats's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"2—points to its affinities with translation, especially as practiced by Ezra Pound (25-27). His overview of "distant reading," "surface reading," and "symptomatic reading" closes the chapter (37-44). Now Howarth, as his title announces, sees close reading in terms of an event, a performance. As one of many developments in the "social construction of literary value" (46), close reading sparked turf wars in literature departments (46-47). Drawing on works of Annette Federico, Stephen Greenblatt, and Paul B. Armstrong, for whom readers' subjectivity and their historical positioning compete in the reading process (65-68),3 Howarth concludes that close reading should become useful to the historicist project once "it is understood in its modernist context as a performance" (68).

Rachel Sagner Buurma's and Laura Heffernan's chapter 3, "Poetry Explication: The Making of a Method," discusses Poetry Explication: A Checklist of Interpretation Since 1925 of British and American Poems Past and Present.4 The Checklist offers insight into "the construction of the myth of close reading's dominance" (72) and into the mid-century literary scholarship's reliance on close-reading practices that, eclipsing other methodologies, modeled how to explicate the autonomous poem. But the authors conclude that, rather than the poem, the methodology made "explications autonomous" (84). A different approach to close reading would be to rely more on "an attention to attention" and less on "narratives of eclipse or supersession" (85).

Joseph Brooker tackles Joycean criticism in chapter 4, "Slow Revelations: James Joyce and the Rhetorics of Reading," by closely reading Hugh Kenner's and Fritz Senn's close readings of Joyce.5 Brooker's insightful premise—that "what we think of as close reading, when communicated to us, also implies a practice of writing" [End Page 383] (86)—feeds well into his analyses of the two critics' distinctive approaches, marked by unique styles of their criticism (89-103). Moving on to such other modes of close reading as Katherine Mullin's and Margot Norris's historicizing readings of "Eveline" (103-05),6 and Luca Crispi's and Finn Fordham's genetic approaches to Joyce's text (105-110),7 Brooker shows that historicists and genetic scholars expand our understanding of close reading vis-à-vis...


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