In the 1920s, and particularly the 1930s and after, the turn to close reading is evident everywhere in in academic literary criticism, and inevitably in what remained of general criticism outside the universities, both professional and informal. Those practising this new form, or rather this concentrated and public incarnation of what had always happened in any private reading though rarely made explicit, tended to describe themselves as introducing a new precision and higher standards of proof and demonstration into criticism, superseding the impressionists of the previous century, and particularly the early part of the twentieth century.
Much of this tendency is to be explained by the undoubted fact that the academic profession needed to hold its head up in the university, and mere literary history, mere textual scholarship, did not offer sufficient propositional prestige or sufficiently broad niches for the expanding discipline. I. A. Richards’ psychological work might have offered a viable route, though it too would have been narrow, and ancillary to a more general philosophy and science of mind, and could not deliver the pre-eminence, or at least plausible pretensions to pre-eminence, that those establishing the field required, as witness F. R. Leavis. Indeed, Leavis’s quarrel with Richards demonstrates precisely this point.
In any case, Richards had to extraordinary degree contributed to the cult of close readings through his own psychological speculations, in Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), and in Practical Criticism (1929). To a degree, this was inadvertent; he genuinely was attempting psychology – the short passages collected from his students were called protocols and he meant it in the German scientific sense, “observations” – and the focus necessary for that work also encouraged close reading as a method normal engagement with texts as well as a means of gathering useful evidence. But it was also deliberate in that Richards was not entirely detached in experimentation. It is everywhere evident in these early books, that he was, as he wrote in a letter to his wife during the composition of Principles that he was trying to put the arts back into the centre of all values. Empson was not accident; he was positivel encouraged.
Allowing all this to be true, as I believe it is, it should be granted that there may be a further causal factor in the turn to microscopic analysis, a turn not explainec by progress, improvement and the supercession of the indolent and complacent forebears. Indeed, that explanation is first of all suspicious because transparently self-serving, and secondly because it is not consistent with the actual practise of Arnold, Bagehot, Stephen, Bradley, or much of the second rank of criticism in the periodicals. They are not lazy or imprecise; they are elliptical; they take so much for granted in their readers, and they did so because they knew that it was safe to assume that even the slightest hint would be correctly understood as a demonstration, that it would expand inferentially in the mind of the reader. This confidence, which I use here in a more literal sense than is usual, was itself grounded in a shared and high standard of reading. They read attentively and they read often in unison, and always with sufficient common ground for their divergences to be mutually and intersubjectively intelligible. The small size of the reading population and the similarities of their educational backgrounds clearly helped. These critics understood each other and were sure that they understood what they read precisely because they understood each other’s readings even and especially when they disagreed.
In such an environment detailed demonstration was redundant and to indulge in it would have seemed neurotic, burdensome and insecure. But such an insecure neurosis would soon become all-but universal, with close-reading indispensable in order to secure communication and even self-confidence in the readings described. The trend continues, except amongst close friends; we resort to close readings not only to communicate our interpretation to a wider audience, but in order to reassure ourselves that we have actually understood the text.