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New Criticism Int.: The Close Reader in the U.S., Brazil, and Israel


Playing on John Crowe Ransom’s iconic “Criticism Inc.,” my dissertation, New Criticism Int.: The Close Reader in the U.S., Brazil and Israel, reveals the as yet unexplored global circulation of the North American theory of New Criticism, and its influence on international reading practices, literary production, and national identity construction. The dissertation follows the theory as it travels from North America to Brazil and Israel, where New Criticism combines with regional trends to provoke a radical institutional and cultural change. This new map provides a fresh model for understanding close reading, New Criticism’s key practice, which remains the prevailing method of critical reading taught in American institutions and abroad. The New Critics, it is usually assumed, believed that close reading involved a self-enclosed aesthetic object and a detached reader who contemplates the text but takes no part in constructing its meaning. New Criticism Int. demonstrates by contrast that the New Critics viewed the reader as an active participant in the creation of the text as an autonomous object. Specifically, they posited the reader’s mental work of attention as what allows the text to maintain its illusion of independence from the consumer. Consequently, the New Critics were highly invested in disciplining their readers into attention, and developed a sophisticated theory of the reader’s mind, which my study unpacks. Against this backdrop, close reading emerges as a pedagogical tool, which—though initially designed to serve aesthetic goals—was frequently deployed by the New Critics to serve political purposes, such as contouring the reader’s national identity. In other instances, the manipulation of attention was marshaled to open up ethical potentials, cultivating the reader’s receptivity to alterity.

My dissertation further demonstrates the vital role New Criticism played in the rise of experimental modernist literary forms and in processes of canonization within the U.S., Brazil and Israel. Though the New Critics presented close reading as suitable for any literary text, this method was in effect devised to fit specific works, which these thinkers deemed conducive to attention and therefore helped canonize. Such is the case, for example, with the oeuvre of William Faulkner in the North American context. On the other hand, New Criticism also generated literary counter-reactions to the imperative of attentive reading in the form of satires that mock the close reader, or literary texts fashioned to incite inattentive readerly modes. In this vein, the Brazilian Clarice Lispector exhausts her readers into distraction, and the Israeli Yehuda Amichai concatenates his metaphors to disturb a linear line of thought. New Criticism Int. thus offers a new international genealogy of New Criticism, and links it to global dynamics of literary production.

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