Reading Responses

Over the course of the semester, you will write three 3-4 page response papers. These may be written on any of the texts we read in class, but two of your response papers must be submitted before Spring Break. In these responses, you will isolate and practice certain critical skills that are essential to the work we do in the English Department. Responses are due no more than one week after we finish discussing the text in question. You must write one response in each of the following categories (though you need not write them in order). Please mark clearly on your response how you would like me to consider it.

Type A Response (Close Reading): “Close reading” is a critical mode developed by a group called the New Critics in the early part of the twentieth century. In part, this formalist approach was designed to help critics cope with complex modernist poetry appearing at the same time. Some of the major New Critics (like John Crowe Ransom) were also modernist poets! Close reading was first used by the New Critics to explore the “well-wrought urn” of a poem, to demonstrate how its complex interplay of language and structure exhibited the New Critics’ favorite concepts: paradox, ambiguity, irony, and tension.

While New Criticism has fallen out of fashion in literary study, close reading remains, in many ways, the building block of what we do in English departments. Before we can add any context or research, we must be able to grapple with the text on its own terms, to build an interpretation of a text out of the text itself by attending to its language and structure. As such, your close reading response will have only one work cited: the primary text.

Some guidelines…

Close Reading is NOT:

  • A dressed-up plot summary
  • A mere rephrasing of language
  • A meditation on “universal” themes in the text
  • A treatment of character motivation in the text (characters are not real people)
  • A psychoanalysis of a character or characters (see above)
  • A psychoanalysis of the author
  • Concerned with history or other critical interpretations
  • Too dependent on the notion of “authorial intent” (what New Critics call “the intentional fallacy”)

Close Reading IS:

  • Concerned with all aspects of language (including word choice, syntax, structure)
  • Concerned with literary form
  • A mode that assumes a text’s ideas and structure are intertwined and symbiotic
  • A mode that assumes a text exhibits an internal logic, and that each text’s internal logic differs from that of other texts
  • A mode that assumes that it is the critic’s job to explore the relationship between ideas and form
  • Interested in seeing “the universe in a grain of sand”: teasing out how major themes of a text are present in small details, including formal ones
  • Heavily dependent on quotation and discussion of denotation and connotation of words

Type B Response (Contextual Reading): With the emergence of New Historicism in the 1980s, literary criticism began to take a different approach to the importance of historical and cultural context. No longer did texts simply reflect “the age,” instead texts negotiated their complex historical moments through engagement with contemporary issues and discourses. This response paper should investigate a context a reference in the text or suggest an important context for interpreting the text. This context might be explicitly stated in the text or might be implied by the narrative. Some ideas for a contextual reading might emerge from the class presentations. Others may be spurred by moments of confusion while engaged with the text, moments where you ask what did this particular scene mean to the contemporary readers of the text? Or, what should this mean to us as readers trying to understand the text within its context? Some examples (from books not on our syllabus) of strong ideas for a contextual reading:

  • In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan mentions a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires, a loosely veiled reference to Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color. How does exploring this reference help us to understand the complexities of race and identity in a novel primarily about whites?
  • In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim spend a great deal of time with two characters called “The King” and “The Duke,” who make a habit of putting on awful performances of Shakespeare along the Mississippi River. What role did Shakespeare have in nineteenth century American culture, and how is Twain using this as a trope within the novel?

This response paper will require some outside research, and you should use your research to make an argument for how the knowledge of this context enhances our reading of the text. You should use at least two sources(primary or secondary only) to help support your argument. These sources may be contemporary sources, but you should avoid literary critical sources that have already done the kind of work you want to do. In other words, seek out historical sources rather than literary critical ones. Of course, as you tease out the meaning in these references and explore how the text treats the issues in question, some traditional close reading skills will come into play.

“Tertiary” sources like encyclopedias, dictionaries, and general textbooks should not be used. Feel free to consult these for basic information, and especially to mine bibliographies for better, more detailed secondary and primary sources. The best databases for this information is America: History and Life, used by historians and scholars of American Studies. You should also make sophisticated use of the library’s catalog LEO (experiment with search terms and use the subject field) and you may find resources available through Interlibrary Loan on Worldcat. Finally, you might also find useful primary sources through digitization projects like Google Books and the Internet Archive. Still stumped? Consider looking into the library’sAmerican Periodical Series, which digitizes important magazines from the period (just make sure you’re aware of dates – an article from 1840 won’t provide much context for a text from 1929).

Type C Response (Critical Engagement): In this response paper, you will directly engage on of the literary critics we have read in common. Your engagement should incorporate some summarization of the critic’s main argument, but it must move beyond a mere summary. You may take issue with the critic’s argument, offer extensions of her claims, or wholly reject her argument and offer your rebuttal. This response will definitely require quotation from both the critic and the primary text.