Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Fifty Grand questions.

Cleanth Brooks's close reading of

Cleanth Brooks is identified with the concept of “close reading.” According to Wikipedia:

Brooks was the central figure of New Criticism, a movement that emphasized structural and textual analysis—close reading—over historical or biographical analysis.

And an essay in Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism (ed. Mark R. Winchell) states:

Cleanth Brooks, chief architect of America’s first real school of criticism, was an advocate of “close reading,” if nothing else. . . .Brooks’s essays loosely demonstrate a joy in “close reading” through a gentle and urbane writing style as Southern in its way as that of Faulkner, Welty, or other Southern writers Brooks admired.

How close is close? Here is Brooks’s complete summary of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Fifty Grand” in Brooks’s book The Hidden God:

The hero of this story is the aging heavyweight champion who is having difficulty getting in shape for the championship fight and who, finally aware that he is certain to lose the fight, decides to fix the fight and to bet against himself. He is going to lose his title anyway, but by betting against himself he will at least realize some profit out of the end of his boxing career. It is a sordid sellout to be sure, even though Hemingway has made it plain that the boxer is a good home man who loves his wife and children and who is primarily anxious to provide for them. But a sellout it is, and the fact that we accept it as such will in no wise interfere with our apprehension of the artistic merit of the story.          

The gamblers, however, have given the double cross a further twist; they have actually arranged to have the challenger lose by fouling the champion. During the bout, therefore, the boxer suddenly finds himself utterly torn apart by a low blow in the groin, physically sickened with the pain and sick too with the stunning realization that his fortune—he had bet heavily against himself—has in an instant vanished. But the plan of action forms immediately in his pain-numbed mind, and with an almost superhuman courage he holds himself together long enough to carry it out. He is able to summon a sick smile to his face as he assures the referee that he has not really been hurt, that the low blow directed by the challenger was purely accidental, and that the fight should be allowed to go on. He actually manages to convince the referee; the fight does go on, and goes on long enough for him to launch a low blow himself, a blow which fouls his opponent so thoroughly and so cripplingly that the fight is over and his own defeat assured.

Brooks says that Jack “decides to fix the fight” because he is “certain he is going to lose.” Jack doesn’t fix the fight. How could he? Why should he if he is sure to lose? Lew Morgan and Happy Steinfelt, the two gamblers who come out to see him at Danny Hogan’s health farm in New Jersey, talk him into betting fifty thousand dollars against himself. Brooks calls this “a sordid sellout.” How can it be a sordid sellout when Jack is certain to lose regardless of whether he bets on Walcott or not?  

Brooks, who doesn’t understand this story, says “the gamblers have given the double cross a further twist.” What double cross? The only double cross is having Walcott try to lose the fight on a foul, which must have been their original intention. Jack isn’t double crossing anybody.          

Brooks says that Walcott delivers “a low blow to the groin.” Any blow to the groin is a low blow. According to the narrator, Walcott hit Jack a full five inches below the belt.          

Brooks says that Jack realizes “his fortune . . . has in an instant vanished.” Jack might lose fifty grand, but that is not his entire fortune. He tells Jerry Doyle: “I worry about property I got up in the Bronx. I worry about property I got in Florida. . . . I got some stocks and I worry about them.” Jack is extremely tight with his money and has been champion for a long time. The fifty grand probably only represents a tenth of his total assets.          

Brooks tells us that Jack “is able to summon a sick smile to his face” Where did Brooks get that sick smile? Didn’t he expect his own readers to read him closely? Jack simply says, “It wasn’t low. . . It was a accident. . . . “I’m all right.” Then: “Come on, you polak son-of-a-bitch.”         

The champion, Jack Brennan, is not a heavyweight, not a light heavyweight, not a middleweight, but a welterweight. Hemingway even shows him weighing in with the challenger, Jimmy Walcott, but Brooks must have missed that scene during his close reading. Jack weighs 143 pounds and Walcott weighs 146. A welterweight is between 140 and 147 pounds. If Jack were a few pounds lighter he could qualify as a lightweight. If a heavyweight fouled Jack the way Walcott did, Jack might never recover. Of course, Brooks might not know much about boxing, but a close reader should guess that these men were far from being heavyweights.

If Cleanth Brooks considers this a “close reading,” then it seems apparent that Brooks was looking closely for what he wanted to find—his so-called “hidden god,” who certainly seems well hidden.  

Brooks does not understand boxing or Hemingway’s plot. Brooks does not even try to explain why two bookies would want Jack to bet on Walcott, when they would have to return the $50,000 plus $25,000 if Walcott, the two-to-one favorite, wins. Nor does Brooks attempt to explain how Jack gives them fifty thousand dollars cash when they are way out in what was then the open country. He would have to pay cash for at least two reasons: (1) such betting was illegal, and (2) a check could turn out to be incriminating evidence that Jack had bet on his opponent.

If Brooks only wants to concern himself with what is specified in the text—which is the essence of “close reading”-- then perhaps he shouldn’t be looking for a hidden god.

The 4th Dimension in Fifty Grand

The kind of writing that can be done. How far prose can be carried if anyone is serious enough and has luck. There is a fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten.               -Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

What Hemingway meant by a "fourth dimension" seems easier to apprehend in "Fifty Grand" than in any of his other short stories. The first three dimensions are height, width and depth. The fourth must have something to do with time. Events occur outside the text--before, during, and after what is being described or dramatized--which are so essential to the chain of cause and effect that the reader "will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them."

A good example involves Jack Brennan's "jam" with Soldier Bartlett. Soldier is a loudmouth ignoramus. He treats Jack disrespectfully because he can tell, from sparring with him day after day, that Jack is losing everything that made him champion. Soldier is thinking he could beat Jack himself if he were challenger instead of Walcott. Finally Jack is fed up with Soldier's so-called "kidding" and fires him.

The story's opening takes place in a joint where the fight crowd hangs out. The outraged Soldier must head back there (in the fourth dimension) because he has nowhere else to go. Naturally everybody wants to know why he is in Hanley's when Jack is still training in New Jersey. They also ask what Soldier thinks about Jack's condition and chances of winning the big championship fight. We can visualize these scenes because Hemingway has introduced us to the place for that purpose.

Soldier enjoys being the center of attention, and he has nothing good to say about the champion. He tells everybody he got fired because Jack knows he is going to lose and is sore at the world, or words to that effect. Soldier--a washed-up, third-rate pug--probably voices his opinion that he could beat Jack himself, although he had an opportunity to try it when they were doing roadwork.

"Well," says Jack, "you better go back to town, Soldier."
"What do you mean?"
"You better go back to town and stay there."
"What's the matter?"
"I'm sick of hearing you talk."
"Yes?" says Soldier.|
"Yes," says Jack.
"You'll be a damn sight sicker when Walcott gets through with you."
"Sure," says Jack, "maybe I will. But I know I'm sick of you."

Jack twice tells Soldier, not that he is fired, but that he better go back to town. This is to foreshadow where Soldier will be going and what will happen. Soldier might have even claimed he wasn't fired but quit because he decided Jack was hopeless, or because he was hitting Jack too hard.

So Soldier went off on the train to town that same morning. I went down with him to the train. He was good and sore.

"I was just kidding him," he said. We were waiting on the platform. "He can't pull that stuff with me, Jerry."

"He's nervous and crabby," I said.  "He's a good fellow."

"The hell he is. The hell he's ever been a good fellow."

"Well," I said, "so long, Soldier."

Hemingway wants to impress the reader with the fact that Soldier is going back to Manhattan. He even has Jerry Doyle see him off on the train. This is the last we see of Soldier Bartlett, who is good and sore--but his shadow will haunt the remainder of the story.

Naturally Happy Steinfelt and Lew Morgan hear Soldier is back earlier than expected. They want to talk to him because they are taking a lot of bets both ways. What they learn inspires them to visit Jack's manager John Collins (still in the fourth dimension) and leads into the next scene at Danny Hogan's health farm.

That afternoon John Collins showed up out at the farm. Jack was up in his room. John came out in a car from town. He had a couple of friends with him. The car stopped and they all got out.

They come out of the fourth dimension. This is no social visit. They are there because Jack fired Soldier and Soldier went back to Hanley's and told everybody that Jack was sure to lose to Walcott. Who would know better than Jack's own sparring partner? Steinfelt and Morgan have already explained their proposition to John Collins, and now they are all going to present it to Jack.

What might be called the "obligatory scene" between Soldier and the crowd at Hanley's and then focusing in on a conversation between Soldier and Steinfelt or Soldier and Morgan is a good example of what Hemingway meant by the fourth dimension. (A fifth dimension would probably be a dimension of the fourth dimension. In other words, if the reader's sense of what happens in the fourth dimension is sufficiently vivid, it could give the imaginary scene depth as well as height and width. But let us remain in the fourth dimension, which is shadowy enough. Hemingway may never have felt he achieved a fifth dimension, although he believed it was possible.)

There are many other fourth-dimensional scenes in "Fifty Grand," but the ones involving Soldier back at Hanley's are the most palpable. The discussion of the proposed bet in Jack's room occurs entirely in the fourth dimension. An amusing example occurs while Doyle is killing time outdoors. 

Hogan was out in the gym in the barn. He had a couple of his health-farm patients with the gloves on. They neither one wanted to hit the other, for fear the other would come back and hit him.

This is a rather uncanny pre-enactment of exactly what is going to happen at Madison Square Garden. Walcott will be extremely reluctant to hit Jack, even lightly, for fear that Jack will fall over and take the count. The same will be true for Jack, since both boxers are anxious to lose. Jerry Doyle knows that Collins, Morgan, Steinfelt, and Jack are all talking about fixing the fight. Then Doyle goes out for a walk and sees two men who are afraid to hit each other in the ring. He might have had a faint premonition of what was going to happen in the fourth dimension at Madison Square Garden in the near future.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. --Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon