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.