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This review is taken from PN Review 232, Volume 43 Number 2, November - December 2016.

Cover of Radical Empiricists: Five Modernist Close Readers
Mark ThompsonClose Reading
Helen Thaventhiran
Radical Empiricists: Five Modernist Close Readers
Oxford University Press, 2015
Close reading has a history, but can it be written without flattening the details that comprise it? This sensitive account of five pioneers focuses on ‘prose and practices’ rather than ‘ideas and influences’. Actually we get those as well, caught as they filter into the writing. Helen Thaventhiran’s critical net is wonderfully fine-meshed. In her first case, T.S. Eliot, she chooses ‘the mosaic or macaronic quality’ of his early criticism, particularly his ways of quoting (also misquoting) and annotating. Eliot wanted to be ‘a modernist critic, not a decadent appreciator’, an ambition that entailed resisting the undertow of Paterian aestheticism and the lingering prestige of Arnoldian touchstones. Thaventhiran traces these Victorian pressures with fingertip delicacy. She remarks Eliot’s capacity to ‘absorb details […] into his prose, with an effect between quotation and allusion’. In this between Eliot makes his way, ‘taking on someone else’s words and thinking through them’.

As for his ‘starkly instructive’ and ‘excessively dogmatic’ side, it does not become oppressive thanks to his relativising tendency, ‘measuring particular qualities […] against each other rather than imputing absolute values’. This feels right; Eliot’s discriminations fold over themselves. She might have mentioned something else: he wanted the prestige of authority, and wrote from the start as if he already possessed it. This was a performance, and Thaventhiran is good on the dramatics of Eliot’s criticism: staging praise, disapproval, distaste and so forth, often absurdly formal, more ringmaster than rsm.

Moving to I.A. Richards, Thaventhiran sketches what G.E. Moore called ‘the golden ...

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