William Empson “invented modern literary criticism in English.” It is no small claim. Of course, we need, in the manner of the activity in question, to submit every word in that judgment (by Empson’s biographer, John Haffenden) to close scrutiny. We would not ordinarily think of “literary criticism” as something that could be “invented,” certainly not by one individual, so there is already a suspicion that Empson is being credited here with a more specific achievement than first meets the eye. “Modern” raises another cluster of questions about how the activity Empson is alleged to have fathered differed from that practiced by, say, Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge or Arnold. And even “in English” may be taken to signal that a distinctively English or perhaps Anglo-American tradition is at issue, distinct from French or German or other European models for talking about literature.
When clarified in this way, the claim starts to become intriguing rather than self-defeatingly hyperbolic. Those who recall Empson’s name only from textbook histories will associate him with the ingenious, perhaps sometimes over-ingenious, identification of multiple meanings in individual words and phrases within lines of poetry–the kind of dazzling virtuosity of interpretation that he exhibited in his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, published in 1930. But, as this magnificent biography demonstrates, there was much, much more to him than that. However, any attempt at a more considered estimation of his achievement is likely to come up against a particular obstacle these days, especially in the United States, the result of a canard that was much in vogue in graduate schools in the closing decades of the twentieth century. This decreed that “criticism” should be understood as one among several possible “approaches” to the “study” of literature, the approach associated above all with the distinctive, but (allegedly) unreflective and theoretically innocent, practice of the New Critics, who were dominant in the academic study of English in the United States from the 1930s to at least the 1960s but who, it is claimed, were then superseded by the more analytical and systematic inquiries of “literary theory.” “Close reading” is thus supposed to have been discredited as a “method,” yielding to the superior knowingness of those deconstructive and politically sensitive “reading strategies” often described as “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” So even if Empson could, in any intelligible sense, be credited with fathering “modern literary criticism,” that would simply confirm that his work is outmoded, an exhibit belonging to the paleolithic period in the history of literary studies.
Among its several failings, this tendentious piece of pseudo-history confused the activity of reading works of literature with the various claims made about that activity. The conceptual inquiries lumped together as “literary theory” may illuminate aspects of the practice of literary criticism and may especially uncover the grounds of its possibility, but they cannot “replace” it. So-called close reading is really just reading–attentive, intelligent, responsive reading. Its antithesis is not “theory” but something like “slack reading,” which is certainly a much more widespread activity, even if not one actually recommended in those terms by supposedly rival approaches. Anyone seriously engaged with literature, whatever his theoretical allegiances, practices close reading; it only becomes one “approach” among others when the attempt is made to abstract some principles from it that are held to rule out the legitimacy of other ways of thinking about one’s reading.
Textbook surveys, identifying Empson with the interpretive fertility of Seven Types, sometimes classify him as a British outrider of the New Critics. But this is a fundamental error. Indeed, Empson spent much of his later career vigorously polemicizing against the New Critics, who, he believed, were attempting artificially to constrain criticism by declaring illegitimate any inferences from our knowledge of the author and his intentions, or our knowledge of the intellectual assumptions of the period, or of its generic conventions, and so on. The artificial purity of the exclusive concentration on “the words on the page” meant, in his view, trying to rule out “a process which all persons not insane are using in all their social experience.” Common “social experience” was the final court of appeal in Empson’s criticism. He may have displayed an exceptionally alert responsiveness to verbal detail, but it was always (at least after his first book) in the service of the enterprise of understanding a work of literature as a whole, of identifying the meanings its author intended to convey, of placing a particular artifact within the larger range of forms of human self-expression. Whether or not Empson can be said to have “invented” anything about this activity, he practiced it with a virtuosity recognized even by those with whom he most sharply disagreed: “I believe that before he is done,” John Crowe Ransom handsomely acknowledged in late 1952, “Empson will rank as the leading literary critic of our time.”