The Wikipedia article Close reading discusses the history of the concept and the influence of I. A. Richards and others on the New Criticism:

American New Critics in the 1930s and 1940s anchored their views in similar fashion [i.e. focusing on language and form, like I. A. Richards], and promoted close reading as a means of understanding that the autonomy of the work (often a poem) mattered more than anything else, including authorial intention, the cultural contexts of reception, and most broadly, ideology.

The Wikipedia article about New Criticism points out that

Close reading (or explication de texte) was a staple of French literary studies, but in the United States, aesthetic concerns and the study of modern poets were the province of non-academic essayists and book reviewers rather than serious scholars. The New Criticism changed this.

According to Mark Pennington (Close Reading: Don’t Read Too Closely, 16 August 2017),

The New Critics first coined the term close reading to describe this process of text dependent literary analysis.

Based on this, it would seem that the New Critics coined the term "close reading" (in English) or were the first to use it in the context of literary analysis, but I have not been able to find out which person did this, or which publication by the New Critics first used this term. Would it be possible to find which publication in the area of literary criticism first used this term?

  • The phrase "close reading" meaning close examination of a text was around a lot early than the New Critics. From 1890: “I feel disposed to admit that under a strict and close reading of the law I have not made a proper charge for this service, but at the same time I can not believe that it was the intention of Congress to impose upon the commissioner a duty for which he was to receive no compensation."
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 5, 2020 at 16:32
  • ... continued. And from 1863 "But we are inclined to think that a close reading of the whole would not show much to alter ; and we are very sure that teachers will do well to give that close reading." So the New Critics did not coin a term; they appropriated a term that had been around for decades to use as the translation of explication de texte.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 5, 2020 at 16:35
  • @PeterShor Thanks for pointing out those earlier occurrences of the term. I have reworded the question so it focuses explicitly on the discipline of literary criticism. After all, those two earlier examples are not about paying attention to the literary aspects of texts.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jun 5, 2020 at 16:53
  • 1
    I personally love your question, but I don't have a definitive answer... however, I did find this usage from 1909: books.google.com/…
    – user10067
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 2:40

1 Answer 1


The phrase and concept predate the New Criticism. It is something its proponents emphasized rather than invented. The specific phrase was not necessarily used in the earliest works (e.g. Ransom's "Criticism, Inc.") even though the idea was very much present.

From Andrew DuBois' introduction to Close Reading: The Reader (Duke University Press, 2003; ed. Frank Lettricchia and Andrew DuBois):

How did the seemingly nonspecific concept of close reading become a "thing" that it is possible to "do"? Again, we must insist on actual practice and its influence, since, for instance, there is no single influential manifesto or statement of purpose that insists on the term itself as the sole name for a particular practice. In The New Criticism (1941) [...] John Crowe Ransom used the term, but not in a very specific sense. [... He and others] veered less far from the literary objects of art than did their immediate predecessors, and their diverse methods, appropriately enough, became known as close reading.

Although "paying attention to the words" has been around for a very long time, within the context of the New Criticism movement we might start with I. A. Richards, a proto-New-Critic. He used the specific term "close reading" in Practical Criticism (Harcourt, 1929), writing for example: "All respectable poetry invites close reading" (p129). His earlier critical work uses similar methods, even if he does not use the precise term. Ransom was indebted to Richards, considering him an important precursor for the movement he named.

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