By Alexandre Crepeaux
Leslie Marmon Silko’s essay, “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective”, started out as a speech, before it was included in the 1979 collection English Literature: Opening Up the Canon. In the essay, she describes how Pueblo storytelling is more holistic and unstructured than the storytelling forms in other cultures. The essay crosses into many genres (lyric, speech, and short story, for example), and also into at least two disciplines: Native American Studies and literary studies. Analyzing the essay through the lens of Native American Studies would delve into Silko’s telling of stories like the Pueblo Creation story and Waithea’s story. However, looking at it through the lens of literary studies reveals a surprising argument. Silko’s piece lays out a case against the practice of close reading, despite being published in an anthology of critical essays (where it’s likely that at least a few of the essays used close reading). She avoids the practice of close reading by valuing the overall meanings of her stories, instead of their semantics. It encourages the reader to do the same.
In the second paragraph, Silko asks the reader to “set aside a number of basic approaches that you have been using, and probably will continue to use”. She never outrightly states that close reading is one of these approaches, but it becomes clear through her argumentation and the holistic approach of her essay. When she says that the Pueblo perspective on language “embraces the whole of creation and the whole of history and time”, it’s immediately clear that this holistic approach might be completely incompatible with the practice of close reading. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, close reading is a technique used by the New Criticism school of literary theory. Close reading puts “special emphasis on the connotative and associative values of words”, meaning that “any rewording of a poem’s language alters its content”. To use close reading is to use the idea that every letter, word, and punctuation mark of a text contributes something important to the text’s meaning. At first, it may seem odd to link Silko’s argument to the practice of close reading, since she never outrightly uses the term. However, since Silko’s essay was published in an anthology of critical writings about literature, it is reasonable to examine how the method of close reading might fit into Silko’s view of literary criticism.
A holistic approach to literature (as opposed to a close approach) is modeled in Silko’s stories. In the Pueblo Creation story, “everything in the world was a part of the original creation”. When telling this story, Silko says “the particular language spoken isn’t as important as what a speaker is trying to say”. She says this in regards to the several distinct languages spoken by the Pueblo tribes, but she’s also insinuating that it applies to the analysis of semantics. The specific choice of words doesn’t matter, as long as the overall message is understood. This is in direct opposition to the method of close reading, which values the meaning and analysis of every individual word. Silko’s argument continues to oppose the idea of close reading when it celebrates the value of oral storytelling. She tells the story of Waithea, a little girl who drowns in a lake, and her clothing turns into the beautiful butterflies that reside in Acoma. This story is considered old by anthropologists, and Silko’s version was told to her by her aunt. This story, along with many other Pueblo stories, has evolved and changed over time. It might receive some significant changes (like the addition of “precipitous”), but it will always carry certain meanings and emotions. Silko says “things are not separated out and categorized; all things are brought together.” This is the opposite of what close reading accomplishes. Close reading separates each individual word and plots out the meaning of each word in its given place. It insinuates that a phrase’s meaning will be changed by any sort of paraphrasing. The Pueblo perspective, as Silko explains, is far less rigid. It allows for, and even encourages, fluidity in storytelling and in literary analysis. Through the Pueblo people’s holistic approach to literature, Silko attempts to open up the discipline of literary analysis to new perspectives.
The new approach that Silko suggests (which looks at texts as a whole instead of in parts) is meant to change not just our analysis of literature, but also the way that literature is produced. If the writer of an essay or creative text writes their text with close reading in mind, they can hide their arguments and meanings deep in the text. This is exactly what Silko says the Pueblo people do not want. It’s the very reason they see a written speech as “highly suspect”: the feelings of the writer can “remain hidden as she reads words that are detached from the occasion and the audience”. The concept of close reading allows the writer of an essay to bury their arguments and meanings in a text, so that the text becomes a sort of puzzle that the reader must solve. In the Pueblo approach to literature, this kind of text doesn’t embrace the beauty of holistic storytelling. A text that hides its meaning like this will alienate its listeners, as opposed to drawing them in. Silko expresses in the final paragraph that this is the ultimate goal of Pueblo stories: storytelling “brings us together, despite great distances between cultures, despite great distances in time”. Close reading would only serve to divide a story’s listeners with different, incompatible interpretations. With Silko’s approach to literary analysis, the differences in interpretations are not paradoxical; they are what give the stories their power. Silko encourages the reader to not worry obsessively about the semantics of stories and texts, but instead to acknowledge the singular power of a story as a whole. Silko, in her genre-bending lyric essay, encourages us to analyze literature holistically. She argues that, when we do, these stories will reveal powerful new meanings, arguments, and perspectives.
In the act of writing this essay, I ignored Silko’s argument against close reading. By analyzing quotes and semantics from Silko’s essay, my essay used the very method she argued against. I disregarded the holistic approach that Silko asked me to use, and used close reading instead. Silko even predicted that I would do so, saying in the second paragraph that I “probably will continue to use” this approach. However, I’ve also now broken the rules of academic essay writing by introducing personal pronouns. Some might claim my essay is no longer academic, but from Silko’s perspective, I’ve now embraced the relationship between storyteller and listener (in this case, writer and reader). I think this all signifies that I’ve done something in between close and holistic reading: active reading. I looked at the minutiae of the text, and when I analyzed it critically, I found Silko’s argument against close reading. Then, when I thought holistically, it became clear that using close reading to discover Silko’s argument against close reading was completely paradoxical. This holistic reading of the text showed me that close reading alone was inadequate. I needed to think bigger, embrace the relationship between writer and reader, and break my own rules about literature. So I did.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “New Criticism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 Jan. 2017, http://www.britannica.com/art/New-Criticism.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective.” English Literature: Opening Up the Canon, edited by Leslie A. Fielder, 1981, pp. 54–72.