Close Reading, Background Knowledge, and Historical Documents

Posted on May 21st, 2012 by Anthony Petrosky

I recently wrote a blog about close reading in which I argued for different types of close reading that serve several different purposes in the repertoire of such studies. One reader posed the question: What happens to a line and the interpretation of that line once attention shifts back to the whole text?

The simple idea of saying back what a line or paragraph means, even held within the context of the selection in which it appears, poses issues beyond paraphrase and "getting it." Take the opening paragraph of the “Gettysburg Address.”

Opening paragraph of the Gettysburg Address

Students might be asked, as they are in a widely circulated exemplar, about the meaning of "four score and seven years ago," or what "conceived" means, or what it means to say that "all men are created equal" without being provided any background on this speech. They might be asked to do a sentence-by-sentence paraphrase of the speech as the exemplar demonstrates.

But one could also argue that the meaning of this sentence has to do with the context in which this speech was given. The nation was divided. A war that pitted brothers against brothers had much to do with slavery, and the speech was given at a place where the bloodiest battles where fought. Arguably a key question to ask about this paragraph, after reading the entire speech, has to do with why Lincoln begins this way.

To answer that question, one could argue that the analysis of this sentence, and the entire speech, needs to be situated in its historical context. That includes primary source arguments, at least, about the purposes of this war, to locate the opening of this speech as a response to these arguments that were current at the time. The news in this sentence isn't solely in the sentence. To teach students that it is represents reading, especially the reading of historical documents, as reading in a vacuum defined primarily and only by the text itself.

One studies historical documents in relation to other historical documents and their ideas. Audience and occasion matter for historical speeches. What would readers understand about Lincoln’s address, or its opening sentence, without considering it in the context of background knowledge about the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the contentiousness around the war at the time the speech was given?

Contexts for historical, and certainly for scientific, documents matter immensely. Why would one keep these contexts from students studying such an important document? What does that accomplish other than to teach them that reading is always only a literal march through sentences? Isn’t the value of this document in the way it is situated at one and the same time as a dedication in a place where close to 50,000 people died, a response to an unpopular war and slavery, as well as a response to opinions and sentiments expressed in newspapers during those days?

The literal analysis of the speech sentence-by-sentence runs the risk of teaching students that understanding texts is primarily a building block exercise of deciphering or analyzing one sentence after another. At the end, the stack of sentences is supposed to add up. Sentence by sentence analysis, though, runs the risk of bringing the trees to light but not the forest—the sentences but not the ideas threaded through them.

To understand this speech, readers need to grapple with the big ideas in the text, and to understand those ideas, readers need to understand the depth and complexity of the historical context as well as the sentences. Presenting the reading of historical texts as simply a literal task, rather than an interpretive one, outside of historical background and context side steps the complexities of reading History.

To teach students that such textual vacuums exist wrings out the discovery, complexity, and authenticity of studying historical texts. Background knowledge can matter as much as the individual texts situated in it. The reading of historical documents invites readers to move back-and-forth between a text’s sentences and paragraphs, its central ideas, and background knowledge that is frequently other texts.