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The Henry James Review 21.3 (2000) 242-252

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"What ghosts will be left to walk": Mercantile Culture and the Language of Art

Collin Meissner, University of Notre Dame

On August 30, 1904, after an absence of more than two decades, Henry James stepped off the Kaiser Wilhelm II onto the Hoboken waterfront. Turning to face the New York skyline, James's gaze was arrested at the change. Report has it James "almost gasped for breath," and was for a time locked in a trance-like stare, "deaf to the questions of his friends" (Edel 235). 1 It's easy to imagine what those questions were, and it's easy to imagine the magnitude of James's shock. At least we think it would be easy. But then we're not Henry James, and we seldom confront images of our own world which, for all intents and purposes, are rival and incompatible when juxtaposed against our memories of what was and our expectations of what should have been. What was James's shock? What took his breath so completely away that, when it did return, it came with the incredible rush of literary production that is now generally recognized as his fourth and final phase, 2 a body of work often characterized by an American locale and by an emphasis on the grotesque and the mercantile corruptions of America. One could unite this body of late works collectively under the banner The American Scene, a "genre" which would include not only the book of American reflections under that name, but the collected short fiction, essays, and, even, autobiographical prose which follows and forms a relative bookend to James's development as a lucid reflector of our world.

What was James's shock? The shock of what had become the real, the shock of money as the American aesthetic responsible for the contemporary sculpture James saw as he surveyed the New York skyline with its "triumphant payers of dividends" (AS 76), as he saw in the eyes of the "young men of business" ferrying between Manhattan and the Jersey shore, (5), and as he heard as the sound of "money in the air, ever so much money--grossly expressed" (192). In other [End Page 242] words, what stopped James from breathing and arrested his consciousness on the morning of August 30, 1904 was "the music of the future" (CC 348), the impression of an entire nation squandering a tremendous opportunity by cashing in its potential for the immediacy of gain. For James, the impression reflected the consequence of a poor investment, the mortgaging of a living cultural heritage whose dividends could have been measured in aesthetic sympathies and realized in a disposition toward the living and civic value of art for a return which would instead be forever reified in acts of buccaneering and the language of the market.

This is not at all to suggest that James was some kind of aesthete naïf rudely confronted with the seeming dichotomy between art and the market. Readers of James have long been familiar with the interanimation of the aesthetic and the material in his fiction. One can bring to bear any number of examples from throughout his work, from the more lethal manifestations of the collector such as Adam Verver to the more aesthetically complicated such as Hyacinth Robinson. But whatever the example, the continuously foregrounded theme is James's clear conception of the transubstantial relationship between the aesthetic and the economic and between art and avarice. For example, Christopher Newman, who searches Europe for just the right bride to perch atop his pile of wealth, and Adam Verver who ransacks Europe for treasure, including a Prince, are obvious demonstrations of the crass side of the art and avarice binary. Moreover, even someone like Hyacinth Robinson, whose aesthetic devotions make him a pretty clear aesthete, nevertheless bows to the material and economic as not only enforced, but necessary ingredients in the construction of the aesthetic. Hyacinth's rapturous letter from Venice, the mercantile capital of...


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