The Henry James Review 21.3 (2000) 298-304
[Access article in PDF]
"We Are Family"? The Immaterial Community of the James Family Discussion List
Cheryl B. Torsney, West Virginia University
Only seven years ago Marc Bousquet and I recognized that we could develop a listserv as a fast and cheap way to connect electronically the Henry James community of scholars: a group of writers and readers who have been historically committed not only to scholarship but also to each other and to each other's students in a supportive, often familial way. Marc suggested that to gain a wider audience, we might want to appeal to William James as well as to Henry James scholars. With that, the James Family List was born. The list currently is subscribed to by 350 people from 17 different countries. The James Society uses the list to publicize calls for papers and prizes, and as John Rowe notes, "It's been the perfect place to test out ideas for later publication." In its seven-year run, the list has also tackled some current issues in Henry James studies--homoeroticism and antisemitism, among others--and hosted illuminating discussions of Sargent's reading of James in his famous portrait, as well as Henry's late style.
Yet despite our early hopes for an electronic James community, people are confused about the model for intellectual exchange. Peg Wherry wonders, "Is it a virtual coffee room? [ . . . ] A virtual newsletter? A bulletin board? A professional meeting?" Jonathan Levin proposes that we consider the list a virtual salon. 1 Each of these models, however, offers a forum where the participants preen and speakers slide from one subject to another. Long-term connection and personal investment is limited. I envision a community as requiring more commitment than is generally established over hors d'oeuvres and a glass of cheap red, and I had hoped that the list would establish something like a virtual, committed, albeit immaterial, community. Because some participants do not share my original vision of the list, however, preferring the salon or professional meeting or coffee room model, I find myself wondering where my community went. [End Page 298]
As the old adage goes, you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family. The list is public--which only seemed the right choice at the outset. In other words, people didn't have to apply to subscribe; they could, in a most democratic fashion, just subscribe to the list themselves. As a result, the membership came to include those professional scholars for whom the list was originally intended as well as devoted avocational readers of the works of Henry and William James. Initially, the large and varied subscriber base seemed a very good thing. Sheldon Novick, who describes himself as "isolated [. . .] in rural Vermont," writes that "The diversity of the group is particularly invigorating, as I think the published literature talks too much to itself." Some of the non-academics are amazingly well read and contribute valuably to discussion. As Rowe puts it, "The list has [. . .] democratized the field by allowing interested lay readers to exchange ideas with professional scholars." Gert Buelens concurs: "This list crucially depends on the input of contributors who define themselves as non-academic." But the democratizing has brought about a bifurcated audience with widely varying expectations and online conversation styles. 2 The list has divided itself along two axes: the first of professional training, and the second of partisanship. The James Family List enrolls academics trained in criticism, theory, and pedagogy, as well as lay readers and appreciators, several of whom have identified themselves as CPAs and actuaries. Subscribers include both Friends of Henry and Fans of William. While distinctly not a genuine interpretive community, according to Stanley Fish's definition, is this what community has become in a post-modern world of computer mediated communication? 3
I would assert that the James Family List has not been able to establish itself as a community for reasons that have to do primarily with conflicts that arise from differences in...