- American Memory in Henry James: Void and Value
The perennial debate about what Arnold termed "culture and anarchy" was both enriched and rendered more subtle by the work of Henry James. The late William Righter's fine and discriminating intelligence helps us to think this through. This is no standard monograph on Henry James. While well-aware of the critical traditions of Jamesian scholarship (and the knowledgeable will be able to detect in his sensitive and often enlightening readings of the texts his engagement with those traditions), Righter sits lightly to this scholarship, ploughing his own furrow, using the later work of Henry James as a lens to question "void and value" in twentieth-century and, by extension, contemporary culture. American Memory in Henry James is elegantly, and indeed sometimes elusively, written, as befits a work on a man whose own stylistic stringency is, alas, so often not emulated by academic writings on his work. The flipside of this, of course, is that a reasonably educated background, including some acquaintance with James's texts, is assumed.
Righter is concerned to explore the capacity of the novel form as represented by James to apprehend, through formal arrangement, the apparent incommensurability of the forces that drive history, culture, and human psychology on the one hand, and the frameworks of intelligibility and value within which we seek to live and by means of which we seek to exercise some control over them, on the other. James is apt for this purpose since he focuses on cultural dislocations, between America and Europe, and between past and present. America, for James, represents the overcoming of a late nineteenth-century tradition of civility (primarily, in his case, transcendentalist and Unitarian) by big business and the criteria of capitalism. This precipitates a split between "wasp" culture and an alienated, urban culture, both in danger of losing touch with their roots. Europe, of course, stands for continuity, in this specifically cultural sense, rather than rupture, and the project of importing European culture into America through museums (The Golden Bowl is very much in point here) is one of the ambiguities to which the text recurs.
The first part, "America Deconstructed," sets the stage, using James's The [End Page 447] American Scene to analyze his notions of historical change and progression, and their implications for a sense of stable American identity. How is a society so committed to change and progress to honor its past creatively? Part two, "The Note of Europe," engages with The Ambassadors, seeing the victory of Wollett as an indication of the insubstantiality of a certain type of expatriate community, of Americans seeking to take on European culture. The main weight of the text is taken by the engagement with The Golden Bowl, to which the next two parts are dedicated. "Amerigo in American Nowhere" explores the way in which the central characters operate in a sort of void, with social context stripped away to reveal the dynamics of their failed equilibrium. In this, "America" and "England" have become virtually typological symbols. In the light of this reading of the text, Part four, "A Dark Fable of Love and Power," explores the implications for our shaping intelligence, especially ethical intelligence. In suggestive dialogue with Putnam and Nussbaum, Righter points to the difficulty of seeing the relevance of anything like the Categorical Imperative to The Golden Bowl. Rather, in this novel "the language of morality has been examined, picked up, turned over, taken to pieces. But this very process has in the end indicated its unsuitability as an ultimate explanatory scheme." He argues that James poses the possibility that the novel "adds up to a total story which is intelligible beyond the possibilities of a conceptual sorting out" (pp. 154-55).
But this raises the question of what the criteria for intelligibility could be in such a case, if beyond the conceptual lies the imaginative. The final part, "Form and Contingency," engages with this issue. James's difficulty here, it is argued with respect to the late...