In the following pages I want to investigate James’s peculiar obsession in the 1890’s with the subject of dead and dying authors—an obsession that coincided in his work with an interest in the newspaper as a text in which the author’s disappearance is openly proclaimed, its effects are open to minute examination, and the repercussions of the author’s disintegration can be gauged and anticipated in the literary work itself. In such stories as “The Aspern Papers,” “John Delavoy,” “The Middle Years,” and the “Death of the Lion”—narratives in which a declining or long deceased author becomes the focus of interest 1 —he not only memorializes the writer consumed in the act of writing, but reflects on the consequences, both for readers and producers of fiction, of the disappearance of the author as the controlling center of his own novelistic productions. 2
James makes these consequences spectacularly visible in “The Death of the Lion,” in a narrative that shifts responsibility for meaning from an author to a work that survives in the absence of its creator, and which produces effects beyond his power to determine meaning. [End Page 826] In “The Death of the Lion,” James suggests that the value and richness of such a text comes not from its freedom from determination, but from its availability to multiple determinations, its shifting “relation” to social forces, languages, and codes of reading and comprehension that exceed the author’s conscious control. These constitute a basis for meaning, even if they are less localizable than an originating consciousness, and complicate any attempt to recover authorial intentions.
James makes such a work vivid and comprehensible through his use of the newspaper, since the newspaper not only represents the dissolution of authority, but offers a view of the codes of sense and reception that might govern a work whose ownership is uncertain. In this story James develops a new understanding of literary meaning out of the mutual interchange and conflict between the newspaper and the novel; he questions the realism of his own work from the perspective of a literary modernism that both defied and actively reproduced the dispersal of authority, the instability and impermanence of meaning so often associated with the press. 3 At the same time, “The Death of the Lion” complicates the modernist aesthetic for which James has served as a central figure by reconfiguring the author as a journalist—a nameless figure whose disappearance leaves behind not an autonomous text freed from its location in a network of social relations, but one whose meanings are inseparable from the institutional conditions that generate the journalist’s identity as a producer and the values that appear to “originate” in his work. 4
The relevance of such a story to James’s modernism lies in its exploration of the tension between the power and authority of the individual to govern language, and the competing possibilities created by his disappearance—that is, the interplay between authorial intention and the operation of social languages and contexts that displace and redefine the author’s controlling designs. In “The Death of the Lion,” James defines the newspaper and its writers, in equivocal terms, as representatives of the condition of modern literature, and at the same time as emblems of everything it should defiantly oppose. His ambivalent response to the newspaper exposes the complexities of an aesthetic that values authorial control over the process and the material of aesthetic production—one that discloses itself in a heightened consciousness of language and its effects, reaching its apex in the poetic manipulation of prose and an [End Page 827] active rejection of the given rhythms of ordinary language. This aesthetic was matched by a contradictory deterioration of the author as a center of meaning shaping the reading process.
Anonymity: An Inquiry
In “The Death of the Lion,” James was able to make use of the fact that the newspaper had become the subject of contemporary debates on the meaning of authorship in order to detail the possibilities of a new novelistic project that required the dispersal of the author as its enabling condition. As such cultural historians as Laurel Brake and Harry...