restricted access Henry James and the Writing of Race and Nation (review)
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Reviewed by
Sara Blair. Henry James and the Writing of Race and Nation. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996. x + 259 pp.

This ground-breaking book makes an authoritative case for the centrality of issues of race and nation to James’s work. As Sara Blair powerfully and elegantly demonstrates, James was concerned from his earliest writings with challenging and reconfiguring constructions of racial and national identity. His textual performances both reflect and shape “the range of available responses to American racial history in his moment and in our own.” Thus does Blair shrewdly and persuasively assert James’s continuing relevance to the concerns of cultural as well as literary studies. Not only has the James canon “underwritten American self-representation throughout the twentieth century,” but his example demonstrates the extent to which high literary culture conducted significant race work in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Anglo-America.

The first chapter is devoted to James’s reviews and travel essays of the 1870s. Through close textual analysis and reference to contemporary [End Page 986] ethnographic and anthropological thought, Blair demonstrates that this hitherto neglected body of work both registers and critiques ideologies of race and nation in the service of creating “a broadly internationalist sensibility through the mobilization of ethnographic tropes.” These early writings aestheticize race thinking but can also be shown to revitalize “literary practices as forms of cultural performance and culture-building.” For example, his essays on Italy reveal James’s “queer” self-alignment with an orientalizing passivity and feminization that counters the racialized norms of masculinity articulated by the travelogues under review.

Chapter 2, which takes as its central texts “Trollope” (1883) and “The Art of Fiction” (1884), examines James’s interventions in the doctrine of American realism. His celebrated assertions of the novel’s freedom and autonomy underwrite a conception of the novel as an instrument for the renewal of Anglo-Saxon culture. Trollope’s mechanical overproduction and professed indifference to form appear to James to be symptoms of racial decline. But in contrast to the “moral timidity” of contemporary Anglo-America, Trollope’s robust moral vitality marks his superiority to the enervated depravity associated with the French naturalists. This valorization is itself complicated by James’s own use in the Trollope essay of naturalist tropes of evolution and decline. Here, as throughout the book, Blair shows herself an original commentator even on James’s best-known writings.

Chapters on The Princess Casamassima and The Tragic Muse investigate the mobility of race and nation alike in these novels. Blair reads Princess as an allegory of James’s ambivalent engagement with naturalism. His sensitive, feminized protagonist Hyacinth, who is aligned with the “authentically high international style” to which the novel aspires, is opposed to the aggressive and predatory white masculinity figured in Paul Muniment. Her reading of The Tragic Muse focuses on the cultural work performed by the figure of the Jew. Miriam Rooth’s insistently invoked “blankness” tropes her power of self-invention and ultimately an ideal “freedom from determinate cultural identity.” But the Jew figures a “danger to unified culture” as well as this cultural mobility, and Miriam functions as a pharmakon whose cosmopolitanism signifies both disease and cure for the community in which she circulates. Figuratively “purged” of her Jewishness by the novel’s end, she is rehabilitated as the embodiment of a “revitalized national culture.” This brief summary [End Page 987] necessarily glosses over entire dimensions of Blair’s nuanced reading of the novel, one of the best we have and are likely to have.

The closing chapter situates The American Scene in the turn-of-the-century cultural project of defining America itself. For Blair, The American Scene “rehearses the complexity of racial exchanges—identification, anxiety, and desire—seen to inform virtually every site for creation of the new American type.” Exploring varied theaters of racial and national identity from the Pullman car to Ellis Island, James meditates on American culture-building and its challenges to his own representational powers. By acknowledging that the often contradictory stakes of his rhetoric register “social and performative designs that transcend James’s authorial self-consciousness,” Blair traces the nuances of his ambivalence toward...