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Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000) 989-997

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Our Henry James?

David McWhirter

John Carlos Rowe. The Other Henry James. Durham: Duke UP, 1998. xv + 238 pp.

Hugh Stevens. Henry James and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. xiii + 217 pp.

In his notorious Henry James and the Jacobites (1962), Maxwell Geismar devoted nearly five hundred pages to exposing what he called "the 'other Henry James,'" a minor, leisure-class "entertainer" whose real nature--"non-political," "non-historical," and sexually "infantile"--had, he believed, been systematically papered over by the adoring "James cult" of the forties and fifties. It was, Geismar argued, James's very limitations that made him a "figurehead" for those "who had turned away from the radicalism of the thirties," or "who had been against it in the first place"--formalists and New Critics, in other words, who "no longer wished to concern themselves with anything remotely bearing on the social question." Geismar, decidedly a man of the old left, thought it only a matter of time before a new generation of fiction writers and critics recognized "that this particular Emperor [was] naked." Were he alive today, he would undoubtedly be dumbfounded, not only by the continued flourishing of what he presciently called the James "industry," but also, and especially, by the newest new "Henry James"--an engaged, often progressive, sexually aware, and thoroughly modern social analyst--foregrounded by the post-New Left critical work of the 1990s. [End Page 989]

Like much of this work, John Carlos Rowe's The Other Henry James (the allusion to Geismar is both deliberate and ironic) locates James's importance for contemporary readers precisely in what Geismar saw as James's limitations, especially his marginal relationship to late-nineteenth-century gender, sexual, and oedipal norms, and his outsider position vis-à-vis both his native America and his adopted England. As he did in his influential earlier study, The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James, Rowe skillfully consolidates even as he productively extends the best recent work on James. In 1984, when Theoretical Dimensions was published, that meant a range of approaches--psychoanalytic, feminist, poststructuralist, and new historicist--that worked variously to deconstruct both the Master and the still-powerful master narratives of his career promoted by the New Critics. In The Other Henry James, it means a decade's worth of efforts, beginning with key books by Jonathan Freedman (1990) and Ross Posnock (1991), to resituate a now unmastered James in terms of a critical discourse dominated by cultural studies, identity politics, and queer theory. Rowe's project--reading "this new Henry James in terms of his conscious and unconscious responses to the debates regarding race, class, gender, and sexual preferences at the turn of the century"--works, he argues, to "transform" James "from a writer with an excessively narrow focus on bourgeois life" (the writer, that is, dismissed as minor not only by Geismar, but by Jameson and other new historicists in the 1980s) into "a precursor of our own postmodern condition."

That "this shift in scholarly attention has uncovered [. . .] much in Henry James's writings that was previously invisible" is unmistakable. But what makes Rowe's approach here especially risky and provocative, and sometimes troubling, and what will--or ought to, as Rowe no doubt intended--make it controversial, is his forthright insistence, especially in his concluding polemical chapter, that the critic's task is in fact to "transform" James: to make James, in effect, "relevant" and "readable once again" by focusing squarely on those aspects of his writing that dovetail with contemporary pedagogical, multicultural, and political agendas. Rowe's effort to connect James's modernity with our postmodernity is often richly rewarding, for as he demonstrates, James was especially attuned to those social transformations during his own fin de siècle--the rise of consumer culture, mass media, and new technologies of communication; increasing class mobility; rapid changes in gender roles and sexual mores; [End Page 990] the emergence of gay identities--that resonate most suggestively with developments during our own century's end. But Rowe also walks a very thin line between, on...


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