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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 479-481

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Book Review

Henry James and the Language of Experience

Collin Meissner. Henry James and the Language of Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. ix + 237 pp.

Eschewing current New Historicist and cultural critical readings of signature texts, Collin Meissner discovers the Jamesian hermeneutics of experience in works that span nearly four decades of the author's writing life. Henry James and the Language of Experience offers a refocused [End Page 479] understanding of the dialectic between individual consciousness and social construction in The American, The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, and the autobiographies. Meissner's study advances a number of claims that counter Foucauldian and other materialist readings of James, claims that warrant our own critical reevaluation of the texts.

Cutting through conventional assumptions of James's ultimate complicity with hegemonic controls, Meissner finds rather that James attributes interpretive sovereignty to characters such as Christopher Newman, Isabel Archer, and Lambert Strether, a degree of agency derived from situational breakdowns in their culturally imposed preconceptions. These breakdowns, what Meissner calls "negative experiences," offer release from former subjective constraints and culminate in an admittedly disorienting brand of liberation. Experience, particularly Newman's self-transforming enlightenment in Paris and Archer's comparable perceptual upset concerning Osmond, undermines the fixity and control imposed by hegemonic power on the individual subject's conceptual framework. In James's novels when two cultures collide, the impact sparks a character's sudden clear view beyond ideological prescriptions. Meissner's interpretation of these characters points to the fluidity and reconstructability of identity, conditions that upturn overly reductive notions of social construction.

Meissner navigates adeptly through the fiction, autobiographical works, and theoretical writings to posit that James's textual mission extends experience's self-liberating potential beyond fictional limits to the writer himself and to the reader. According to Meissner's synthesis of the writings, James's individual consciousness and that of the reader may be found to intersect within the fictional texts, finding representation in particular characters. Paradigmatically, in The Portrait of a Lady, Ralph Touchett's role as both consummate observer and portraitist, one who both creates and views Archer's circumstances, mirrors the role of James as one who both observes and manipulates experience, turning viewed objects into art. Touchett's position is simultaneously occupied by the reader, who operates as observer of the text itself and engages, through the reader's own interpretations, in the same hermeneutic process through which the author has advanced. While this revitalized conception of the writer/text/reader dialectic may infer an overdetermined didacticism on James's part, Meissner's theory effectively reasserts James's [End Page 480] intended requirement of active interpretive responsibility on the reader's part.

While traditional criticism regards the Jamesian observer as primarily passive, Meissner stresses the productivity of the observing artist. The observer-interpreter engages actively with life, erecting a tangible product--the novel for instance--that exerts an effect on its own subsequent observers. Observation then is subtly in league with participation; the spectator wields interpretive power over his world. As the number of recurrently detached, observing characters in James's novels undergo experiences that reconfigure their prior predilections, so the autobiographical James engages in a process by which recalled experience is retrospectively interpolated and the self is continually reconstructed. This process renders James's autobiographical self an active agent, interacting with his observations and repeatedly transforming himself and his perceived environment in clearly discernible ways. The boy's impetus to "dawdle and gape" in A Small Boy and Others must, according to Meissner, be read as a depiction of the creative gaze, the artist's productive engagement with his surroundings. Though thorough investigation of the relationship between observation and participation in James's works may show the link between the two to be ultimately paradoxical, Meissner's citing of James's estimation of the prominence of the artist-observer's role in shaping thought, his own and that of others, is nevertheless unquestionable.

Henry James and the Language of Experience proves useful both to continuing...


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