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The Twentieth-Century World of Henry James: Changes In His Work After 1900
Adeline R. Tinter. The Twentieth-Century World of Henry James: Changes In His Work After 1900. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2000. 252 pp.
Adeline Tinter's The Twentieth-Century World of Henry James focuses on changes in James's art after 1900; thus his autobiography, his three final novels (including, of course, The Sacred Fount), and his essays on World War I are her subject matter. Tinter may refer to herself as a mere "detective" but she is surely a comprehensive, daring, and wise critic. I am particularly interested in the notion of "detection" because I believe that James himself is alert to mysteries, secrets, "possessions." Thus in a strange way I am trying to write a brief review in which I follow Tinter's inquiry (track) into James's occult world.
Tinter claims that after 1900 James anticipated many trends that we now take for granted. She writes that his "autobiography could be a form of experimental fiction." She also notes that James's "interest in sexuality seems, after the turn of the century, to be easier and looser than in the past, both in the text and the subtext." Finally, she places him as a writer of propaganda: "A man who had never before bothered with the genre of writing now engages himself in it, for his last published works are devoted to an emotional tribute to the casualties of the war [. . .]." Tinter is, of course, aware of the recent critics of James who may deal with some of the texts she discusses, but she does not subject herself to any agenda ("queer" Henry or "imperialist" Henry).
Let me start by acknowledging her brilliant reading of The Sacred Fount, the work described by R. P. Blackmur as "the essential tour de force of James's' sensibility." The novel, you will recall, has as narrator an "artist" or "lunatic" (or both) who theorizes that every relationship involves a kind of vampirism. One "lover" seems to thrive; the other wastes away. On the very first page he tells us that "premonitions, it was true, bred fears when they failed to breed hopes, though it was to be added that there were sometimes, in the case rather happy ambiguities." (Consider the Master's late style--the way "true" cancels "premonitions"; the "b" and "f" and the "f" and "b" words; the paradoxical "happy ambiguities"; the repetition of "bred" ("bread," a pun?) and "breed"; the possible meanings of "the case." Even this one sentence serves to demonstrate that James plays with words. [Shall I say that he thus devours us?]) [End Page 484]
Tinter is the first critic who recognizes the clues in this fiction--the fact that not one but two pairs of lovers in The Sacred Fount have this kind of relationship. And these relations are same-sex ones! Tinter offers at least ten examples of her detective work. Her reading--calculated, logical, methodical--is simply breathtaking.
When James wrote his unfinished autobiography, he spent less time on "fact" than on "visions"--the vocation of an artist: "The perfect example of a 'novel' in which one's consciousness 'usurps' life, in which all progress is devoted to the growth and development of the single consciousness of the writer, is James's autobiographical trilogy." (Has any critic ever explored the trilogy as a formal structure? Is the Snopes trilogy related to Philip Roth's recent trilogy?) Tinter later devotes more attention to Proust and James. Again, notice that even in his autobiography James is deceptive and hermetic.
Tinter's contribution to James's criticism is considerable. We have The Museum World, The Book World, The Pop World, the Cosmopolitan World, Henry James's Legacy--any one of these classic studies is remarkable. With this new volume, she apparently completes one of the great achievements in James criticism. What a generous legacy she offers us!
Forest Hills, N.Y.