- A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the Material World
Despite the simple depth model suggested by the title of Thomas J. Otten's A Superficial Reading of Henry James, the author assures us early on that a "new materialist" approach to James will remain skeptical of "the distinction between the superficial and the core, the empirical and the conceptual". We might expect, then, that Otten's materialism will be defined exclusively against an "idealist aesthetics" he sees dominating Jamesian criticism and against its habit of isolating issues of "consciousness" from within the "world of things, surfaces, and history" (xxi). But beyond its introduction, A Superficial Reading frequently grounds its definition of materiality on an untroubled empirical/conceptual dichotomy, as when Otten asserts that James's "deeply formative ontology" is continually obscured by his "epistemological concerns" (9), or when he defines trope as a turn "away from matter" (10). It seems at such moments the author has forgotten his perceptive reminder that any materialist criticism will have to be "rhetorical criticism as well, will have to concern itself with the similes and metaphors that fold together disparate object and substances, with the metonyms by which the perceptually ungraspable matter of the body takes on the impress of identity" (xxiv).
Amidst the bustling traffic it allows among trope, object, and identity, Otten's admirably inclusive brand of materialism is sometimes too eager to "fold together disparate objects and substances" (xxiv). The promise implicit in the book's title, of happily skimming over a [End Page 618] variegated landscape of Jamesian objects and surfaces, seems to assure us that its readings will stand or fall on their responsiveness to the unsystematized particularity that haunts the very concepts of materiality and aspect—a particularity invoked, as Otten wonderfully suggests, precisely in the incantation by which H. G. Wells satirically figured the Jamesian subject: "a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string" (xv). Although Otten's treatment of them is frequently surprising and always thoughtful, the multiple facets on the surface of a Jamesian tale do not, it turns out, constellate "the histories of disparate realms, of incongruous domains of meaning," as he had initially suggested (xxiv). Otten sees intriguing connections, for instance, between the body prosthetics that appear in Moby-Dick and in James's own representation of his father's infirmity in Notes of a Son and Brother. He finds these substitute limbs significant, however, not because they put the human body in new metonymic relations to a myriad other objects, but because, in almost every case, they signal an endless shuttling between the assurance of a complete, "essential" identity and the fear of a nondiscrete and contingent one (30). Otten's analysis is often trenchant, but it frequently ends up absorbing the myriad objects in the Jamesian landscape into "a continuous material surface" that stands primarily for the opacity of matter or "the body" in general (13).
Within the problematic theoretical frame of Otten's work, however, is a panoply of deft observation and truly brilliant strokes of historical contextualization. The book dispels a sense of claustrophobia threatened in the opening chapters by making innovative use of a whole range of cultural voices and literary contexts, from Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne to House and Garden, John Singer Sargent's The Breakfast Table, and the "excavate Shakespeare" debates. Especially enlightening is an inquiry into new legal protections of an individual's private documents in the late nineteenth century, a protection that seems to extend, Otten convincingly argues, partly from a certain conceptual identification of personal papers with the body of the owner. Elsewhere, even the well-worn question of the center of consciousness in James receives a welcome spark as Otten sees peripheral objects helping to constitute this center. It is an approach that opens a new path into James's observation that "Really, universally, relations stop nowhere," although the artist must make them "appear to do so" (18).
The third chapter of A Superficial Reading also deserves special...