An “interspace worth mention”: Henry James’s Approach and the Critique of Mastery in The American Scene
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An “interspace worth mention”:
Henry James’s Approach and the Critique of Mastery in The American Scene

The Master has often been associated with the imperial gaze, yet his style has also been read as a critical engagement with the practice of objectification. The disagreement over the author’s complicity with objectification circles around a question about the proper object of his prose—about whether his writing captures new objects of knowledge or interrogates the ideological makeup of the writer himself. Having frequently served as a testing ground for claims about James’s mastery, The American Scene provides a way into this debate.1 The fact that its writer possesses “much freshness of eye, outward and inward”—paying as much attention to his personal ideology as to America’s cultural geography—has yet to be reconciled with verdicts about his aesthetic formalism (353, emphasis mine). This article traces the origin and development of a narrative device, which I call the approach, to enable a reading of The American Scene that manages to join James’s twin objectives of representation and self-reflection. This combination, in turn, offers a clearer characterization of the effect of the author’s mastery on his curiosity about other cultures—one that does not succumb to allegations of imperialism.

A number of critics argue that James’s aesthetic formalism helps to fuel and justify the visual politics of imperialism. Thomas Peyser claims that “James’s manner of treating the world as a museum and its inhabitants as curators and exhibits joins his artistic labor to . . . assimilative labor,” and James Cox has called James “a true imperialist in the world of art” (51, 21; also see Sabin). James stands accused of aesthetic imperialism: by capturing artistically he lays the foundation for a relation of possession. On the other hand, some have turned to the notion of critique in an effort to provide a more generous treatment of James’s privileging of form. For example, Ross Posnock argues that James looks less to objects than to modes of perception whose “mimetic” transformation into aesthetic form becomes an occasion to conceive [End Page 105] of “the very structure of selfhood as founded on otherness” (107).2 Though it may participate in objectification, critique redeems itself by helping to create knowledge about the dependence of the Western subject upon the Other; critique subjects imperialism to its own imperial gaze.

I hope to show how these opposed portraits of James, as capturer of the Other or critic of the self, are not mutually exclusive. James’s The American Scene, as much a novel as a travelogue, combines literary self-consciousness with the examination of cultural difference.3 James’s liminal position in The American Scene as a returning exile is both descriptive of the Other and expressive of the self. An acknowledgment of this concern with both subject and object reformulates the question about James’s complicity with the imperial gaze: if a travel narrative self-consciously portrays the Other as a construct of the viewer, what are the visual effects on the actual, historical Other to which this imperial image refers?

As an alternative label for denoting James’s literary self-reflexivity within his travelogues and international novels, the figure of the approach can help to answer this question. The term refers to a metaphorical construct of interaction operating at the levels of setting, character, and narration that builds a respectful, unpresumptuous interest in objects of foreign origin. Most visibly within James’s early travel writing, the approach designates the prolonged buildup to a travel destination. In his late novels, it appears as an impression created by the European etiquette and architecture (such as foyers and receiving rooms) that govern social interaction, especially between representatives of differing national backgrounds. But in The American Scene, the approach reappears as a figure that structures the narrative’s portrayal of cultural margins. Behind these social boundaries, it projects unknown spaces, or imagined interiors, in which lie the Other’s autonomy and potential for surprise.

James’s writing often performs the narrative equivalent of driving his reader up to country estates. Recognizing these approaches provides a more nuanced relation to the concept...