As was inevitable, contemporary literary theorists have discovered Henry James. With considerable revisionist gusto, these two books examine (perhaps assault) James from the standpoint of some of the major interpretative ideologies of recent years. The authors are less deterred in their efforts than stimulated by James's usual identification with a pure aesthetic formalism, presumably unsusceptible to the kind of psychoanalytical, political, economic, and linguistic methodologies that have been in vogue since the retreat of the New Criticism.
Students of James are fortunate in that the critic who undertakes the estimable task of approaching James from the aspects of various modern theories is so manifestly qualified to do so. Most importantly, John Carlos Rowe is a first-rate Henry James scholar with a superb critical intelligence; in addition he has a deep understanding (a critical understanding rather than an unquestioning reverence) for the works of Bloom, Jameson, Iser, Fish, and Derrida—not to mention Kant and Heidegger—and other prominent figures in the academic literary establishment. But it should be emphasized that The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James is no mere mechanical "application" of the various systems to James texts: Rowe calls his book a "narrative," wherein James, in a loose chronological development, engages initially with a struggle with influences (mainly Hawthorne and Trollope), then with feminist concerns, with political ideas, with the theory of impressionism, and finally (in the Prefaces) with the relation of the reader to the text. In other words, the theories stand in what Rowe calls a dialetical relation to each other. Rowe in effect places himself as arbiter between the theories and James's texts (and James), "deconstructing," as he says, both theories and texts. [End Page 723]
Quite aside from his mastery of his different and difficult subjects, Rowe is a marvelously original and perceptive reader, so that at times one feels that his commitment to a judicious representation of the abstract theories is perhaps excessive: thus a lucid, fresh, and persuasive commentary on "impressionism" in The Ambassadors, The American Scene, and other late works doesn't really require the accompanying extensive discussion of Kant's epistemology. But mostly Rowe's analysis of James's career from the aspect of modern theory is as effective as it is intriguing, nowhere more so than in the consideration of James's Hawthorne from the standpoint of Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence.
Probably readers will like or dislike this book in accordance with their willingness to accept the one key assumption that underlies the entire book—that the real (concealed) subject of the fiction of Henry James is the mind (mostly unconscious) of Henry James. Without apology or much explicit argument, Rowe interprets the texts as disguised psychoautobiography. In an extreme example, he writes, "I find a certain repetition compulsion in the writings of Henry James. Such repetitions . . . produce their inevitable shadows or penumbras, because they are always already the signs of a certain and strategic repression." To Rowe James's consistent and essential theme is his own authority as novelist, more precisely his will to power as modernist "Master." This preoccupation is mirrored in James's more evident interests in forms of social authority—of "phallocentric" culture (in The Bostonians, The Spoils of Poynton, and The Aspern Papers) and of the aristocratic class system (The Princess Casamassima). Though Rowe approaches James from six different theoretical positions (which very much overlap and "dialectically" encounter each other), the crucial points of observation are those provided by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Though hardly interchangeable, these concepts are obviously complementary, each having to do with the struggle of a self or a class to overcome the undeserved authority of a parent, of historical precedent, or of a social class.
Henry James: Fiction as History is a collection of essays, mostly by English academics, that share an intention to refute—or strongly modify—the conventional views of James as aesthetic formalist and realist novelist of manners and to...