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Henry James's Remorse For The Wings of the Dove by George McFadden About halfway through the preface to The Wings of the Dove, on beginning to deal with Kate Croy, Henry James appears to suffer a highly uncharacteristic breakdown. His rereading ceases to inspire in him the usual renewed sense of "fun," but rather, this time, of failure: "to retrace the way at present is, alas more than anything else, to mark the gaps and the lapses, to miss, one by one, the intentions that, with the best will in the world, were not to fructify" (AN 276). James was only able to reconcile himself to the discrepancy between execution and intention by elevating it into a principle of art in general; authors' intentions are necessarily altered in the course of composition. His anguish reappears, however, as he faces up to his "regular failure to keep the appointed halves of my whole equal" (AN 302). What this meant will be obvious only to the tiny fraction of readers who use the early two-volume editions of The Wings of the Dove, but not to the rest who use reprints and pore over R. P. Blackmur's collection of the prefaces. Our most available re-issue, the Penguin reprint of the English edition of 1902, fails to show the two-volume "appointed halves" in any way. Alluding to the fact that the first volume of the American issue of 1902 contained but sixteen of the total of thirty-eight chapters, James's plaint is, "nowhere had I condemned a luckless theme to complete its revolution ... in quarters so cramped" (AN 302). Despairing, penitent, James nevertheless stood before his most glaring "makeshift middle" (AN 303) ready to defend its more than usual craft. He issued a call of defiance that showed his contempt for the reviewers he felt his fiction normally met with: The latter half, that is the false and deformed half, of 'The Wings" would verily, I think, form a signal object-lesson for a literary critic bent on improving his occasion to the profit of the budding artist. This whole corner of the picture bristles with "dodges"—such as he should feel himself all committed to recognise and denounce—for disguising the reduced scale of the exhibition, for foreshortening at any cost, for imparting to patches the value of presences, for dressing objects in an air as of the dimensions they can't possibly have. Thus he would have his free hand for pointing out what a tangled web we weave when ... we have to produce the illusion of mass without the illusion of extent. There is a job quite to the measure of most of our monitors—and with the interest for them well enhanced by the preliminary cunning quest for the spot where deformity has begun. (AN 302-303) James's Remorse for The Wings of the Dove 115 Critics, like angels, have seemed to wait for some fool to step forward and take up this challenge of the Master. In doing so now, I have had no excuse but ignorance and the curiosity that goes with it. How many literary puzzles have been set with such a specific hint toward the answer? There are many "dodges" but only one "spot." Perhaps the critics have not been bashful, only incredulous, and there is no such spot and certainly no deformity. James is, above all, not the one to "give himself away." Yet here he tells us that the deformity is in the second volume, in a "corner" of it. Most readers think of the second half as the Venice half, and The Wings of the Dove bids fair to be the Venice book bar none. In truth, the Venice part is but half the second volume, and the "corner" that so grieved James might consist particularly of those chapters, laid in London, that precede it. Perhaps, since it was the topic of Kate which set off the lament, the "spot" and the deformity have to do with James's failure with her, for that in particular seems at the source of his sorrow. One must concentrate on the chapters that troubled the author most, and fortunately...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 114-127
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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