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Narrative Sympathy in The Bostonians Kristin Boudreau, Trinity University As he looked back over his literary career in 1908 and faced the task of choosing which works to revise and republish in the New York Edition, Henry James pondered the idea of including his ill-fated Bostonians, first published serially in 1885-86. The effort, he thought, might settle a score with his audience and earn him the recognition that had not come two decades earlier. In a letter to William Dean Howells, James describes both his desire for audience approval and the nearly impossible work required to vindicate The Bostonians: And I have even, in addition, a dim vague view of reintroducing, with a good deal of titivation and concellation, the too-diffuse but, I somehow feel, tolerably full and good "Bostonians" of nearly a quarter of a century ago; that production never having, even to my much-disciplined patience , received any sort of justice. But it will take, doubtless, a great deal of artful re-doing—and I haven't, now, had the courage or time for anything so formidable as touching and re-touching it. (LHJ II, 100) James's (unintentional) pun on "patience" hints at a connection between the author 's confrontation with his readers and the patient's confrontation with the doctor . Patients, like patience, must be "much-disciplined" in order to tolerate the conflicts that emerge when self confronts other. In his position as author, James poses, alternately, as doctor and patient. In the passage above, he represents himself as the agent of both creation and cure, recruiting metaphors from medicine and art, and suggesting that he must first "touch" his ailing work in order to examine its wounds, then "re-touch" its surface to conceal its flaws.1 His concern, however , involves the wounded author no less than his sickly text, for that text, as the writer's "production," embodies a part of his past that he cannot separate from himself. If the writer's failure erupts in the body of his novel, it also displays itself—more immediately and irrefutably—in the hostility of his audience, which refuses to accord it the "justice" James expects. To mend the text would mean reconciling the author with his readers. The Henry James Review 14 (1993): 17-33 © 1993 The Johns Hopkins University Press 18 The Henry James Review This problem of turning audience hostility into sympathy, though it overwhelmed James in 1908, was nothing new; in fact, he had rehearsed it in 1885 when the novel was being serially published in The Century Magazine. Soon after the first installment appeared in February 1885, James began to hear accusations that he had viciously modeled Miss Birdseye, the pathetic and ineffective female suffragette, after New England's own Elizabeth Peabody. Although James heard these accusations from James Russell Lowell and from his Aunt Kate, he was shocked to hear them also from his brother William. While he was prepared for criticism from other sources, he wrote to William that he resented the "assault" from his usually fair brother: I didn't expect the charge to come from you. I hold that I have done nothing to deserve it, and think your tone on the subject singularly harsh and unfair. I care not a straw for what people in general may say about Miss Birdseye—they can say nothing more idiotic and insulting than they have already said about all my books in which there has been any attempt to represent things or persons in America; but I should be very sorry—in fact deadly sick, or fatally ill—if I thought Miss Peabody herself supposed I intended to represent her. (14 Feb. 1885, Matthiessen 326-27) James's language for failed sympathy with his readers tells more than his outrage at being misunderstood. To fall short of that sympathy, he claims, would make him "deadly sick, or fatally ill." If sympathy is meant to reconcile self with other , its opposite is a ' 'deadly' ' sickness when, in the absence of sympathy, self and other confront each other. James depicts Peabody's possible misreading of his text—her privatization of a public document—in the very terms in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 17-33
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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