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Carolyn Porter. Seeing and Being: The Plight of the Participant Observer in Emerson, James, Adams, and Faulkner. Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1981. 339 pp. $22.50. Though in essential ways an original as weU as an important book, Carolyn Porter's Seeing and Being in its basic subject and concern is actually a restatement —though unusuaUy fresh and innovative —of what is a very familiar issue in writing on American Uterature. The "detached observer," after all, is a very familiar figure that critics have studied for years in examining the major texts of American literature. But Professor Porter is far from content simply to reconsider along standard lines such weU-known figures as Emerson's "transparent eyeball" or James's "lucid observer." What makes Professor Porter's study fresh, challenging, and finally persuasive is her concern with "the plight" of the observer who can only rarely and then with extreme difficulty maintain his detachment. As a typical case, for example, the narrator of The Sacred Fount is seen as "the observer becomfing] the participant." Though usually against his will, the detached observer is very much a part of the world and at best seeks to maintain an ambivalent balance between witnessing and participating. There is inevitably a psychic as weU as a metaphysical strain in his efforts to maintain a dual existence as one who is both active and passive. The epigraph of the book, a quote from Emerson, capsulizes the problem weU: "I be and I see my being at the same time." The world that the "participant observer" inhabits is for Professor Porter a distinctly historical environment. Indeed she emphasizes that the northeastern United States during the 1830s and 40s was a "society poised on the verge of the most accelerated capitalist development in modern history." Accordingly, the author refutes the strong tendency toward "ahistoricism" in conventional criticism of American literature. Surely she is correct in observing that such standard books as those by Matthiessen, Feidelson, and Lewis tend to represent a literature of innocence and historical unawareness. Thus it is both startling and necessary that Professor Porter places Emerson's major essays in their historical context of the triumph of industrialism in New England. In associating her twin themes of the observer and capitalistic society, Professor Porter relies extensively on such neoMarxist concepts as "reification," "cornmodification ," and "hegemony"—terms important in the works of critics such as George Lukas and Raymond Williams. To my mind, the extensive use of neo-Marxist jargon is excessive and often needlessly obscure . Indeed, the recurrent idea of "reification " is frequently quite indistinct, especiaUy when applied to details of Nature and The Golden Bowl. But the essentiaUy Marxist readings of the various texts are immensely persuasive in spite of the reliance on the specialized vocabulary of neo-Marxism. For the balance of this review I wish to pay attention to the chapter on Henry James. It offers a reading of The Golden Bowl that to my mind is one of the most original and perceptive on record. Professor Porter goes well beyond the obvious point that a central character of the book, Mr. Adam Verver, is a prodigious capitalist and is inclined to regard his son-in-law and then his wife as purchases. Indeed, Professor Porter shows that the economic cast of mind rules virtually aU of the action and, at least indirectly, accounts for the mode of thought of aU the characters. In a general observation on the intrinsic economic foundations of virtually everything in The Golden Bowl, Professor Porter writes: It should be clear why it is pointless to draw back in shock from the spectacle James presents in this novel—of men and women bought and sold in the marketplace; to do so amounts to a sentimental denial of the premise of which the novel proceeds to resolve the conflicts whose development it Volume V 68 Number 1 The Henry James Review FaU, 1983 records—that the world is a marketplace . No one in The Golden Bowl is exempt from the force of com modification : everyone either bears a price tag or can be seen examining one, deciding whether or not to pay the price. In short, commodification...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 68-69
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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