The Politics of Henry James
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The Politics of Henry James by Darshan Singh Maini, Punjabi University Each great writer acquires an image that owes its energies to certain felt airs and essences associated with his creative imagination. The cut and quality of that imagination , its character and code, its reach and ambit, finally determine its dynamics. The image is uniquely answerable to such a dialectic; it sustains itself through a certain "chemistry" of effects, and, at times, through a certain aesthetic "mysticism." In short, it attains, en route, an unmistakable ambience. Considered thus, Henry James figures to the responding imagination as a writer of such rare refinements, subtleties and felicities as to become in the end a kind of vintage wine to be taken in slow, measured draughts. To be sure, his fastidiousness has in some later tales a distressing aspect, and his "transcendence " a false ring, but where the Jamesian imagination is true to its inner energies and does not let the human situation turn cold or abstract or static, the compact between reader and writer has the quality of a shared dream. Its ceremoniousness has a purposive aspect; it becomes a kind of aesthetic tender. The "great good place" holds and compels. With such an image before us, it is difficult to imagine Henry James in relation to any kind of politics, feudal, parliamentary, radical, charismatic or messianic. Indeed, we are tempted to rule out any Jamesian truck with it. Somehow the thing seems wholly out of character . And yet the novelist, as we know, did produce some novels and tales that have a distinctly political atmosphere and tone, even when they tend to pull in other directions, as though politics were an interloper in that "house of fiction" or "a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert," to use Stendahl's famous phrase. In any case, a work of art need not be overtly political to show the presence of a political imagination of sorts. In the larger sense of the word, politics are constitutively there in the body of a book that has anything to do with the fate of persons and societies and civilizations. And James, above all, was continually engaged in vast enterprises of the human spirit, relating man to family, society, culture and country. What, then, is the character of James's politics, if that is what we must call them, what their compulsions, what their aspects? To begin with, it will be noticed that nearly all critical comments on James's politics are in the nature of stray remarks or parenthetical observations or wayside variations, and even where, as in Lionel Trilling, in Stephen Spender and in Irving Howe, to mention three outstanding James critics, the novelist's political vision— or the lack of it—receives a fuller and pondered treatment , the critical effort is confined to one or two novels. There are several penetrating critiques on the so-called political novels, but all these splinter studies do not add up to a consistent and coherent picture of James's politics . There is a need, therefore, to consider the problem in its essence and in its totality. Any consideration of his politics will, then, have to be a complex of comments authenticating in some manner the politics of the fabulator and the politics of the man. Eventually, we may even reach the conclusion that James had no great interest in politics, or that his politics varied from book to book, yielding no discernible pattern, but to do so we have to close with all those presences and "ghosts" that seem to mist the mirror, as it were. If "the figure in the carpet" remains vague and unrealized, that too may have a political moral of its own. Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of critical comments on the subject of James's politics: (a) that he was temperamentally a deeply reactionary and conservative writer who subscribed openly and continually to the ideals of a patrician, elitist, aristocratic society; (b) that he had a strong, hidden, but inherited, familial streak of radicalism that erupted time and again in his deeply pondered works; (c) that he was essentially innocent of politics qua politics, that he did not understand...