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  • Jamesian Institutions
  • Merve Emre (bio)

In what social contexts can literary representations of human behavior give rise to lived practices of self-cultivation? This essay takes Henry James’s notorious 1905 lecture at Bryn Mawr College, “The Question of Our Speech,” as an especially instructive case study to answer this question. The lecture provoked widespread public outcry across the US for its unflattering comparison between the speaking habits of its “young ladies,” which James described as indistinct from “the grunting, the squealing, the barking or the roaring of animals” (Two Lectures 46), and their European counterparts’. By 1924, the lecture’s reception history had inspired the formation of various programs of speech pedagogy for young ladies, most notably, the Junior Year Abroad programs originating within the women’s college network and codifying the remedial aesthetic education James had imagined. Indeed, in a memorable scene in “The Question of Our Speech,” James describes the speech of American women as “our transported maiden, our unrescued Andromeda” adrift in the “international concert of culture,” a “poor dear distracted organ” waiting to be saved from aesthetic ruin by one who had mastered the distinctions between “form and the absence of form” (53). While it is dangerous to read anything James writes without a sense of humor, this essay shows how his audiences were primed to take him at his word as the savior of American speech—an international damsel in distress. More than just a cosmopolitan patriot, to borrow Jessica Berman’s term, James presented himself as a chivalric hero who could use his finely honed mastery of speech as a literary-aesthetic construction to secure his pedagogical authority over the speech of real women, thereby reforming the widespread European impression of the US’s “vocal barbarism” as a failing of “national sentiment” (“The Case of Spoken English”). Once James was installed in his new role as a teacher of young ladies within an array of institutions of learning—women’s colleges, reading societies, and speech training programs—his fiction emerged as a crucial [End Page 226] point of convergence for modernist aesthetics, women’s education, and US internationalism in the early twentieth century.

James may seem like an unusual example to demonstrate how literary-aesthetic forms shape lived practices of self-making. For one, there is an undeniable sticking power to the idea of “James as aesthete” (Freedman xvii), an epithet intended to underscore the writer’s persistent separation of his art-novels from the social contexts in which they were circulated.1 Reading against the grain of much scholarly work on Jamesian aesthetics, and modernist criticism more generally, the figure of James as a teacher of upper and middle-class young ladies’ lived practices extends Ross Posnock, Jonathan Freedman, and David McWhirter’s shared critical project of restoring James’s sense of historical consciousness. This essay thus roots James’s work as a novelist in the social, political, and material realities of modernity by reconfiguring Lisi Schoenbach’s notion of “Jamesian institutions”—the writer’s thick fictional descriptions of “individual habits and collective social behavior” (69)—as the organized and enduring sites of social activity where Jamesian style came to govern the speech and behavior of real people. And it does so by shedding light on James’s fraught, if commanding, institutional relationship to gender politics at a moment of supreme instability in the discourses surrounding American femininity, especially the figure of the American woman abroad in the twentieth century.

Looking beyond the lone figure of James and beyond the controversies over art and politics that routinely besiege modernist studies, I show how reading a historical archive, like the oral testimonies and writings of early Junior Year Abroad programs, as enshrining the same literary-aesthetic constructions James articulates in “The Question of Our Speech” can model a new method of literary inquiry. Whereas so much historically oriented criticism uses archival sources to support quasi-allegorical readings of literary aesthetics, reading archives to understand how literary aesthetics can authorize forms of corporeal expression inverts the constitutive relationship between fictional texts and sociohistorical reality. To put the point differently, the history of James’s lecture shows us how writers can institute new practices of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 226-255
Launched on MUSE
2015-05-04
Open Access
No
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