Review Essay:Henry James and Transatlantic Modernism
The traditional view of Henry James as a pivotal figure in the emergence of literary modernism has recently expanded toward a consideration of his position in the broader cultural context of modernity. Book-length studies have appeared of his responses to the urban sphere (McKee), the culture of consumption (El-Rayess), and the rise of the illustrated magazine (Tucker). The Henry James Society recently convened a conference on “Henry James and the Material World.” The transatlantic experience remains central to such inquiries, and studies such as Peter Brooks’s Henry James Goes to Paris and Susan Winnett’s Narratives of Return have begun to examine [End Page 101] the material dimensions of James’s travels between Europe and the United States. The books under review here share this focus but at the same time reconnect with the literary dimension of James’s writing. Informed by recent scholarship on cultural modernity, they highlight the interplay of narrative perspective, stylistic choices, and broader cultural trends in works ranging from Watch and Ward to The American Scene.
Robert Burden’s Travel, Modernism, and Modernity examines the significance of travel for the writing of James and four of his contemporaries (Conrad, Forster, Lawrence, and Wharton). The selection of case studies indicates Burden’s interest in the transition from realism to modernism. He offers a fresh perspective on this transition by reading the authors not so much as early modernists than as representatives of a “late realism” (2) whose manifestations range from Conrad’s impressionism to James’s and Wharton’s explorations of limited point of view. These writers hold on to the ideal of realist description, Burden argues, but their realism is pervaded by an “epistemological skepticism” that became characteristic of modernist literature. This skepticism sprang from the turbulences of modernity, especially the “emergent crisis of national cultural identity” in the age of imperialism and mass migration. Travel writing in particular became a record of the writers’ ambivalent responses to other cultures but also to their own. This ambivalence, Burden argues, can be traced to the writers’ desire to preserve cultural identity at home and abroad while at the same time adopting an outside perspective that exposes to doubt both the boundaries and the self-definition of national cultures. While their individual responses to this dilemma differ considerably, Burden points out that all writers under discussion are united by their anxiety about “the masses,” whom they fault for diluting cultural identity at home and, as tourists, abroad.
The breadth of its argument makes Travel, Modernism, and Modernity an introduction to early twentieth-century literature more than a critical study. Its interest is not in challenging or adding to our understanding of the transition to modernism but in identifying themes and anxieties shared by the key writers of the period. Burden’s laudable attempt to do justice to the writers’ ambivalence leads him to adumbrate a variety of readings rather than develop a succinct argument. He often perpetuates and criticizes the modernists’ attitudes in the same breath, for example, their distinction between travel and tourism (11). In laying out the “Key Terms” of the study, he cites a wide range of writers, theorists, and disciplines--from Darwin to Spengler, from psychoanalysis to sociology--but does not engage any of them in depth. In the two paragraphs he devotes to modernist expatriation, for example, Burden conflates expatriation with exile, “internal exile,” emigration, and diaspora, all of which he cites without interrogating their meaning, the scholarly debate around them, or their interrelations (12-13). His only reference points for Social Darwinism are Darwin and Thorstein Veblen, a highly selective pairing that neglects the key theorists of the movement. Even the eponymous concept of modernity is only defined by association. Burden first vaguely describes it as having “something to do with emancipation, greater freedom of movement … and opportunity” (3), then follows Baudelaire in associating it with the “transitory, the fugitive, and the contingent,” then in the same sentence describes the “loss of traditional beliefs and community” in modernity as “the displacement of Gemeinschaft by Gesellschaft (Tönnies),” which manifested itself in “the disappearance of the traditional storyteller” diagnosed by Benjamin (4). None of these approaches receives further discussion, even though they operate [End Page 102] on different conceptual and historical planes. Neither Tönnies nor Benjamin refer to modernity in Baudelaire’s sense: for Tönnies, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are abstract models of social organizations that existed before and continue to compete within modernity. Benjamin locates the beginnings of modernity in the fifteenth century at the latest, when the storyteller was ultimately displaced by the letterpress. It would require a thorough argument to develop these disparate sources into a viable concept of modernity, an argument Burden does not even begin to make--on the contrary, he takes his entire definition of the term, including these theoretical references, from a single secondary source.
The chapters on the individual writers operate with a similarly wide lens, which replicates some of the problems of the theoretical section but enables new insights about developments within the writers’ oeuvres. The chapter on Henry James pursues two main arguments: that James rejected mass tourism but adopted some of its patterns nevertheless and that travel writing was a paradigm for James’s innovations in narrative technique. The first of these arguments has been discussed extensively in scholarship, but Burden adds to it by pointing out interconnections between the travel writing and the fiction. His observations on the semiotics of mass tourism reveal that James too is “looking for the signs of Englishness or Frenchness” in his travels and explores Europe via some of the same routes and literary sights as the emergent tourist industry (161). The second argument creates new insights into the development of James’s fiction in its interplay with the travel writing. Whereas the early fiction draws on techniques of realist description such as the travel sketch, Burden shows, the shift toward perceptual narration in the later works is intertwined with a shift toward subjective impression in the travel writing. He traces these transformations in careful readings of The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors that convincingly establish the changing role of such sketches in creating atmosphere, plot, and character.
As in the study as a whole, Burden’s aim in the James chapter is to “revisit” the texts rather than add to our understanding of them, which shows in his neglect of previous scholarship (155). He cites a mere handful of secondary sources, mostly the introductions to his own paperback editions of the novels, and ignores publications directly relevant to his topic, such as Hana Wirth-Nesher’s “If This is Liberty, It Must Be Paris: Landmarks and Home in The Ambassadors” and Patricia McKee’s “Travel in The Ambassadors.” On the whole, his book is a thematic introduction rather than a scholarly study. It will be of interest to students who are beginning to explore James’s oeuvre.
Ann Fernihough’s Freewomen and Supermen: Edwardian Radicals and Literary Modernism reads James’s comments on immigration and the masses in the context of Edwardian individualism and demonstrates that these topics, if studied in depth, yield momentous insights about both his work and its cultural moment. The free-women and supermen of the book’s title are the “hyper-individualist” intellectuals of the early twentieth century whom Fernihough sees personified in A. R. Orage and Dora Marsden, the editors of the New Age and the Freewoman respectively (32). In their Nietzschean idealism and their acceptance of diverse, often conflicting political positions, Fernihough argues, these editors represent an inclusive, radical, optimistic strand of pre-war thought in which modernism could ferment. And ferment it did, not least in their journals, which published Hulme, Pound, Joyce, and the imagists alongside esoteric calls for social and sexual experimentation. The main inspirations [End Page 103] behind this radicalism were Bergson and Nietzsche, as Fernihough demonstrates in the introduction and the first chapter of her study, and their continuing influence on the post-war generation shows that modernism emerged in continuity with Edwardian thought rather than in an abrupt shift, as many modernists posited. It is here that James comes into play: in the second chapter, The American Scene is the starting point from which Fernihough traces the continuity of Bergsonian and Nietzschean ideas in early twentieth-century literature.
While it remains unclear to what extent James was familiar with Bergson’s writings, the chapter convincingly reads his skepticism of the rapidity and homogenization of American life as expressing anxiety about the loss of “duration,” the individual dimension of time as defined by Bergson. The self-reflexive, meandering style of James’s late work, the chapter shows, can be understood as an attempt to preserve this individual dimension. These observations feed into Fernihough’s broader argument about Bergson’s influence on the emergence of stream-of-consciousness writing in anglophone literature, an argument that captures the ambivalence James shares with other experimental writers of the time: “on the one hand, there is the impulse to open oneself up to the swarm of sense data …; on the other, there is the need to insert integrity of self in the face of this swarm” (89). Both of these impulses are ultimately “opposed to the average, the conventional, and the general,” Fernihough argues, and are thus manifestations of the Nietzschean individualism characteristic of the period (89). Under its influence, James’s lament of cultural homogenization in The American Scene hovers between the impulses to protect the (immigrant) masses from such homogenization and to dismiss them as homogeneous and thus “ontologically inferior” in the first place (100-02). To some extent, of course, this ambivalence is the result of James’s consciously subjective style, which blurs the distinction between spontaneous impression and abstract reflection.
Fernihough revisits The American Scene in the fifth chapter of her study, which examines the role of sexuality in the hyper-individualism of the period. She discusses James’s “feminization of New York” as an example of the contemporary tendency to regard women as submissive mass creatures unresponsive to calls for Nietzschean individualization and resistance (183). While her reading of individual scenes and motifs, such as the Waldorf Astoria, are convincing, Fernihough’s generalizing claim that James describes the city as female disregards the frequency of masculine imagery, such as the “terrible recent erection” of the skyscrapers in “New York Revisited.” As a whole, however, her study is notable for avoiding the platitudes and conceptual anachronisms the subject has elicited from some other scholars. On the contrary, Fernihough makes the apparently paradoxical political stances of her freewomen and supermen a nodal point of her book, thus opening up a fresh perspective on the transition toward modernism in the early years of the twentieth century.
Megan Quigley’s Modernist Fiction and Vagueness: Philosophy, Form, and Language offers yet another view on James’s transatlantic impact. Whereas Burden’s interest is in James abroad and Fernihough focuses exclusively on his homecoming to New York, Quigley discusses him in the context of contemporary American philosophy but argues that his adaptation of philosophical insights was an important impulse for European modernism. The focal concept of Quigley’s study is vagueness, which she defines both as a literary strategy (drawing on such techniques as impressionism, ambiguity, and subjectivity) and as a specific philosophical problem (the imprecise [End Page 104] boundaries of concepts). James was pivotal in introducing vagueness into modernist literature, she argues, in that the philosophical problem, of which he learned from his brother William and his friend Charles Sanders Peirce, informed his experiments in narrative technique. The exploration of vagueness, which manifested itself in such phenomena as gaps in the plot, inexplicable behavior of characters, subjective narrative perspective, and polysemic symbols, became central to modernist self-definition not least because it challenged the precepts of literary realism. In an illuminating parallel, Quigley correlates this transition with the shift from analytic philosophy to pragmatism: the former regarded vagueness as a consequence of fuzzy terminology, and thus a problem solvable by precise description, whereas the pragmatists around William James regarded it as an epistemological condition that challenged dogmatic truths (4).
The study offers detailed interpretive chapters on Henry James, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, thus positioning James as a precursor figure for two outstanding figures of European modernist fiction. The chapter on James examines five sample texts that exemplify the development of his aesthetics of vagueness: the Flaubert essays, Watch and Ward, “The Beast in the Jungle,” The Sacred Fount, and The Ambassadors. Quigley convincingly reads the Flaubert essays as the literary version of William James’s critique of Peirce. Both critiques acknowledge the merits of realism but reject its “over-precision” (30). There is a realm of “vagueness and uncertainty,” as James puts it in his essays, that novelists must capture if they want “to represent life” in its fullness (22). This insight might explain his retraction of Watch and Ward, which Quigley suggests suffers not from a lack of realism but from a lack of vagueness. The central secret of the novel is spelled out at an early point, and the conventional marriage plot fails to engage the reader the way the unfathomable gaps in the later works do. “The Beast in the Jungle” is a more successful rendering of the marriage plot, Quigley argues, precisely because the central secret remains a “great vagueness,” as the narrator says at one point. By dramatizing his otherwise articulate character’s inability to specify this vagueness, “James denies Peirce’s early maxim that vagueness is merely an excuse for inarticulacy” (43): it is not Marcher’s inability to spell out the meaning of the beast that causes his unhappiness but his realization that for all his efforts that meaning will elude him. This reading aligns Marcher with the narrator of The Sacred Fount, whose obsessive search for an all-encompassing explanation is the cause rather than the consequence of his problems.
These observations impressively bear out Quigley’s claim that James engaged thoroughly with pragmatism and its effects on the precepts of literary realism. They show surprisingly little interest, however, in the second overarching claim of the chapter: that this engagement was behind the much-discussed changes in James’s narrative style. Questions of style only come to the foreground in the last section of the chapter, on The Ambassadors, which traces the incursion of the “vague values” of Paris on Strether’s inflexible perception (56). As the “clear moral terminology” of Woollett disintegrates and the meaning of a term such as “virtuous attachment” begins to shift, Strether begins to develop an affinity for vagueness that James renders in complicated, self-reflexive prose (57-58). This reading illustrates a particular strength of Quigley’s study: not only does it draw attention to the ubiquity of the word “vague” and the concept of vagueness in James’s oeuvre, but it uses this lens to reveal intriguing parallels and trajectories across some of his best-known works. [End Page 105]
Despite her stated intention to avoid vagueness in writing about vagueness, however, the clarity of Quigley’s argument is hampered by the occasional mixed metaphor (at one point Strether’s “absorption” of vagueness “undergirds” his rejection of marriage ) and, more important, by the relatively weak conceptualization of the key terms of her study. Quigley frames her argument by distinguishing the “vague” modernism of James, Joyce, and Woolf from the “precise” modernism of Pound, Eliot, and analytic philosophy. Just as Bertrand Russell set an ideal of precise expression against the vagueness of the language actually in use, she argues, Eliot prized “hard,” “definite,” “concrete,” writing to counter the sloppiness of expression he found in much contemporary literature (1-2). This is a questionable parallel because Russell aspires to precision of meaning whereas Eliot aspires to precision of form. Where Russell calls for an improved language in which all meanings are clear and less attention needs to be given to the use of words, Eliot works with the language he finds and improves it by using it more consciously. His goal in doing so is not precision of meaning: a poem like The Waste Land is open to many different interpretations because it blurs the boundaries between voices, symbolic codes, and frames of reference. Quigley’s distinction between a “vague” and a “precise” strand of modernism is contrived in that writers from both strands worked hard on every single word yet opened their texts up to various potential meanings. Her enlistment of Gertrude Stein as a “vague” modernist highlights the arbitrariness of these groupings: if ever a modernist emphasized the precise use of language it was Stein, who would have rejected Quigley’s description of her as embracing “‘absolute’ vagueness in style” (6).
These problems arise because Quigley does not consistently distinguish vagueness from ambiguity, a core manifestation of modernist aesthetics at work in all the writers she references. While she offers a concise working definition of these concepts early on--ambiguity results in several definable readings, vagueness results in the lack of a definable reading (7)--she undermines this definition by subsuming ambiguity under vagueness and by conflating the terms at several points in the study. As a result, vagueness loses its distinctive value because any writing that departs from naively mimetic description falls under its definition. Quigley notes in passing that her approach blurs the distinction between modernism and postmodernism as well: “If postmodernism defines itself by ‘renounce[ing] [sic] closed structure, fixed meaning, and rigid order in favor of play, indeterminacy, incompleteness, uncertainty, ambiguity, contingency, and chaos,’ the vagueness of modernist fiction shows it was always already postmodern” (8). This argument glosses over the differences between vagueness and the other concepts cited, and it glosses over the differences in style and intent between, say, James’s explorations of human consciousness and the postmodernist questioning of the existence and stability of such a thing as human consciousness. On the whole, Quigley’s approach is convincing and instructive as far as it draws on the philosophical conception of vagueness as a condition of epistemological insecurity. The intriguing argument that this conception was intertwined with modernist innovations in narrative style could have benefitted from a more thorough definition of the meaning and manifestation of vagueness in a literary context.
All books under review confirm James’s status as a transatlantic innovator by elucidating his role in the transition from realist to modernist writing. Burden introduces the concept of late realism to smooth that transition, endorsing a narrative of continuity in which modernism grows out of realism. Fernihough makes a continuity [End Page 106] argument as well but reverses the perspective by demonstrating that the political radicals and experimental writers of the pre-war period anticipated modernist concerns. Quigley, by contrast, regards modernism as a critical revision and ultimately an overcoming of realism in both literature and philosophy. All three scholars situate James at the precise point of transition: Burden, whose focus is on the late realists, places him near the end of the study, at the point when realism morphs into modernism; in Fernihough’s account of the transition period he appears in the middle of the study; Quigley’s history of the emergence of modernism begins with the James chapter. Beside his technical innovations, it is the transatlantic influence of James’s writing that makes him such an instructive case study. The books under review all emphasize the crucial role of transatlantic dialogue in the emergence of literary modernism, whether the conduit was travel, magazine culture, or philosophical debate. Interestingly, they situate James largely on the American side of this dialogue, either by associating him with other Americans (Wharton, Sinclair, Peirce) or by focusing on his American travel writing. Yet the texts they select for discussion show that James’s perception of the American scene was shaped by his interest in and knowledge of Europe from the very beginning. Ultimately, this subversively intercultural stance may have been his greatest contribution to twentieth-century thought.