Beasts in the Jungle: Henry James, William James, and the Animal Turn
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Beasts in the Jungle:
Henry James, William James, and the Animal Turn

The "animal question"—the question of how to read and respond to the ontological, epistemological, and moral status of nonhuman animals—has become, as Sherryl Vint notes, the "pressing political question of our times."1 Recent work by Michael Lundblad and Benjamin Bateman has sought to apply an "animal turn" of the screw to the writing of Henry James, finally asking us to take seriously the beastly quality of James's "The Beast in the Jungle" (1903). This article seeks to situate such recent work in a broader account of James's investment in animality, one that can be traced through a range of his fiction and nonfiction writings, especially his major novels The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Golden Bowl (1904); in each instance, my argument traces suggestive correspondences between Henry James's animal imaginings and William James's theorizations of the encounter between human consciousness and nonhuman instinct, theorizations that engaged with contemporaneous philosophical and political debates about the status, the instrumental value, and the suffering of nonhuman animals. Where Joshua Schuster finds only "limited formalizations of the animal" in modernist literature, formalizations that tend to displace "[a]ctual animals" with "a certain kind of reductive caricature of modernist 'animality,'" James's fiction suggests an alternative path for the emergence of modernist prose as his writing self-consciously recoils from the risks of rhetorically emptying out the animal as a figure for human modernity.2 My argument begins, however, by querying some of the critical assumptions that have led to the recent focus on the tale of John Marcher and his beastly destiny; [End Page 371] we should pause before claiming James as, in Bateman's words, "queerly environmentalist."3 While James's writing is alert to the danger of objectification inherent in a language of animality, it also insistently troubles the kinds of ethical detachment that, at times, guides analytic approaches to thinking about the animal. James's fiction often turns on its ambiguous treatment of the imaginative overlap between a distancing that would recognize the ethical obligations posed by the animal in all its otherness and a detachment that allows for that animal other's violent erasure.4

While my primary focus in this article is on the narrative processes by which James worked through the "animal question" in fiction, it is worthwhile to note the peculiar flavor of the narratives that gathered around his relationships with animals during his lifetime. James's acquaintances were prone to make connections between the Master's late manner and his attentions, and inattention, to companion species. Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford) tells a delightful tale of a walk with James, John Galsworthy, and James's dachshund, Max in which the Master halts, "plant[s] his stick firmly in the ground," in "order to round off an immense sentence," only to discover at the sentence's end that Max had "passed between [their] six legs again and again, threading his leash behind him"—Heuffer declares "we must have resembled the Laocoon, but when Maximillian had finished the resemblance must have been overwhelming."5 Bay Emmett noted both her cousin Henry's propensity "to express his thoughts, unanswered" and his delightfully silly worship of his dog, "little Peter": "Cousin Henry seizes him & brushes him hard & then hugs & kisses him, talking to him all the time in a way that is so silly that I have to die laughing."6 Violet Hunt tells the story of James's animated talk while holding her niece's Persian kitten: "He quite forgot the poor beast, which was too polite and too squeezed between the upper and the nether millstone of the great man's hands to remind him of its existence, and I dared not rescue it until the sentence on which Mr James was engaged was brought to a close—inside of half an hour" (Nowell-Smith, The Legend of the Master, 123). Where Hunt feared James's forgetting of the very beast before him, E. S. Nadal recalls a scene in which James invoked his "dachshund bitch" as an active participant in their risqué conversation...


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