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Why R. P. Blackmur Found James's Golden Bowl Inhumane

From: ELH
Volume 68, Number 3, Fall 2001
pp. 725-743 | 10.1353/elh.2001.0020

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ELH 68.3 (2001) 725-743

R. P. Blackmur came to be widely known by editing a collection of James's prefaces to The New York Edition, a handsomely printed and carefully revised set of those of his writings the author wished to preserve. Each volume of this edition included a preface to the novel or group of tales it contained. Blackmur's republication of James's commentary on his own work appeared in 1934. His introduction offered a careful analysis of James's thematic concerns and Blackmur's judgments of his achievements in fictional method. Blackmur's thirty-odd pages comprise a tribute to his author almost as extraordinary as James's prefaces themselves; James had found a reader capable of responding to his own unexampled effort to characterize his own mode of illustrating, analyzing, and exemplifying his work.

Blackmur's work on James for The Literary History of the United States (1948) is an early and markedly distinguished addition to the study of the writer. Blackmur opens with a discrimination, suggesting that James's fiction issues from a reality distinct from Howells's literal record and Zola's philosophical naturalism. He holds that James's work is "his response to the human predicament of his generation, which James felt with unusual acuteness because of the virtual formlessness of his education -- the predicament of the sensitive mind during what may be called the interregnum between the effective dominance of the old Christian-classical ideal through old European institutions and the rise to rule of the succeeding ideal, whatever history comes to call it." Blackmur continues: "To express that predicament in fiction no education could have been more fitting than his, for it excluded him from assenting to the energies of social expansion, of technology, of the deterministic sciences, and of modern finance and business. Unconscious assent to these forces, over and above any rebellion against their moral values, caused most active minds in his day to conceal the fact of interregnum. James's mind reacted only to the shadows of these forces as revealed in human emotion and in social behavior and convention." As Blackmur elsewhere put it: "The imaginative mind must use many modes of seeing in order to come upon a single view and especially so when, as in our age, there is no existing single view to which the imagination gives universal credit and what is universal seems rather what is made fresh." The independent status James enjoyed sets him off. Blackmur extends his 1948 account of the interregnum: "With his abiding sense of the indestructible life, he expressed the decay and sterility of a society pretending to live on conventions and institutions but lacking the force of underlying convictions. He described what he saw, and he created what lay under what he saw." The critic instances a moment which provokes James's exclamation, "Where emotion is, there am I!" (1039). Blackmur comments: "The story of that struggle to realize life as emotion and to create it as art is the abiding story of Henry James, as near as we can come to the Figure in his Carpet." (He is employing the title of a James story in which eager admirers of a writer conduct a fruitless hunt for the secret hidden in his work.) In an early passage Blackmur suggests that James's back injury became -- at least emotionally -- cognate with the emasculation of Abélard and accompanies this suggestion of a deprivation with an assertion that James's "so wide a variety of social and educational exposures, which had in common only their informality, [may be said to have had the effect] that he was left the most social man in the world but without a society or an institution that could exact his allegiance" (1040). Save, Blackmur adds, his art itself.

Following a short account of the writer's childhood and youth Blackmur turns to his breakthrough: the maturation of his art.

Perhaps it was the very informality of his education that made him grasp for safety at the formalism of English society and the form of the French novel of Flaubert and the Russian novel of Turgenev who was himself a result...