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“This Wild Hunt for Rest”: Working at Play in The Ambassadors


Both recent scholarship on the literature of travel and emergent theories of the transnational have ignored the key roles played by twentieth-century philosophies and institutions of leisure. This article begins to consider the cultural and material history of leisure as a significant trope in modernism by identifying an aesthetics of leisure developed in Henry James’s letters and fiction, particularly his late novel The Ambassadors (1903). The critical charge of this novel, I argue, resides in its transformation of two contemporaneous discourses—the Protestant work ethic and its lesser-known but equally pervasive counterpart, the ideology of modern leisure—into an aesthetically productive dialectic of labor and leisure. Considering James’s aesthetics of leisure as theme and style in his fiction and as a self-consciously elaborated mode of literary production in his non-fiction suggests the broader significance of leisure for modernism.

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