In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Henry James and the Limits of Historicism
  • Ross Posnock

“Cultural studies,” one of its gifted practitioners has recently remarked, “has had a distinctly difficult time with the concept of aesthetic value. It has done little more than assault, critique, explode, and dismantle it—often for the best of reasons” (Lott 545). But rather than gloat over the success of its campaign against aesthetic value, Eric Lott, perhaps with a twinge of guilty conscience, acknowledges that “we have recognized too little, though, that art and aesthetic activity generally are recognizable human interests, and ought to find a place in cultural studies accounts” (546). This remarkable statement is worth quoting, not least because its earnest tone of generous concession vividly conveys cultural studies’ lavish sense of triumph amid the wreckage of the aesthetic. Or so cultural studies would have us believe. But a less predictable tale is told about the recent fate of the aesthetic if we note the surprisingly robust current critical fortunes of a canonical white male elitist, alleged high priest of aesthetic idealism, who seems the virtual embodiment of all that cultural studies targeted for demolition.

Yet Henry James, far from being demolished or, even worse, ignored, has been successfully repositioned in response to the profession’s paradigm shift from literary to cultural criticism. This repositioning (a word I borrow from advertising describing the effort to revive products whose shelf life has grown tenuous), moreover, has been conducted in a seamless, indeed painless, and convincing way.

How did Henry James manage not merely to survive but prosper in the new regime? The terms for an answer are suggested by Kaja Silverman’s Lacanian [End Page 273] feminist account of James as a radically marginal subject whose sexuality refuses specification. These days, such a subject holds considerable power and interest for cultural studies. James consistently locates himself and his fiction precisely at a fissure in the dominant discourse. Such extreme positioning, of course, calls into question an animating premise of cultural studies—that canonical authors are figures of repression, of ideological containment. The inadequacy of this received wisdom is further confirmed by the ease with which Henry James is being assimilated to the terms of the new paradigm (of cultural studies), for this assimilation is neither a result of critical chicanery nor capitulation to fashion, but rather the result of taking James at his own word.

This taking sounds simple but involves a good bit of ground clearing, above all a dismantling of the inert, enshrined formalist Henry James that was erected in the nineteen fifties. Once this sacred icon is set aside, one can begin attending to the textual sites where James ostentatiously unraveled his mastery, that is, punctured the dominant fiction—the “stable core” of unity said to be central to patriarchy and classical masculinity. His acts of de-idealization reverberate in his memoirs and in The American Scene, works that traffic in a dialectic of abjection and power, and deliberately estrange his audience’s expectations and orthodoxies. His memoirs enact a curious spectacle: the internationally acclaimed Master of the Novel displaying himself as a “dunce,” a “fool” grateful for his brother’s crumbs. Henry James celebrates the pleasures of vagueness, envy, blankness, belatedness, and imitation, qualities conventionally believed to be destructive of the self’s integrity. The assumption that integrity—a closed, unified stability—inheres in subjectivity is what James contested long before such skepticism became a postmodern article of faith.

Taking James’s self-confessed marginality seriously involves relocating The American Scene from the periphery to the center of the James canon, for in this book marginality is most pivotally and performatively on display. The margin at once situates the “restless analyst,” as James describes himself, and locates his subject—the United States. A zone of uncertainty, the margin is a veritable quicksand engulfing all pretensions to mastery, control, and stable identity. Standing for neither a “possible greater good” nor “greater evil,” the margin is the irreducible fact of the “mere looming mass of the more, the more and more to come” (AS 401). James fashions himself as a marginal man of double consciousness—at once “inquiring stranger” and “initiated native”—who admits that “an inevitable...