- Transatlantic Tropology in James’s Roderick Hudson
Roderick Hudson (1875), Henry James’s first fully realized novel, was for many years spurned by critics as a faltering piece of juvenilia. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound deemed the novel mere “apprentice work” and Ford Madox Hueffer concurred, while Rebecca West in 1916 announced decisively, “It is not a good book” (Tintner 172). Yet James himself thought highly enough of this “apprentice work” to reassess and revise it for the New York Edition of his works—a trouble he did not take with the later novels Confidence, The Bostonians, Washington Square, or The Europeans—and his 1907 preface to the revised Roderick, if full of pointed self-criticism, is not entirely dismissive. More recent critics have taken their cue from James’s ambivalent relation to the novel, rather than from its Georgian detractors. Part of what readers of Roderick Hudson have found fascinating is the very question of ambivalence within the novel, which founds itself on drastic dualisms only to oscillate between them in its valuations. These dualisms are both thematic (American innocence and priority versus European experience and lateness) and modal (allegory versus irony, romance versus realism). By shuttling back and forth between the Old World and the New, allegory and irony, innocence and experience, art and commerce, transcendentalism and aestheticism, Roderick dramatizes the youthful James’s hesitations on these same thresholds: unsurprisingly, the fledgling novelist’s Kunstlerroman bears more than a purely fictional freight.
But Roderick Hudson’s interest is not limited to psychobiography. James wrote in the 1907 preface, “Roderick Hudson was my first attempt at a novel, a long fiction with a complicated subject” (AN 4). As a “first attempt” (technically second to Watch and Ward, published in 1870), Roderick is also a Jamesian proving-ground against an array of influences. 1 This proving-ground is also a sacrificial ground, where the novel’s protagonist must come to grief in his [End Page 22] strivings for artistic self-determination in order, perversely, to save the novelist from a similar fate. By this odd strategy, James attempts to stave off fatal indebtedness to a host of influences: Pater, Emerson, Goethe, the English Romantics, and most notably Hawthorne, whose The Marble Faun is Roderick Hudson’s nearest progenitor. Enough has been written about the echoes of Hawthorne’s work in James’s to establish the line of descent between the two texts beyond doubt. But I want to reopen this case-study in influence-evasion with the suggestion that critics have underestimated the elaborate defenses erected by Roderick Hudson against its Hawthorne-inheritance and have only partly understood the range of contortions James’s novel undergoes in order to enjoy that inheritance without being infantilized by it.
Like Rowland Mallet, Roderick Hudson is an ambiguous creature, “neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring”—neither uncritically allegorical nor unflinchingly ironic (RH 58). 2 This allegory/irony axis emerges as the novel’s primary modal ambivalence: ironically, Roderick often deploys the very allegorical mode its author elsewhere deplores. Sheila Teahan’s “Hawthorne, James, and the Fall of Allegory in Roderick Hudson” ably links the novel’s vacillating stance toward allegory with the influence of Hawthorne, whose devotion to allegory James lamented. According to Teahan, Roderick acts in the novel as Hawthorne’s allegorical stand-in, and Roderick’s fall tropes the fall of both allegory and its arch-practitioner, even as the allegorical mode which sponsors the sculptor’s fall “reintroduces Hawthorne, in a kind of return of the repressed” (161). 3 My reading of Roderick Hudson and the role of allegory in the James-Hawthorne relation responds to Teahan’s article and revises it somewhat: the novel’s use of allegory, I suggest, is too self-conscious not to see the irony in an allegorical slaying of allegory, too canny to foster an uncanny “return of the repressed.” My discussion begins with James’s reading of allegory and fallenness in Hawthorne (1879), which annunciates some of the Jamesian verdicts that Roderick only hints at. The argument then touches briefly on The Marble Faun before turning to Roderick Hudson and its wary deployments of allegory...