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  • The Literature of Reassessment: James’s Collier’s Fiction
  • Melanie Dawson

On January 6, 1898 Collier’s Weekly announced its intention to include more illustrations, departments on drama, athletics, art, and music, and works by famous artists such as Frederic Remington, Howard Pyle, John La Farge, A. B. Wenzell, and Eric Pape. Collier’s also advertised “special features” such as Henry James’s “great serial,” The Turn of the Screw. According to the plans of the weekly’s new editor, Robert J. Collier (the son of owner, Peter Fenton Collier), the remaking of Collier’s would place it within the company of the “quality” monthlies such as Harper’s, Century, Scribner’s, and The Atlantic Monthly. The weekly’s association with esteemed writers and artists, an association boldly marketed, was calculated to designate Collier’s as an artistic and higherbrow enterprise rather than an ordinary news journal. A year after the journal’s remodeling, the younger Collier reported in Collier’s Weekly of January, 1899 that

neither effort nor expense would be spared in making it the foremost American Weekly. To this end we secured the services of the great writers and famous illustrators of the day, and through them have presented to our readers the most interesting events of the world’s history—the achievements of science, art, and literature, the great events of industrial and commercial enterprise—briefly, the intellectual and material development of the world.

(Editorial Comment 25)

The project of obvious acculturation announced by Collier’s, the weekly’s attempted movement to a higher cultural position than the one it previously occupied, revolved around the weekly’s newfound claims to highbrow literature and art. As the editor later reflected, Collier’s reformation was inaugurated through an association with figures such as new contributor Henry James. Collier, [End Page 230] a recent Harvard graduate, decided that “popular journalism needed a little true literary flavor. I showed my judgment of the public taste by ordering a serial story by Henry James,” even though, as he later admitted, he never discovered what the story or illustrations “were about” (qtd. in Mott 455).

The remaking of Collier’s can be seen as one of a number of changes in the literary marketplace of the 1890s, detailed by scholars such as Michael Anesko, David McWhirter, Philip Horne, Marcia Jacobson, Stuart Culver, and Ann T. Margolis. Such market changes included the ways that fictional texts were published, priced, and marketed near the century’s turn. New expansions in the periodical market and new laws regarding copyright emerged, along with changing notions surrounding the construct of “culture” and how to attain it (see Anesko, “Ambiguous”; Friction). 1 As Lawrence Levine has shown, cultural hierarchies emerged at roughly the turn of the century, resulting in labels of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art, categories that allowed consumers to differentiate among an increasingly vast range of consumer products and services. But cultural “highs” and “lows” were not merely conditions of the market; they acted as categories for knowledges and abilities. As Nancy Glazener has recently argued in her history of realism, the late-century periodical market made obvious the vertical hierarchies that linked specific topical interests with notions of cultural competence, thereby producing the criteria formulating high and low taste in relation to individual publications or journals—a set of conditions acutely obvious to James, who by the 1890s was reinventing his work and his audience.

In response to Collier’s claims to higher culture through its new contributors, including himself, James deployed his fiction to articulate the potentials as well as the difficulties of acculturation, reflecting on the complexity of eluding a recognizable cultural position by inventing and inhabiting a more prominent one: The Turn of the Screw (January-April 1898), “The Given Case” (December 1898-January 1899), “The Real Right Thing” (December 1899), and “The Special Type” (June 1900). In the context of their inclusion in a low-to-middle-brow publication striving for new-found respect in the literary arena, these fictions assert an interest in the processes of cultural reassessment. In these selections, James relies heavily on definitions of culture and on the ways that the constructed values attributed to it could be...

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pp. 230-238
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