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  • The Repressing of the Journalistic in The Wings of the Dove
  • Michael Reid

And he said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my father’s house an house of merchandise.

—John 2.16

Prostitution is a central theme of The Wings of the Dove. This is sometimes easy to overlook. James’s baroque idiom and the exquisitely crafted quality of his novel tend to obfuscate the insistently brutal motives of his chief characters. At the risk of too crude a formulation, let us translate the narrative into compressed, demotic terms: the beautiful yet contriving Kate Croy acts as a pimp, procuring for Merton Densher, her impecunious journalist lover, a wealthy and unwitting patron, the mortally stricken Milly Theale. Densher, to speak again in (yellow) journalistic terms, is the “hooker with the heart of gold.” His adoration for Kate is initially so keen that he will prostitute himself to guarantee their financially lucrative marriage. Before examining the baffling array of quid pro quos which constitute Kate and Densher’s insidious romance, I want to show how the demands and pressures that each lover exerts on the other can be understood as a kind of allegory which figures the dynamic and antagonistic interplay of journalism and novel in The Wings of the Dove.

James had something of a panderer’s conscience about The Wings of the Dove. Writing to Mary Augusta Ward, James pronounced the story’s subject “a poor one,” “the result of a base wish to do an amiable, a generally pleasing story” (HJL 242). That James conceived of his desire for popularity as “base” is perhaps not unexpected; what is surprising, however, is the way in which traces of James’s bad conscience can be discerned within the novel. The brief note to Mrs. Ward seems to indicate that James felt the desire to procure a larger reading audience necessarily compromised his artistic integrity. Implicit in James’s self-castigation [End Page 239] is an anxiety concerning writerly identity, notions of pure and impure authorship. This is an anxiety which haunts a surprising number of James’s fictions, an anxiety clearly present in novels in which journalist characters appear. Allan Burns, in “Henry James’s Journalists as Synecdoche for the American Scene,” persuasively argues that “the journalists Henry James portrayed in the 1880’s evince what James felt were some of the more distressing manifestations of the influence of American democracy on the life of the individual” (1). For Burns, Henrietta Stackpole of The Portrait of a Lady, Matthias Pardon of The Bostonians, and George Flack of The Reverberator prefigure the quasi-Tocquevillian critique James was to make of democracy in The American Scene. But James’s many vituperative deprecations of journalism in his letters and journals, as well as his explicit renditions of the journalist in his fiction, can also be understood as exemplary sites for James’s repeated attempts to define his own novelistic identity over and against the journalistic vulgate. 1

James’s generally parodic treatment of the journalist type is an act of writerly emancipation, a process of distinguishing the novelist from the journalist. In The Wings of the Dove, however, James negotiated the agonistic relation of novel to journalism in a radically different manner than he had in the 1880s. Instead of employing a strategy of emancipation, of satiric exclusion, James sought rather to integrate the journalistic within the novel itself, to re-press, in effect, what is in essence a scandal sheet story and to review journalistically his own novel from within.

There is a sense, of course, in which any fiction, in so far as it is written for marketable success, always already contains its own journalistic review: the pressure to be “generally pleasing” both informs the composition of the novel itself and attempts to preform the subsequent journalistic evaluation. The shrewd novelist recognizes the necessity of courting the press, for the reviewer often initially mediates to the public the novel’s stature, thereby authorizing (or unauthorizing) the novelist.

In The Wings of the Dove the discursive opposition of journalism to novel collapses. The imbrication of journalist and novelist, the confluence of the novel and its review...

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pp. 239-244
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