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  • Henry James, Popular Culture, and Cultural Theory
  • Richard Salmon

Of course, popular culture does not resemble a highly crafted sonnet or lyric poem, nor does it attempt to reproduce the psychological depth and density of texture of a novel by Henry James (for which we should all be truly grateful).

—John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture(120)

The last twenty-five years have seen considerable changes in academic discourse surrounding “popular culture.” During this period, the relationship between popular culture and the academy has itself shifted, with increasing numbers of popular texts, authors, and artifacts being incorporated into the routine life of institutional study and with the emergence of cultural studies (in Britain, at least) as an academic discipline which fundamentally questions traditional hierarchies of cultural value. Coinciding with these developments has been the advent and subsequently rapid predominance of a postmodernist theory and practice, which, from both inside and outside academic institutions, has set itself the task of undermining the ideological separation between high culture and popular culture and hence retrieving the previously marginalized and subordinated second term. Such theoretical and practical engagements seek to position themselves in the space which opens up (to adopt Andreas Huyssen’s well-known formulation) “after the great divide” between modernism and mass culture, or, rather, this historical instantiation of cultural division is what they are actively striving to overcome.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that a survey of the ongoing critical attempt to map Henry James’s engagement with the terrain of popular culture reveals a similar recent trajectory. Perhaps the same shift in theoretical paradigms, [End Page 211] the same or similar accounts of intellectual history, could be extrapolated from a review of recent responses to, say, Dickens’s use of popular culture or that of Joyce. Nevertheless, it is striking to observe both the distance that has been traversed since the early 1970s with respect to the question of James’s relationship to popular culture and the nature of the changes involved. By virtue of his particular position within received accounts of literary history, moreover, James offers an especially illuminating example through which to explore the wider critical issues at stake in this question. In the following remarks, I hope to provide just such an interface between developments in Jamesian criticism and ideas in more general circulation.

In speaking of the distance that has been traversed in critical approaches to the question of James’s relationship to popular culture, I have in mind a fundamental transformation of the ways in which this relationship has been conceptualized. Compare, for example, William Veeder’s painstakingly detailed study of James’s appropriation of popular fiction in The Lessons of the Master: Popular Fiction and Personal Style in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1975, with more recent ways of dealing with similar material, both in James studies and elsewhere. From our current perspective, one might venture to suggest that there is an inherent tension in any critical project which attempts to conjoin the study of popular fiction with that of a canonical author such as James. Even if the purpose of such projects is to demonstrate the extent of James’s “debt” to the unacknowledged labor of now forgotten “popular” writers, doesn’t the very form of this conjunction nevertheless reinforce the hierarchical division of value which it presumably aims to question? For Veeder, however, this problem (which even now is by no means fully acknowledged) was simply not an issue. The effect, if not the intention, of his study of James’s saturation in the idioms of contemporary popular fiction is not so much to question the boundaries between canonical and non-canonical writing as to reinforce them by demarcating the points at which James departed from his popular models. Rejecting a positivistic definition of popular fiction, which is determined solely through extraneous, quantifying measurements of success (or by the popular author’s subjective accommodation to these criteria), Veeder arrives instead at a “normative” definition, which assesses literary texts in terms of their adherence to, or deviance from, prevailing stylistic and thematic conventions (5–7). Of course, to some extent, all literary texts are normative in their reliance upon this inherited stock of...

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pp. 211-218
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