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The Henry James Review 21.3 (2000) 234-241

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Stumbling on Henry James

Heather O'Donnell, Yale University

When I hear the words "material James," my first thought isn't of manuscripts, money, or Marx. Instead, I think of the day I stumbled on James's body, a memory inextricably linked in my mind with my work at the time. I was retracing James's journey across the United States almost a hundred years earlier, seeing for myself how his ambition to advance his material interests in America was checked by his unwillingness to make material of himself, to open his personal life to the press for promotional purposes. One day in Boston, I found myself performing what James would call the "whole possible revolution" (NT 2: xv), experiencing in quick succession a sense of both the unknowable and the known, the romantic and the real, the enclosed and the disclosed, the immaterial and the most material James. It went like this.

It was July of 1997. I was spending some time at Harvard, researching James's return to the United States in 1904 and 1905. I picked up his paper trail back in England, at Lamb House, where James wrote to his brother William that the last thing he wanted to do during his American visit was to "produce" himself (Skrupskelis and Berkeley 261) in any conspicuous way. Even so, James did hope that his heightened visibility would boost sales of The Golden Bowl, which was about to appear in the United States, and generate some new interest in his largely unread fiction of the previous twenty years: "It is more & more important I should go, to look after my material (literary) interests in person, & quicken & improve them, after so endless an absence" (Skrupskelis and Berkeley 231).

James was right to be concerned; his material interests, financially speaking, were at odds with his own apparent immateriality. He was said to have abandoned the study of the world around him "to dwell in extra-mundane regions of which he is the sole ruler" (E. F. E. 18). Even as James's sentences grew longer in his later work, his subjects became harder to grasp. "We want it clear, goodness knows, but we also want it thick," he remarked of his writing (NT 9: xix), while his [End Page 234] brother William pleaded: "[s]ay it out, for God's sake [. . .] and have done with it," after getting through The Golden Bowl (Skrupskelis and Berkeley 338). There is, of course, a solid object at the center of that novel, the bowl itself, but that image owes its vividness to the pages of allusion, speculation, analogy, and innuendo that surround it. One angry reviewer noted that James's indirection forced his readers to supply much of the novel's plot, and left them wondering if they really understood precisely what James was suggesting: "No other writer has ever so far presumed upon the fact that the public will accept many revolting things if they are not put into plain words" (Taber 54). Most readers were more baffled than jaded; they simply couldn't tell what, if anything, this Golden Bowl contained.

James's apparent abdication of authorial responsibility--his maddening refusal to reveal where he stood on the characters and events he described--further alienated his audience. Barbara Hochman has recently argued that James's gradual abandonment of the authorial persona in favor of "reflectors" like Kate Croy, Lambert Strether, and Maggie Verver exemplifies the objective ideal which came to characterize American writing at the turn of the twentieth century: "since according to prevailing norms the sense of contact between writer and reader was one of the fundamental pleasures of fiction-reading, it is hardly surprising that the aesthetic aim of authorial 'invisibility' should have met with resentment--as it did" (180). Even a sympathetic letter writer in the New York Times had to admit that "one would like to know, if Charlotte Stant were a human being, what Mr. James would think of her" ("Henry James's Best Work" 282), but Henry James, like...


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