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The Henry James Review 23.2 (2002) 157-175

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"Reflected Usefulness":
Exemplifying Conduct in Roderick Hudson

Elizabeth Duquette, Reed College

You rescued me; you converted me from a representative into an example—that's a shade better.

—Henry James, The Tragic Muse

Scholars seem to agree that Henry James's "first" novel, Roderick Hudson, is concerned with models; on the question, however, of precisely who is modeling what to whom, there is far less unanimity. Maurice Beebe, for instance, has argued that Roderick Hudson presents the ideal of the Jamesian artist as he "is destroyed as artist because of his submission to love" (18). 1 More recently, Paul Saint-Amour has suggested that it is Gloriani, able to negotiate the extremes of self-indulgence, who displays the proper values of the model artist, embodying the qualities James will outline in Hawthorne of "observation, proportion, criticism" (35). 2 Looking to the many artists in the text for the proper model is an error that Natasha Sajé strives to correct in positing that Christina Light, "as an exemplar of 'artful artlessness' in Roderick Hudson, [. . .] defies loss, lack, and mortality" (162); nonetheless, she concludes, even though "the only character equipped for greatness is Christina Light, [. . .] the only successful artist of Roderick Hudson is James himself" (163).

It is not only James's representation of the expatriate artistic community that has contributed to the critical debate about models in the text, even if it does provide a thematically convenient vehicle through which to do so. Scholars have also disputed the question of character: is Rowland Mallet the moral center of the novel, providing an early model of the Jamesian hero of acute perception, or a self-obsessed, even self-deluding, representation of the warping power of desire? 3 Where, other critics have wondered, did James himself find the model for the text? Did William Dean Howells's A Foregone Conclusion suggest the outlines of the [End Page 157] story to him or Alexander Dumas's L'Affaire Clemenceau? 4 The fact that James reviewed both novels would seem to support their claims to pre-eminence. In 1873, he writes the first of several essays on Turgenev; could Smoke have provided the American a model for his first success? Or, perhaps, Le Roman d'une honnête femme by Victor Cherbuliez? 5 Still others have asserted James would not have had to look abroad for a source for Roderick Hudson as he had the influence of his predecessor Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, and The Marble Faun with which to contend. 6 Indeed, he might not have needed to look to literature at all as the impetus for the story could well have sprung from within his own family, William's abortive artistic efforts and the relationship between the brothers providing ample material for the tale. 7

While nothing even resembling consensus has been reached, I believe the debate reveals something important. There is a problem with imitation—both aesthetic and moral—at the center of Roderick Hudson. At the same time that the novel forces us to consider what makes a successful artist, it also asks a more general question about the differing impact of models themselves. Does the exemplary figure, the man of genius whose ideal attributes distinguish him from the group, provide the best model for conduct or are there other, more appropriate, models for our imitation? I will argue that James forwards an important distinction between two different ways of taking a model—as an exemplar or as an example—throughout Roderick Hudson, hinting, in an ending that has been read as alternately allegorically rich or melodramatically over-written, that the pedestrian example is the best available guide to conduct in all spheres of life. James introduces these moral interests at the level of conversation in the novel, as well as through the problems of exemplification the text explores both structurally and thematically. Through the representation of the seemingly unremarkable, but finally triumphant, Sam Singleton, James presents a new sort of example for the American, artist or no, based on modest industry...


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