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The Henry James Review 23.2 (2002) 95-104

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Commerce and Freedom in The Ambassadors

Siobhan Peiffer, University of East Anglia

When H. G. Wells criticized Henry James in Boon, he described an author who created "no people with defined political opinions, no people with religious opinions, none with clear partisanships or with lusts or whims [. . .] no poor people dominated by the imperatives of Saturday night and Monday morning [. . .]" (96). In James's famous response, he attacked the assumption that well-crafted literature is irrelevant to everyday existence. "I regard it as relevant in a degree that leaves everything else behind," he writes. "It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of nosubstitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process" (HJL 490). "Opinions"and "Monday morning[s]" are enriched by the force and beauty of James's fiction, and an awareness, in turn, of his writing's sociological context helps to explain better many of his characters' moral decisions. Yet while the critical "paradigm shift from literary to cultural criticism," as Ross Posnock has termed it, has lavished attention on many James works (273), critical attention to The Ambassadors has yet to plumb the metaphors of commerce within the novel and allusions to commerce in other novels in relation to the book's historical context. 1 Such examination would help to explain more fully Lambert Strether's ethical development.

It is the "rightness" of Lambert Strether's final choice in the novel that must be understood. In the final scene of The Ambassadors, Strether decides to return to a life without job, wife, or financial support, and calls his decision "right"—the right ending to his story and the right choice morally. Yet a choice so pure as to be entirely "right" may be impossible in realist fiction. In her analysis of justice and late-nineteenth-century American novels, Wai Chee Dimock writes that novels' endings, by never seeming entirely "right," become through this "sense of mismatch" an "eloquent dissent from that canon of rational adequation" forwarded by legal or philosophical rhetoric (10). Stories prove "commensurability," in Dimock's phrasing (9), to be a lie—the commensurability of the justice's scales or, perhaps more fundamentally, of the perfect economic exchange. [End Page 95] Commerce supports the ideal of a quantified worth for every identifiable particular, yet does so only by making this worth dependent, ever-changing, and malleable, a product of circumstance rather than a fundamental, or even a universal, descriptor. In The Ambassadors Strether learns the power of commerce to govern exchanges between people, as well as purchases of things, and confronts the "mismatch" that results. The relation of Strether's moral development to Basil Ransom's in The Bostonians builds an idea of freedom and economics specific to James's American past.

Dimock's use of American nineteenth-century realist novels to study questions of commensurability is not an arbitrary choice. It is a canon whose historical context—dominated by the slaveholding Confederacy and its aftermath and by the rise of industrial factory-based capitalism—naturally makes the question of economic and judicial equality particularly cogent. And as Brook Thomas has argued, the rights of citizenship were indistinguishable, during Reconstruction, from the rights to buy and sell. "The first right listed in the 1866 Civil Rights Act was the right to make and enforce contracts, thus guaranteeing freedmen's ability to contract their labor to gain property," he writes, and "the 14th Amendment was designed in part to leave no doubt that the 1866 Act was constitutional" (38).

To remember this "identification of freedom with a system of contractual labor" is to dismiss many analyses of late-nineteenth-century Supreme Court decisions, such as Plessy v. Ferguson, supporting segregation, and Lochner v. New York, supporting exploitation of workers. Both used the Fourteenth Amendment as justification, which prompts critics like Kenneth Warren to see both as part of "a retreat that moved the body of Northern public opinion to an acceptance of policies and decisions...


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