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  • Heir of Propriety: Inheritance, “The Impressions of a Cousin,” and the Proprietary Vision of Henry James
  • Richard Adams

Most readers treat the novel like calisthenics or a children’s game, “an exercise in skipping,” complains Henry James in “The Art of Fiction.” Because they have grown accustomed to eventful narratives, these readers expect a “‘good’” story to go tripping from one dramatic scene to the next. Sated and fatigued with “incident and movement,” they want to see “a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks.”1 As this list implies, a single device, versatile if hackneyed, is preferred by compliant novelists for its capacity to create narrative drama, moral certainty, and monetary rewards. James adverts to this mechanism when he bemoans the reader’s desire “to jump ahead, to see who was the mysterious stranger, and if the stolen will was ever found” (AF, 7). The sudden appearance of a “stolen will” brings to mind many possible scenarios: after languishing under a stack of papers in a lawyer’s desk, being hidden in the dark corner of some vault or—in the case of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s benighted Pyncheons—mislaid in favor of a more ancient document, the unearthed will revives the wishes of the dead and does right by all in correctly distributing property. An amiable literary device, the rescued testament metes out monetary justice to the deserving and a moral comeuppance to the unworthy. But doing justice so dramatically exacts aesthetic costs. James argues that stock devices like the miraculous will lead readers to confuse exposition and description, limiting the novel’s ability to be a “living thing” that creates “the look [of things] that conveys their meaning” (AF, 12). The unwary novelist who seizes the will ties his [End Page 463] or her own hands and loses the “freedom” of the realist narrator to vivify fiction by effacing “artificial frontiers” such as those that separate character from illustration, and illustration from incident. In unearthing this hackneyed device, the novelist subjects himself to “traditions” that, James remarks, “applied a priori, have already had much to answer for” (AF, 8). A large patrimony may put the good characters on the right track, but it will just as certainly lead readers astray. James had concluded his own negotiations with tradition and staked out a tentative form of textual freedom not long before publishing “The Art of Fiction” in September 1884. To everyone’s surprise, and in defiance of the custom that designates the oldest son for such a role, Henry James Sr. had nominated his impractical second son to be his executor shortly before his death on 18 December 1882. Grief-stricken, embarrassed, and interrupted in his work, Henry soon found himself enmeshed in an American debate over the rules of inheritance. Shortly after reading his father’s will, he wrote to his brother William, who was enjoying a much needed sabbatical in England: “I have had (with as little delay, myself, as possible) to learn as executor.”2 In 1880 conscientious executors like Henry James had two options: either they could inquire, in the words of political economist Richard Ely, “What does it mean to say that we keep faith with the dead?” or they could show the wishes of the deceased, as James Morton Jr. urged a graduating class of Harvard Law School, “merely a bit of legal courtesy.”3 In economics as in art, Henry James took part in what might be described as a cultural struggle matching the invisible hand of Adam Smith against the dead hand of the testator, the freedom of the living to fashion their own reality against the moribund customs of their ancestors. It comes as no surprise that Henry was relieved to return to London and his writing in the fall of 1883, his protracted term as executor complete. Harder to explain is his decision to give up his share of the inheritance and to leave Boston with little to show for a year’s labor. As executor, Henry James exchanged a heated series of letters with his brother William concerning the best way to distribute their father’s estate. In the...

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pp. 463-491
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2005
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