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The Henry James Review 25.3 (2004) 201-203
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Senses of the Past
Joseph Epstein's evocative short story, "The Master's Ring," opens this HJR issue on "Senses of the Past," introducing many of its themes and topics. We can easily discern the outline of Leon Edel standing behind this tale, which significantly borrows and departs from the life of the Master's biographer. Looking back to James, Epstein tells the story of a man who erases his own past as he lays claim to—even tries to inhabit—that of another. Traceable too in "The Master's Ring" is the plotting of "The Aspern Papers," with its portrait of the dead romantic artist and the predatory and parasitical "publishing scoundrel." Obsession with the material artifacts of the past—Aspern's papers—is echoed in first Epstein's biographer's and then his narrator's fetishization of the Master's ring. James knew well the consumer and cultural values of antique things. But the deep desire for a material communion with the past can also be construed as James does in the preface to "The Aspern Papers":
I delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past—in the nearer distances and the clearer mysteries, the marks and signs of a world we may reach over to as by making a long arm we grasp an object at the other end of our own table. The table is the one, the common expanse, and where we lean, so stretching, we find it firm and continuous. That, to my imagination, is the past fragrant of all, or of almost all, the poetry of the thing outlived and lost and gone, and yet in which the precious element of closeness, telling so of connexions but tasting so of differences, remains appreciable.
"The Master's Ring" imagines a reader of James who tries to reach the Master, contemplating a literal—if mediated—sense of the past. Palpable indeed. But how to traverse time through writing? Returning to the Sense of the Past manuscript, James confidently claimed "I grasp this entirely; I see how 'narrative representation' most permits, most effectively prepares and accompanies, my turning of the present screw, and what a part picture and image and evoked aspect and sense can play for me in that connection"—though, as we know, the novel remained unfinished.
The essays that follow touch on Jamesian senses and pasts of great diversity. James looks back to Washington Irving, William Shakespeare, and Charles [End Page 201] Dickens; Gertrude Stein and Percy Lubbock represent their literary and critical forbear. Included are discussions of James's short fiction, last great novel, and unfinished narrative; his autobiographies, prefaces, and travel writings.
Alison Booth's "The Real Right Place of Henry James" uncovers in James's writing the contemporary discourse of "homes and haunts" literature. Reading English Hours and The American Scene, along with "The Real Right Thing," "The Death of the Lion," and "The Birthplace," Booth visits Stratford-on-Avon, the Hudson River Valley, and Rye, analyzing the reproductions of literary pasts. Tamara Follini's "James, Dickens, and the Indirections of Influence" turns to literary pasts as well, tracing Charles Dickens's "influence" on James in unexpected ways. Following Dickens to London, James experiences a hallucinatory receptiveness, a loosening of formal control that Follini sees as characteristic of Dickens's narratives, both fictional and autobiographical. Characterizing, in turn, Gertrude Stein's loose relations with her American literary predecessor, Eric Haralson finds in Four in America evidence that Stein constructed a "queer solidarity" with James's earlier example. "Rereading Gertrude Stein Rereading Henry James (After a Fashion)" proposes that Stein's interested reading of "general" James's life in works looks to both his gender-crossing and his literary aspirations to—and refusals of—popularity.
In "The Disease of Temporality; or, Forgetful Reading in James and Lubbock" Nicholas Dames excavates the pervasiveness of retrospection in James's critical reading. What Percy Lubbock makes of this practice is, however, a novel theory premised on forgetfulness. Dames situates both James's mnemonic and Lubbock's amnesiac thinking about...