- L'arte della critica. Ideologia estetica e forma narrativa nelle Prefazioni di Henry James
The prefaces to the New York Edition have enjoyed a highly canonical status in Italy since their translation by Agostino Lombardo in 1956 marked a milestone not just in the reception of James but in the whole local history of American Studies. What could their role possibly be today within a new context where—in Italy no less than in the States—current critical paradigms privilege the study of ethnic minorities, feminist and gender issues, and politically committed and uncanonical authors? Carlo Martinez's thoughtful L'arte della critica. Ideologia estetica e forma narrativa nelle Prefazioni di Henry James [The Art of Criticism. Aesthetic Ideology and Narrative Form in Henry James's Prefaces] fully meets the challenge of retooling James criticism and giving it new currency within the present critical discourse.
In this book—the first full-length study of the prefaces to be published in Italy—Martinez writes James's prefaces back into the agenda of the new generation of Italian Americanists by framing them through new critical lenses. His theoretically informed reading draws on Walter Benjamin's philosophy and Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of culture (as well as on a variety of other theoretical sources and on a firm knowledge of James criticism old and new). Martinez's contention, supported by a wide array of historical considerations and by careful textual analysis, is that the prefaces were Henry James's response to the rising culture of consumption, the new conditions of the literary market, and the ensuing irrelevance [End Page 204] and commodification of criticism. Through a close analysis of James's "The Science of Criticism" (1891), Martinez argues that James was acutely aware of the social significance of criticism and preoccupied with its predicament. Formerly an art based on sensibility and addressed to a flourishing bourgeois public sphere (in Habermas's sense), criticism within the mass market and the periodical press was being degraded to a repetitive mixture of information and advertisement meant for rapid consumption—a commodity among others, whose inherent lack of authenticity James figured in the striking image of the "dummies of criticism" (EL 95). The transformation of the public sphere into a mass market thus jeopardized the very transmission of cultural experience—to Benjamin, the main function of the narrative act. Hence the need to create anew the value of the appreciation of literature by constituting it as symbolic and cultural capital, in Bourdieu's terms.
James's response to this situation, Martinez argues, was not purely conservative: a lucid cultural critic, James saw the need for a new kind of criticism that would not simply take the readers' sensibility and competence for granted but would educate a new readership, endowing it with the skills needed to appreciate literature and recover the "symbolic capital" of language, imagination, and sensibility invested in it. In a letter to Pinker, James announced his intention to complete each volume of the New York Edition with a "freely colloquial and even, perhaps, as I may say, confidential preface" (LE 367). Like the narrator of Benjamin's essay, he wanted to gather his readers around him in a virtual conversation, in order to recreate the preliminary condition for the transmission of cultural value—a shared sense of community, the substitute for the vanished public sphere. The prefaces were his attempt to forge a new medium for cultural communication that would simultaneously educate a selected readership to the art of fiction and reinstate criticism to its public function.
By telling the story of his story, sharing the anecdotes accompanying the inception of his work, James aimed to involve his readers in the experience—both personal memory and critical act—of his renewed acquaintance with his past writings. Such a self-aware fictionalizing strategy aimed at transmitting the value that commodified cultural consumption had threatened, the experience of literature, or literature as experience—individual and private but nevertheless socializable through the narrative act. The normative treatise on the craft...