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The Henry James Review 26.3 (2005) 207-209

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Reading James


The idea for this special issue came, in part, from my own troubled response to an instance of reading James: Carolyn Heilbrun's "Guest Column" in the March 2004 PMLA, "From Rereading to Reading." Heilbrun describes there her rereading of The Ambassadors, discussing, among other things, the changing uses of reading over time, how boredom, pleasure, identification, and analysis vary as we age. "Rereading," she tells us, "can . . . be instigated by the discovery that a book read long ago suddenly appears apposite to one's condition." She celebrates the opening paragraph of the novel and its painstaking formal analysis by Ian Watt. "Oh, those lovely double negatives!" Heilbrun sighs. Reading the paragraph as an adolescent, she threw the book across the room in anger. Old, she recognizes the passivity and ennui that James's sentence structures convey. A personal history of reading is intertwined with a formal analysis of style.

This was Carolyn Heilbrun's last writing (or penultimate, if one counts her suicide note). Published posthumously, the piece is introduced by Marianne Hirsch's "Editor's Note" and responded to by nineteen critics—colleagues, friends, and students—many of whom themselves perform readings of James's novel. There is a drive, almost a desperation, to make sense of both Carolyn Heilbrun's actual suicide and what her column seems to signify: the deliberate extinction of her professional self.

Obviously there is far more to say about all this than can be even glanced at in my own editorial introduction to this issue.1 Indeed, it may seem disrespectful, as well opportunist, to invoke "From Rereading to Reading" as a way into "Reading James." But what's striking is how basic, even essential, reading is for these writers, how reading serves, as it does for so many of us, as a medium of thought and feeling. James's late novel becomes a vehicle for revisiting the past, for speaking with the dead; a hedge against time and a way of coping with aging; a proof of professional expertise and personal sensitivity. The Ambassadors justifies reading and critical practices and supports theoretical allegiances; it serves as a consolation, a source of information, and a means of mourning.

The first essay in "Reading James" treats a different, happier, homage to the dead: James's 1912 speech to the Royal Society of Literature at the centenary [End Page 207] commemoration of Robert Browning's birth, "The Novel in The Ring and the Book." As he ages, James's tributes to writers whom he admires and has read over the years take the form of revision, and Browning is no exception. Herbert Tucker's intensely close topological reading of James's reading of Browning situates it in its literary historical moments. These include not only the occasion of its first presentation and its 1914 publication in, curiously enough, Notes on Novelists, but also our encounter with it in the present, looking back with the awareness of how Browning's literary innovations have been exfoliated in the pages of modernist and postmodernist fiction.

Neal Chilton, analyzing James's 1907 essay on The Tempest in context of his reactions to contemporary stagings of Shakespeare, argues that James comes to prefer the plays as texts to be read rather than performances to be watched. As with Austen, biography informs that reading—both James's own life story and his interest in those of his fellow-artists: "what the Tempest essay gives us, in part, is an impassioned and obsessive inquiry into the differences and continuities that exist between 'the Poet and the Man.'"

Tessa Hadley contemplates Isabel Archer as a reader, comparing her with Jane Eyre and Emma Bovary, as well as other book-absorbed Jamesian female characters who sit alone, apart from the outside world, suspended between the present and the past, the proximate and the far-away. Hadley, herself a novelist as well as a critic, and, in both occupations, a reader of James, suggests that this is the situation of the writer as well. Hilary Schor is also interested in James...


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