- Henry James’s Last Romance: Making Sense of the Past and the American Scene
In this study, Beverly Haviland argues that James offers an alternative to the polarization of academic discourse into a reactionary position in which traditional canons of literary taste, value, and authority must be preserved intact against the wrecking ball of poststructuralism, and an equally intransigent position that requires a complete overthrow of the past. Far from representing a “conservative, reactionary position,” Haviland’s James attempts to place past and present in constructive dialogue: he allows the present to shape his sense of the past without entirely determining it, translating it into the terms of the present, or obliterating the differences between them. For James, the present is not simply a faulty or failed copy of the past, destined to lose in any comparison with something more authentic or original. But neither is the past automatically condemned for not having what we have—a perspective in the present from which to insist on our imagined freedom from history itself. Like the Nietzsche of On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, James insists that past and present have meaning only when they exist in relation to one another. For James, an uncritical worship of history (whether antiquarian or monumental) destroys life. But life also requires the service of history, for in preserving the past we may be preserving the forms of knowledge and understanding that have enabled our culture to survive.
Haviland notes that her work shares an affinity with a number of recent critical studies that have tried to place authors once thought to [End Page 482] epitomize the aesthetic on firmer historical ground. Among these one could mention several works dealing specifically with James: Jonathan Freedman’s Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture, Mark Seltzer’s Henry James and the Art of Power, and Carolyn Porter’s Seeing and Being. While these writers display a common interest in history, Haviland’s self-characterization is not entirely accurate. In fact, her approach differs from that of the other writers I have mentioned in assuming James’s consciousness of the social and historical forces at play in his writing—in assuming that James was fully aware that art cannot be removed from the social and political forces that continually seek to remake and rewrite history in the interest of power. Her goal is not to historicize James against his indifference to what version of American history will prevail—or whose interests this history will serve—but to explore what he knows about history, his place in it, and its relationship to the world he inhabits. She discards the posture (so prevalent in contemporary criticism) of knowing more than her subject—a superiority that assumes that the critical categories of the past are inadequate to the needs of the present. And, while she demonstrates extensive knowledge of current critical approaches to James, she seems more interested in placing James in dialogue with his contemporaries (she even borrows their language to explain James’s relationship to history) than in locking him in critical frameworks that belong exclusively to the present.
For this reason, contemporary readers are likely to feel themselves in the presence of a critical language that is paradoxically both alien and familiar when reading Haviland’s study. For example, in her reading of the “The Question of Our Speech” and The Golden Bowl, she borrows the linguistic theories of Charles Sanders Peirce to elucidate James’s understanding of the relations of continuity and difference that bring the past into a productive relation to the present. For both Peirce and James, she argues, there is “no such thing as an unrelated fact, no such thing in the chain of relations” that joins signs to signs, and past to present. While this may be understandable, the language Haviland uses to explore James’s historical sense is strikingly different from what we are used to. It belongs as much to Peirce as to our current understanding of history...