- Jamesian Forms:Introduction
Thinking about James and form, it's hard to tell where to stop. One could quote endlessly—and profitably—from the prefaces; look carefully at the many genres in which James wrote; analyze how the history of formalist criticism—whether New Critical or structuralist—has been intertwined with James's writing; or uncover the rhetorical and narrative forms that structure his works. James's focus on form was both deliberate and habitual, from his criticism of shapeless English fiction to the architectural metaphors that pervade his own prose.
This rich variety is reflected in the contributions to this special issue, which discuss, among other things, James's reading, style, word choice, punctuation, readers, publishing history, and dramatic form(s). What's striking is how much of these essays is literally given over to James. Quoting expansively, each of the contributors proceeds by means of the kind of close reading that is the hallmark of formalism. Formalism, here, variously "new" in its simultaneous attention to ethics, to psychoanalysis, to queer theory, to the reader, and to the history of texts and their publications. Or perhaps it is not so new, insofar as James's own "formalism" was never detached or pure. As artist and as critic, James wrote always with an awareness of changing historical, cultural, and material circumstances. "The Art of Fiction," to take James's first important disquisition on the question of fictional form, is written explicitly in response to another critic's work. Arguing that fiction-writing is an art, a deliberate act of composition worthy of critical scrutiny, James situates those acts of creation amid national differences among artists and audiences and literary marketplaces. The essay is personal in tone; analyzing the psychology of reading, James repeatedly turns to his own experience.
National reading and writing practices turn out to be central, too, to Peter Brooks's discussion of a form with which the Master is not often associated: the dirty French novel. In James's remarks on French writers, Brooks traces the novelist's shifting solutions to the problem of representing sex and sexuality. Those yellow books have multiple uses in James's fiction, not least, Brooks argues, as signifying objects for the sex that James can then leave unspoken, making the work of imaginative specification the reader's part. [End Page 199]
David Kurnick's essay shifts the discussion from matters of morality and taste to ethics. Kurnick looks for Jamesian ethics, however, not, as philosophers have so often done, in stories or plots or even characters, but in style. The insistent stylistic uniformity (across characters and narrator) of James's fiction posits, he argues, a "performative universalism." We can read The Wings of the Dove as, in part, the story of this stylistic attempt at a visionary collectivity, one that is ultimately undermined by the exigencies of a plot and an economy of desire.
The details of Jamesian style receive close attention in essays by Lee Clark Mitchell and Rebekah Scott. Mitchell focuses minutely on "scare quotes," a punctuation choice and rhetorical technique with narrative implications. Enforcing an ironic distance, these self-conscious marks, Mitchell argues, highlight figuration in James's ghost story "The Jolly Corner." The alternations between presence and absence in the tale are figured in the ways its words shimmer back and forth between literal and figurative meanings. Scott, too, takes a microscope to a Jamesian text, focusing on a single—albeit ubiquitous—word: "form." Like Kurnick, Scott is interested in looking at Jamesian ethics as a matter of style rather than one of plot or character. Her attempt is to recognize "the distinctness of literature and ethics as linguistic enterprises whose vocabularies (even when identical) must be read differently." Close attention to the semantic level of James's prose—and in particular to the over-determined, perhaps even over-used word "form"—Scott argues, frustrates any easy equation of the aesthetic and the ethical.
Daniel O'Hara traces the pleasures of the text(s) in two Jamesian artist-tales. "The Story of a Masterpiece" and "The Liar" share similar plots, but are constructed differently. James changes point of view in the later story and...