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  • Local Colors
  • Walter Benn Michaels (bio)


Despite its regional title and despite its glamorously regional hero, Henry James’s The Bostonians is not a piece of regional writing. Indeed, with respect to the literary project of representing to the metropole those aspects of American life that might otherwise have gone unrepresented, The Bostonians might more plausibly be characterized as an anti-regional novel. Offered the opportunity to provide a roomful of eager listeners with an “account of the social and political condition of the South,” for example, Basil Ransom declines with dismay: “To talk to those people about the South—as if they could have guessed how little he cared to do it! He had a passionate tenderness for his own country, and a sense of intimate connexion with it which would have made it as impossible for him to take a roomful of Northern fanatics into his confidence as to read aloud his mother’s or his mistress’s letters.” 1 And if, in The Bostonians, this refusal to talk about one’s country represents a merely incidental aspect of a more general defense of privacy that depends more crucially on the elimination of women from the public sphere (indeed, it is only the imagination of his country as a woman [a mother or a mistress] that makes it impossible for Ransom to talk about it), James also gives Ransom’s refusal to speak about the South a more properly literary meaning by doubling it with a reticence of his own. “It is not in my power,” he writes, “to reproduce by any [End Page 734] combination of characters” the “accent” of Ransom’s “country,” the “charming dialect” of the South (36). The unwillingness to represent the condition of the South is here matched by an unwillingness (or at least an inability) to represent the language of the South; the repudiation of the subject of local color is matched by the repudiation of its form.

From the standpoint of The Bostonians, this rather primitive fact—the fact that although Verena’s voice is silenced, the one voice we never hear is Ransom’s—has its own significance; it tends to complicate, for example, the often asked question of whether Ransom speaks for James if only by making it seem that, at least from a certain standpoint, it is James who speaks for Ransom. And insofar as local color might have been understood by James, as it has been by some others, as an essentially feminized genre, James’s rescuing Ransom from his “accent” might be understood as an analog or extension of Ransom’s own rescue of Verena, except that where she is rescued for femininity he is rescued from femininity. Ransom is, James says, “as a representative of his sex,” “the most important personage in my narrative” (36). Perhaps James thought that no one who spoke with an “accent” could possibly represent his sex, that speaking in “dialect” could only mark a man’s inability to represent his sex. 2

At the same time, however, he provides an account of local color that acknowledges its appeal while both complicating and transcending the question of its sexuality. The “reader who likes a complete image,” James says, “who desires to read with the senses as well with the reason, is entreated not to forget that (Ransom) prolonged his consonants and swallowed his vowels . . .” The question of sexuality is complicated here by the question James raises about its relation to “the complete image”—is sexuality the sort of thing that can be read with the senses or does it emerge only when we read with the reason at the expense of the senses? Would seeing the “complete image” of Basil Ransom makes him seem to us more or less of a man? But it is transcended as well as complicated by the generality of a project that goes beyond the possibility of representing one’s sex to the possibility of representing everything—“the complete image”—and by the acknowledgment that it is through “dialect”—admired even if abjured—that this ambition may be achieved. [End Page 735]

Thus although James himself came to associate the use of dialect more exclusively...

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pp. 734-756
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