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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.2 (2002) 227-249

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The Mind a Department Store:
Reconfiguring Space in the Gilded Age

Gail McDonald

I've been spending a month," Henry James wrote to a correspondent in 1905, "in the horrific, the unspeakable, extraordinary, yet partly interesting, amusing and above all bristling New York." 1 When James recorded the impressions that would result in The American Scene, he had not set foot in his native country for nearly twenty-five years. In his absence the American century had turned: urban buildings now scraped the sky, gilded hotel lobbies were thronged with pleasure- seekers, and even the library resembled a public thoroughfare, bereft of the "penetralia," or private alcoves, that James considered necessary for undisturbed study. 2 At Ellis Island, too, he felt intruded on. The immigrants he saw "knocking at our official door" seemed a composite "ghost in [one's] supposedly safe old house" (AS, 66). The image of the open door or entryway was, of course, commonplace in descriptions of the admission of immigrants—one thinks of Emma Lazarus's "golden door"—but it is also highly specific to James's impressions of the American character. 3 His approbation or disapproval of American [End Page 227] ways is repeatedly expressed as a response to architecture. Section headings not only mention particular buildings, like the Waldorf Astoria and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but draw on more abstract structural terms, for example, "The Tall Buildings," "The Raking Terraces," and "The Multiplied Apertures."

James, that "historian of fine consciences," regards the buildings of America and the ways that people occupy them as readable and revelatory texts. 4 "History," he remarks, "is never, in any rich sense, the immediate crudity of 'what happens,' but the much finer complexity of what we read into it and think of in connection with it." This pronouncement follows commentary regarding shoes, dentistry, the Plaza Hotel, and Central Park, and James concludes that it is these details of material life that unlock the mystery of the word modern. "At the great auction of life," he marvels, as if the details themselves had declared it, "'see how ready we are' . . . 'ready to buy, to pay, to promise; ready to place, to honour, our purchase'" (AS, 136-37). Taking this cue from James and seeking to extend his definition of the modern, I undertake to examine the metaphor of blurred or absent architectural boundaries in three discursive arenas: the physical space of domestic interiors and department stores, the mental space of William James's psychological writings, and the fictive space of novels often labeled naturalistic. 5 We can enter these precincts through a door.

In the chapter "New York: Social Notes" and the section titled "The Multiplied Apertures," Henry James diagnoses a chief cause of his unease in American spaces: it is the absence of closable doors, an "affliction" against which he must continually "brace himself" (AS, 125). Here, as elsewhere, he recoils from the enforced gregariousness of American life: "This diffused vagueness of separation . . . between [End Page 228] one room and another, between the one you are in and the one you are not in, between place of passage and place of privacy, is a provocation to despair which the public institution shares impartially with the luxurious 'home'" (AS, 125). 6 James deplores the blurring of public and private, and something more: the blurring of the functional categories of interior spaces. In the city clubs of New York he can find few proper writing tables: where were men to handle their correspondence? The open floor plan not only makes privacy nearly impossible; it makes for confusion about how to be and do the proper thing in the proper place.

Edith Wharton had diagnosed this symptom earlier. In their 1897 collaboration, The Decoration of Houses, Ogden Codman Jr., the architect, and Wharton, the self-taught architectural historian, made the brief history of American doors a central instance of the "architectural vagaries" they sought to correct. "The fate of the door in America has been a...


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pp. 227-249
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