- The Other Henry James, and: One of Us: The Mastery of Joseph Conrad
These two books by highly regarded scholars instance depressing trends in literary studies. The most depressing assumes that distinguished modernists could learn far more from us than we can ever learn from them. Rowe thinks James ceased to be an object of relevance fifty years ago. He will become “readable once again” only on the condition that he mirror us, or be made to mirror us (197, emphasis in original). “Us” is a solidary collective of professors who teach English studies along prescriptive lines. The collective prescribes our opposition to art if art does not help “educate self-conscious subjects capable of assessing their responsibilities for the social community . . . appropriate to the democratic ideals of post-World War II education in the United States” (190 f.). Although “a wide range of educational situations” can produce such Americans, the unreadable James—not the “other” James we now need to construct, but the one Rowe says we are familiar with—has proved pedagogically useless (182). The familiar James is “the master of the modern novel. . . . The cold, formally distant novelist of bourgeois manners . . . celebrated by literary critics of the 1940s and 1950s” (37). To make James useful, readings of his work must be focused and regulated by a thematization of gender, race, and class. Only thereby will an other Henry James emerge who will be a professional and a classroom ally; finally, one of us.
Unfortunately, Rowe’s argument depends on fictions in the worst sense: it enlists factitious analyses, and it turns both James and his critics of the 1940s and 1950s into straw men. Such disappointing criticism might be only a single scholar’s slackness rather than a sign of a general disciplinary mediocrity. But every one of us knows how widespread the prescriptive assumptions underlying Rowe’s performance are. His is a representative case: one of ours, indeed. The lines that guide Rowe have elsewhere shown merit and have been compatible with self-conscious, intellectual ideals (and maybe democratic ones). But The Other Henry James makes me sadly wonder if the prescriptiveness and the group solidarity expressed by Rowe are not producing, as they become ever more orthodox, intellectual underachievements.
The reliance on James’s and Conrad’s unconscious authorial agencies undermines both critical arguments. It has been twenty years since Fredric Jameson’s stimulating jumble of Marx and Lacan launched a thousand critical forays into the unconscious. It is time for something newer than Rowe’s latest variant of the jumble. The Other Henry James decides that James, despite his identification with cold, distant formalism, can illustrate Frankfurt school ideas because he makes an “effort to come to terms with the social consequences of his aesthetic theories” (5). Rowe also decides that James can illustrate postmarxian revisions of “a narrow definition of the proletariat” because James includes women and children among the workers [End Page 187] of the world “victimized by bourgeois authority.” And then, “crucial to any ‘class consciousness’ . . . in his writings, [are] gays and lesbians” (19). By representing same-sex love in order to expand definitions of exploited groups, James’s fictions “challenge conventional gender roles and identities” (19). With these accreditations, and, Rowe adds, with the help of movie adaptations that can even derive “hot sex” from Jamesian scenarios, James may reenter the classroom (196).
Nevertheless, we are reminded, the James who fuses the Frankfurt school with hot sex had to grope unconsciously for decades to learn what we now consciously grasp straightaway. According to Rowe, in “The Last of the Valerii” (1873), James consciously tries to “contain” feminism and Margaret Fuller; in The American (1877), he consciously identifies the American male with egalitarianism (54). What goes on under the surface is more significant. In the 1873 story, James unconsciously realizes “the destabilization of gender boundaries” (54), and in The American...