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Washington Square: A Centennial Essay By Darshan Singh Maini, Punjabi University I. To see any novel a full hundred years after its conception is, of course, to see it essentially through our eyes, whatever the nature of the response by its contemporary readers or critics. Even where authentic evidence is available, it is difficult to understand the dialectic of the insights extant, in as much as it involves a degree of empathy which, if possible at all, can only effect a semblance of historical truth. For the fact remains, the peculiar aroma of thought, taste and culture which envelops an age will suffer no passage. Each act of reconstruction, therefore, on our part is, at best, an act of faith, an exercise in critical consanguinity. Which is no reason, of course, why we should not seek to interpret it in terms of its own aura and energies, such as we can reasonably demonstrate or account for. Only, as I have suggested above, there cannot be any finality about such evaluations. The sensibility of an age defines its own raison d'etre, and remains uniquely out of reach, for all our vicarious evocations in art and criticism. Of course, the archetypal and racial elements or what Noam Chomsky calls "deep structures" in the linguistic context will endure, but our concern here is with that cultural ambience or climate of the mind which, of necessity, is something nebulous. I am not, of course, proposing a poetics of proxy, though I do not know how large critical assumptions and hypotheses can be avoided where the imponderables of tastes are concerned. When a writer gets dated—say a Thackeray or a Meredith—and the critical response has become settled (though we never quite know how and when a novelist starts "kicking off [his] various tombstones at once," to use a Jamesian phrase), it is not difficult to construct a plausible picture. ! The task becomes extremely involved where a novelist adumbrates a future taste or sensibility in a subtle, troubled and indirect way, even as he remains spiritually tethered to the values and perceptions of his own age, as Henry James does. And this is where the James criticism of the last forty years or so has found its richest rewards. In a way, to see the developing arc of this criticism is to see the history and rationale of a whole literary taste whose vogue is still not quite spent. Its modernity is so constitutive as to ensure an abiding appeal. Thus, the mélange of critical views on any James novel—in this case, on Washington Square (1880)—is a question, at once, of the chemistry of aesthetic appeal and of the dynamics of the relationship between the "universal" and the "modern" in a work 1. Notice, for instance, the Trollope revival towards the end of the Second World War. Oddly enough, it coincided with the James revival, though its rationale was wholly different. 81 of art. The place of Washington Square in the James canon has largely been conditioned by the novelist's own disparaging references to it and by his decision to exclude it from the New York Edition of 1907-09. Clearly, something was missing in the group comprising The Europeans (1878), Confidence (1879), and Washington Square (1880) that seemed to warrant the Jamesian disdain, particularly as the Master viewed the matter from the vantage point of his later poetics and style. However, we know that even as Washington Square was on the anvil and beginning to earn its existence from serial to serial in Cornhill Magazine, James, in a letter to Dean Howells, called it a "poorish story" which, because of the meagerness of American life and society—an idea bruited abroad with such obvious relish in that celebrated passage in the Hawthorne book—could not take the fictive imagination of the fabulist to its poetic pitch. Thus, if James treated Washington Square as a kind of deficient or backward child, unworthy of the great parent (incidentally, a major motif of the story), the reasons are plain enough. There was not, according to him, enough social texturing in the situation to demand a coercive treatment of his "grasping" imagination...


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pp. 81-101
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