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Daniel J. Schneider. The Crystal Cage: Adventures of the Imagination in the Fiction of Henry James. Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1978. 189 pp. $13.00 The Crystal Cage sets out to find the figure in the carpet, the one idea that is treated consistently in James's work on all levels—image, symbol, plot, diction. It succeeds admirably in that endeavor; the figure is James's preoccupation with the free spirit's struggle to avoid the 'crystal cage' of captivity that a corrupt but seductive world offers. Indirectly, the book also explains why James is, among all the authors in the literary pantheon, the one who is sometimes the most thoroughly despised. There is often an ugly quality to the sneerings of James's detractors, as though there is more at stake than a mere denial of affinities. To those who do not like him, it is not always a matter of James's being out of line philosophically or aesthetically. It is more a question of his being insufficiently manly or American or both. To his enemies, James comes off as a sissy's sissy, a cosmopolitan momma's boy, the ultimate international wimp. Teddy Roosevelt called James "a miserable little snob" and wrote that James's stories "make one blush to think that he was once an American"; this was in 1894, when James, who did not become a British citizen until 1915, was as much an American as Roosevelt was. (In turn, James described Roosevelt as "a dangerous and ominous jingo" and, more characteristically, "the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding noise.") Even discerning students of James—Sallie Sears and Quentin Anderson are two that Schneider cites—sometimes conclude that his imagination is negative and escapist in nature. To properly understand James, however, one must read him in the contexts of both world literature in general and American literature in particular. First, there is a theme of detachment from the world which characterizes the personae of Seneca, Epictetus, and Epicurus (whose teachings deal more with the avoidance of pain than anything else); the repentant Job and Jonah; Jesus; the Buddha; the Dante of the Paradiso; Augustine; the Fathers of the Egyptian Desert; the Wordsworth of "Tintern Abbey" and other poems; Keats as self-described in his letters; the couple in Arnold's "Dover Beach"; Emily Dickinson's persona ("I'm Nobody—Who Are You?"); Alyosha Karamazov; the personae in some of Yeats's poetry and in much of Eliot's; Wallace Stevens' "Good Man[Who] Has No Shape"; the protagonist of Borges' story "Everything and Nothing"; and the personae of such contemporary poets as W.S. Merwin, Robert BIy, Charles Simic, and Mark Strand, among others. In America alone, the Benjamin Franklin of the Autobiography was the first great mover and shaker but he was also nearly the last, for after him come Pym, the Thoreau of Waiden, Hester, Ishmael, Huckleberry Finn, the Henry Adams of the Education, the heroes of The Red Badge of Courage and The Sun Also Rises and Catch-22-- all essentially passive or retiring types in a world too busy for its own good. Indeed , most literary heroes and heroines are passive and retiring, and those who 102 aren't—Adam, Prometheus, Macbeth, Faust—remind us that action and self-assertion almost always lead to downfall. So James's theme is a theme of world literature. But American writing in particular is characterized by the idea of resistance to an enslaving world because of a greater concentration of pure mercantile brashness in this country as well as the absence of a long-lived and silently supportive cultural tradition such as there is in other countries. Left on his own, the American writer has to say no in thunder, as Melville said of Hawthorne, if he is to be heard at all. When one says that James is not American, then, one is saying simply that James is not very much like Teddy Roosevelt. In a way, James is the quintessential American artist, and no one explains why better than Daniel J. Schneider. There is little in his book that is entirely new, yet Schneider extends what is known about...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 102-105
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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