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Henry James: The Novel as Act by Thomas H. Getz, Pennsylvania State University Style is the rhythmical movement of language, the cutting edge of experience. Henry James's style involves a unique degree of subtlety because, along with what he says, he implies what he does not say. His long sentences, with all their qualifications and their progressive movement toward adequacy, are full of a sense of the peripheral—that which is apprehended as present but not apprehended in an immediate verbal grasp. James's style suggests the peripheral, but does not enclose it. What is true of James's sentences is also true of his whole novels: they are acts of shaping, expressions of feeling; and they are fully dialectical acts because they include an overarching self-consciousness best characterized as a listening awareness. Feeling tends to remain immediate, but the author, splitting himself into the man who feels immediately and the man who draws his feeling into articulate elements of character, action, and language, continually tests the adequacy of the articulation to the immediacy of his feeling. Likewise, reading a James novel requires the mediacy of self-consciousness as well as the immediacy of feeling. Response is active, far from any Lockean or Emersonian notion of receiving knowledge with childlike openness. Just as we know what we are saying because we overhear ourselves as we talk, so we understand James's language as a genuine activity of shaping reality because as we listen to what James says, we are also aware of him overhearing himself. Only a few of the people who have written criticism about James during the last twenty years have seemed to be reaching toward a sense of this sort of activity as being more crucial than a focus upon James's novels as achieved structures or artifacts. The New Criticism, with its emphasis on close reading, taught us much about sensitivity to the particulars of language, image, rhythm. But because the new critics thought of the work of art as a "constitutive symbol," a system of internal relationships, they focused on particulars in isolation, as residing wholly within the boundaries—temporal and logical—of the autonomous work. As though they looked only directly in front of them as they examined language under their extraordinarily sensitive microscopes, they lost the sense that part of what language expresses is its own expressiveness—the dialectical activity itself of articulating feeling. This seems unbelievable, since many of the new critics were practicing poets, until we understand that they thought that in writing criticism they were doing something different in kind from what they were doing in writing poetry. As critics they should have realized that as poets they listened to themselves critically as they used language and that as critics they were as sensitive to feeling as they were to words. In contrast, we need to respond to the mediateness of James's great novels. Their liveliness and the sense of conscience they generate come from outside, from a silence which overarches the limited point of view of any narrator, from which the author is free at least to imply what he feels is valuable in his world. As early as in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), James knew that in order to imagine fully a moral relationship, he must also imagine a destructive, manipulative one. The whole novel is a portrait animated by that dialectical interaction. It is an act of "painting" a portrait. Isabel is, at the beginning, the unshaped substance, characterized by vagueness, romanticism, impressionability , love of the picturesque; she desires freedom. Through the novel she takes form, and her formation is coeval with the shaping of the novel. The implication behind each rhythmical act of shaping a sentence is that James apprehends the portrait as incomplete, in front of him only tentatively, as though for the purpose of drawing out his feeling. It is this sense of Volume IV 207 Number 3 The Henry James Review Spring, 1983 the novelist actually forming the portrait as he sees himself in progressive relationship with his main character that makes the gestures of the novel particularly significant . The verbal gestures of drawing feeling into images are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 207-218
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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