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Virginia C. Fowler. Henry James's American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984. 177 pp. $22.50 The leaf preceding the title page of Virginia C. Fowler's Henry James's American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas bears a 120-word abstract, which proclaims the study "a new perspective on James's fiction—and a reassessment of his views on feminine identity, sexual relations, and American culture." At first I thought this pre-dedi(vari)cation a naive gesture for any serious work, especiaUy for one a mere 140 pages long, excluding notes, bibUography, and index. Such an abstract recaUed a dissertation format. Then, however, I recognized a device at play: Fowler's abstract is a synecdoche of her project. The few weUchosen words of her abstract boldly embroider the vast, blank page creating text(ure) in the same way that, as her thesis points, the American girl is the embroidery on the male canvas of civilization. Read in such a light, Fowler's seemingly naive abstract, Uke its' subject, the American girl, is both winning and powerful in its artful management of the reader. Just as the apparently inappropriate abstract represents most appropriately the text, the text represents the subject. Like James's American girl herself, Fowler's study is neat, slender, engaging. Both begin their developments in an unassuming fashion —the text with the abstract and the career of the American girl with, after the heroines of some early short stories, Daisy MiUer—yet both grow into maturity. From the abstract we move to an overview of the critical background, the history of the James family, and the sociology of the nineteenth-century American heroine, all of which fiU the fabric of the argument. Likewise , though Daisy MiUer remains a sketch rather than a fuUy developed character, knowing the history of her career illuminates those of her more substantial sisters, Isabel Archer, MiUy Theale, and Maggie Verver, the other American girls Fowler treats extensively. Thus, while the early chapters of Henry James's American Girl provide the canvas, the later ones point up the embroidery. Fowler's first chapter, "The CiviUzing Female: The SymboUc Values of the American Girl," shows the study to be grounded in thematic, rhetorical, historical, sociological , biographical, and feminist criticism. Here the critic presents her point of departure , James's The American Scene (1904), offering as a self-reflexive headnote an excerpt from the text, a sentence from which reads: "It would take long to say why her situation, under this retrospect, may affect the inner fibre of the critic himself as one of the most touching on record." In the chapter Fowler cites The American Scene as the source of her title metaphor. Disturbed by what he saw as a culture doomed by its commercial spirit, James had described America as "a society of women located' in a world of men, which is so different a matter from a coUection of men of the world; the men supplying, as it were, aU the canvas, and the women aU the embroidery ." The evidence Fowler cites to support James's evaluation forms her donn ées: "James identifies his noveUst ic art as 5 Feminine art; he identifies American society with the same feminine art; and he identifies women as the actual and sole representatives of civiUzation in America" (7). Since James's American girls, though individuaUzed, are aU fashioned from the same cultural variables, they share certain psychological conflicts Fowler proposes to explore. She wisely admits to her narrow focus in stating her project: "to show the relation of the American girl's psychology to the culture which nurtured it, and to demonstrate the nature of the flight' that afflicts both the girl and the American herself in James's international fiction" (8). In examining the embroidery (while doing her own), Fowler, ever mindful of the breadth of her framing critical apparatus, encircles only a manageable portion of canvas in each chapter. Chapter two, "The Psychology of the International Drama and the Requirements of Its Heroine," begins with another block of prose excerpted from The American Scene, this focusing on the "incoherence Volume VI 136 Number 2 The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 136-138
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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