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Correspondence To the Editor: I've just read with interest Susan Carlson's letter regarding the possibiUties for new feminist work on Henry James. First, I congratulate Professor Carlson for presenting her case so clearly and usefuUy, and I congratulate the journal for using the "Correspondence" section for raising such important issues, rather than wasting space on petty disputes or pedantic notes. As much as I agree with Professor Carlson that James's writings invite feminist interpretations, however, I am troubled by the un theoretical character of the feminist work that Professor Carlson projects. Professor Carlson, of course, wants to be diplomatic and to suggest that feminist criticism of James need not be viewed with fear by scholars working in more traditional ways. Such diplomacy is, in part, justified by James's own extraordinary sensitivity to the ideological situation of women in his own times, and I agree with her that he remains one of the few among modern male writers to anticipate some of the fundamental questions posed by recent feminists . On the other hand, James was a product of his times and continues to be produced in and for our own times—times that have not yet escaped the social, poUtical, and cultural consequences of patriarchal values. Professor Carlson understands James's compUcity with these values, and she quotes Marianne Novy*s "Demythologizing Shakespeare" in an effort to initiate a similar demythologizing of Jamesian mastery as part of a feminist interpretation. Such a process of demythologizing—what I would prefer to caU a deconstruction— ought to go weU beyond the analysis of character, technique, convention, and genre, even though these formal matters must be part of a cogent and feminist deconstruction of James, the modern novel, and the concept of Uterary authority. Feminist Uterary criticism is not just another "illuminating" approach among many others; feminist criticism goes beyond such happy pluralism to raise fundamental questions about the assumptions we make about literary function, authorial intention, and the relation of Uterature and ideology. Ih this regard, feminist criticism must be understood as inextricably theoretical, chaUenging profoundly those literary values produced in and by patriarchal cultures. Thus it is not enough merely to identify the strengths of James's women, even as we might also observe how often these same heroines (comic or otherwise) "choose marriage and . . . give up their powers" or, as is so often the case in James's narratives, renounce marriage only for the sake of ambivalent "sacrifice." Feminist criticism must begin to interpret just this sort of "characterization" of women in James in terms of James's own defensive rhetoric—a rhetoric directed at times against the "scribbUng tribe" of popular women writers, at other times against the male sexism James tried to avoid, and at yet others against his own anxieties about his Uterary and psychosexual powers. We have just begun to address the ways that James's ostensible identifications with his women characters are at once indications of his conscious sensitivity to the social problems confronting women and his own defensive efforts to co-opt "woman," transforming "woman" (as so many other moderns from Baudelaire and Wilde to Joyce and Pound did) into a "figure" for the artist, a metaphor for the Uterary (and male) dilemma of artistic originaUty and authority. The central issue for feminist studies of Henry James should not be formulated as a choice we must make regarding James's sympathies for or against radical and theoretical feminism. It is not a matter, for example, of deciding whether the Henry James who wrote The Bostonians favors Basil Ransom or OUve ChanceUor. Rather, we must begin to interpret the feminist dialectic that can be read in and through the relation of BasU to Olive, of Tina to the narrator in The Aspern Papers. And that feminist dialectic already asks questions that threaten and subvert customary apVolume VI 153 Number 2 The Henry James Review Winter, 1985 proaches to character, convention, genre, and style. Professor Carlson claims that "a feminist look at James's comic heroine shows . . . not his limitations as a writer, but his skiU." I would contend that a theoretically informed feminism—and there can be no other "feminism" deserving of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 153-156
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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