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John Carlos Rowe. The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James. Wisconsin: U of Wisconsin P, 1984. 275pp. $21.50. $13.95 pb. Professor Rowe had already established himself as one of the most theoreticaUy adept readers of American Uterature with the publication of Henry Adams and Henry James: The Emergence of a Modern Consciousness (1976) and Through the Custom-House: Nineteenth-Century American Fiction and Modern Theory (1982). This newest work is clearly meant to be one of the most important studies of Henry James as well as a work of major theoretical importance. In the preface, Rowe indicates that this is not merely a "'summary' of recent criticism" but rather an exploration of the "theoretical potential" of James's writing (xiii). He accomplishes this by orchestrating six different theories—"the psychology of literary influence, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology and reader-response criticism"—into a unified narrative design, wherein only the cumulative effect of aU six yields up James's full theoretical potential (28). Rowe believes this "dialectical and intertextual" approach to be necessary because each approach "fails to master a certain aspect of the Jamesian text," and that "theoretical Umitation . . . becomes the subject and method of the subsequent chapter" (24). As the chapters compose to form the entire work, "the limitations ... [of each] outlook become the means of bringing these diverse theories into relation, rather than dividing and discriminating [among theories] as is customary in the humanities" (27). Rowe points out early on and repeats anxiously several times that his study should not be confused with pluralist or historical studies in the mode of "David Bleich's subjective criticism, Wayne Booth's pluralism, Stanley Fish's 'interpretive communalism,' Richard Rorty's humanistic 'conversation,' Geoffrey Hartman's 'salvation' of the text from the more nihilistic inclinations of deconstruction" or Frank Kermode's discovery of 'modem classics'" (16-17). Rowe distinguishes these from his own work as relativistic and purely formalist theories "in the sense that they ignore historical differences by subordinating the material phenomena of literary performance to an abstract idealism" (17). As a consequence, these critics "encourage a sort of Uberal tolerance that aU too easily leads to the assumption of the text's essential polysemousness," while paradoxicaUy hypostasizing language's différance and denying "the vagrancies of history . . . [and] the functional discontinuities and struggles for power that govern social experience" (17-21). In so doing "Kermode, J. HiUis MUler and many other theorists committed to such happy pluralism or easy historicism" have conceptualized deconstruction to the point that it loses its deconstructive power (21). Thus, they can "adjust... the canon to the [now relatively] mild threats" posed by this aUegorized version of "contemporary theory" rather than "attack" or "at the very least subject" the idea of the canon to "rigorous interrogation" (21). Anticipating objections from "the powerful figures associated with each of the theoretical positions" he has described as limited if used singularly, "from Bloom to Jameson to Iser to Fish," Rowe asserts that their "efforts to maintain the integrity" of any particular theory are precisely that which he "indicts" as "the ultimate 'formalism,' the grandest idealism in the service of theoretical symmetry and closure" (27). Despite Rowe's "strong ... pessimism" regarding these critics' "'use' and 'abuse'" of contemporary theory, he nonetheless feels his skepticism 216 The Henry James Review about them has been "productive," leading him to The Theoretical Dimensions, a "deconstruction of the master" wherein the goal has been to "socialize" the myth of "the high modernist" James (27-28). Such a labor wiU "return . . . literary theory to its proper subject: the ways in which Uterature serves or subverts the culture's complex arts of self-representation and self-preservation" (28). Rowe's ambitions, then, to expose the social, psychological and historical features that coalesce to form the myth of James the Aesthete and to accomplish this through a series of reading strategies that, when taken together, compose a unified narrative design, are very large, and in both he is highly successful. Above aU, Rowe is not a theorist who is insensitive in dealing with Uterary texts. For example, his section on James's use of conditional verb tenses to distinguish the narrator's voice from the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 215-217
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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