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James Studies 1980: An Analytical Bibliographical Essay by Albert J. von Frank, Harvard University I. Introduction As this essay happens, a little accidentally, to end with a reference to the painter Edwin Austin Abbey, perhaps it may, less accidentally, begin there as well. In a letter of 1906 James advised his friend on the composition of an allegorical mural of which the subject and central figure was to be "Art." After supplying a motto from Emerson, he proposed that "Art" should not, as Abbey had planned, hold a representation of the Parthenon in her hand, but rather "a small and exquisite human (male) figure, and as a form she ought to be 'tramping' on something that symbolizes the Void and the Vague." There is no reason to think this more than one of the lighter exercises of the Jamesian imagination, but it suggests a way of regarding an important development in recent commentary: the increasing critical divergence between those whose eyes are on voids and absences and those who (more and more defensively these days) suppose they are in the presence of life and so continue to have reactions—"as many as possible." This divergence is owing, in one sense at least, to the ascendancy of structuralist and post-structuralist methodologies and the simultaneous decline of literary history with its "sense of the past." It is reflected above all in the quality of attention bestowed on the modernist vision in the later writings and, more locally, in the growing consensus (much influenced by Todorov) that such works as "The Figure in the Carpet" and The Turn of the Screw are "undecidable" and "unreadable." These developments have certainly their counterparts in such biographical speculation as Richard Hall's (noted below), which seeks to explain "the void at the center of Henry James's personality," and in the deconstruction, as it were, of such heroines as Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer and Milly Theale, who are being seen more and more in terms of personal deficiencies, which in turn are attributed in feminist criticism to an American society that has denied them any positive character. The "exquisite human figure," they will all note, is "(male)." It is possible to be repelled by so much zero at the bone, but it would be a mistake not to see that all this emptying is being performed for the sake of an audience thought to be increasingly unwilling to meet James (or any dead author) on other grounds than its very own. We may ask whether in these terms it may not be a splendidly friendly gesture after all to make James into a feminist for an age that approves of feminist aims. Nor, by the same token, will we fail to take the meaning of the appearance of the Master in two separate essays as a homosexual and an Indian. The traditionalist may wish to deplore these displacements, but he, too, is of this century and shares in the general lack of certitude that what is thus displaced is any more real. To speak of impalpable essences opens the way to finally suggesting that while neither party has a monopoly of intelligence (intelligence being where you find it), the work of the void has a kind of freshness and energy—an appearance even of caring intensely—that may simply be_ ascendancy, but which is in any event fueled by the deepest imperatives of our age and culture. THE HENRY JAMES REVIEW 210 SPRING, 1982 II. Books Remarkably, only two books on James appeared in 1980, though three others, published too late in 1979 to be considered in last year's essay, will be noticed here along with them. All, of course, have been ably reviewed in previous issues of HJR, itself the bravest birth of 1980. The coincidental publication of Robert Emmet Long's The Great Succession: Henry James and the Legacy of Hawthorne (Pittsburgh, 1979) and Thaddeo K. Babiiha's The James-Hawthorne Relation: Bibliographical Essays (G. K. Hall, 1980) suggests that this tentacular subject has at last received the tying up it has for so many years seemed to need. And yet, finally, it is not the kind of subject that can be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 210-228
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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