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Deconstructing The Art of the Novel and Liberating James's Prefaces By Hershel Parker, University of Delaware On 17 August 1908, while he was working on prefaces to volumes of stories for the New York Edition, Henry James wrote to W. D. Howells that he might collect all the prefaces together "to form a sort of comprehensive manual or vademecum for aspirants in our arduous profession." His exuberant ambitiousness for the edition not yet dashed, James looked forward to the time he would "furnish them with a final Preface" (LHJ II, 99). If the New York Edition had made money, James himself might well have published the prefaces, arranged by the numbering of the volumes in that edition (the order that R. P. Blackmur followed in 1934 when he published them as The Art of the Novel). James might also have preceded them by a "final Preface" to the prefaces and might have chosen a title similar to Blackmur's (he used a likely one in his letter to Howells: A Plea for Criticism). If this had happened, James would have been hard pressed to write a preface to the prefaces as fulsome as Blackmur's Introduction, for Blackmur treated the newly-collected prefaces as if they constituted a literary work constructed according to the highest of late Jamesian standards. Following the lead of Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction (1921), he claimed that the prefaces, "by crossreference and development from one Preface to another, inform the whole series with a unity of being" (Blackmur ix).1 The prefaces themselves (as they stood in sequence in the volumes of the New York Edition or collected in The Art of the Novel) constituted a unified work of art, "the most sustained" and "the most eloquent and original piece of literary criticism in existence" (viii). Blackmur The Henry James Review 14 (1993): 284-307. © 1994, The Johns Hopkins University Press Deconstructing The Art of the Novel 285 adapted the Jamesian metaphor of remounting the stream of composition to his own remounting the stream of James's composition of the prefaces so that he might "intellectually understand the movement of parts and the relation between them in the living body we appreciate" (xiii). The "stream of James's composition " flowed through The Art of the Novel—tacitly, from the first preface through the last. Through this passionate advocacy Blackmur established the idea that his new compilation The Art of the Novel was a coherent treatise on what he called literary criticism and we would call theory, a creation with moving parts in a living body infused with a unity of being—nothing less than one of James's greatest books. Since 1934 comparatively few general readers and even few Jamesians (to judge from their footnote citations) have encountered the prefaces in the separate volumes of the New York Edition. Instead, we all have first come to them mainly as guided by Blackmur. The Art of the Novel has tyrannized over criticism on Henry James in two quite different ways. First, critics who encountered the prefaces bound together as The Art of the Novel naturally enough treated the book as a coherently structured work, just as Blackmur had done. None of them stopped to ask about the process by which it had been structured or by whom; no one stopped even to ask whether or not James had written the prefaces in the order in which Blackmur arranged them. As I will show, that order is not the order of composition, so critics have been to some extent misled every time they talked about The Art of the Novel as if James had written it from first to last, as if he had artfully anticipated subsequent development of ideas, planted cross-references as he went, and elaborated and clarified a set of aesthetic positions as he built toward the climax, the prefaces to his three late masterpieces. (All these assumptions have appeared in published criticism.) Second, almost all the critics who encountered the prefaces preceded by Blackmur's adulatory tribute to the new "book" accepted Blackmur's generic classification of The Art of the Novel as a treatise on fiction, to be analyzed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 284-307
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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