- What Is the Matter with Henry James?
Ansel Adams is often quoted as saying, "There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer." In photography, for Adams, there is never objectivity, never simply a lens and a shutter; there is always the human presence. There is one person who selects and presents, and one who offers attention and judgement. There may or may not be other people in the snapshot, but these two are always involved. Something similar holds true for the written text, which has an author and a reader-two people whose relationship has always been problematic, especially since Roland Barthes argued that one of them does not exist. When the text in question is a critical text, scripted by an author who is also a reader, aiming to manipulate the response of other readers to the work of a primary author, and to the forces and sources that inform their work, then the picture becomes a great deal more [End Page 106] crowded. The evaluation of such critical texts by any reader for the purposes of writing, for example, an essay review in a scholarly journal takes the whole process to new heights of deconstructive perplexity. There are a lot of people in every text, critical or fictional, and each of these people carries a great deal of luggage, intellectual and emotional, and belongs in a specific social scene and in the setting of a particular cultural moment.
Getting authors and their readers into some kind of cultural context has been increasingly perceived and taught over recent years as the way to understand the pressures that shape literature. The work of Henry James, which for many decades was portrayed as insulated from the real world by a thick layer of fictional method, is no exception. James was closely connected to his cultural moment. He was profoundly sensitive to the literary and intellectual debates of his day, and his work had a weighty impact on other writers and critics during his lifetime and beyond. So, understanding James's place in culture is important, and recent criticism has a lot to say about the process. This essay explores four new books about James, each of which places his writing and responses to it within some kind of cultural context: The Critical Reception of Henry James: Creating a Master by Linda Simon; Henry James and the Visual by Kendall Johnson; Henry James, Women and Realism by Victoria Coulson; and A Superficial Reading of Henry James by Thomas Otten. But cultural context is a large common denominator. What kind of cultural context is intended, and where does it begin and end? Cultural context, as James himself might say, is never limited and is never complete. Certainly the study of it does not fit easily into a single theoretical method. It is too enormous and elastic. As these four texts demonstrate, culture can mean a bewildering range of things from Arnoldian, high aesthetic culture to popular print culture, from intellectual and scientific culture to the idiosyncratic social culture of a small group of friends. Culture in literary studies has become a term of access by which one can approach almost anything outside the text-visual, political, intellectual, biographical or material-and as such it is highly useful. This flexibility of approach is intoxicating to a generation of scholars who, like myself, were trained to approach texts via the rigorous structural and linguistic methodologies that themselves seemed so fresh and so radical in the 1980s and '90s. But, like other forms of intoxication, this new range of viewpoints is both exhilarating and potentially chaotic.
Strategies for exploring the relationship of texts to the historical moments of their inception...