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The Henry James Review 24.1 (2003) 97-99
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Jeremy Tambling. Henry James: Critical Issues. New York: St. Martin's, 2000. 244 pp. $65.00.
Best known for his work on Dickens, Jeremy Tambling begins his richly textured study of James by citing a friend who doubted his competence to write on an American author (2). But noting that it is precisely James as American that interests him, Tambling proceeds over the next 200 pages to demonstrate a wide-ranging mastery of the fiction, criticism, autobiographies, and letters, which is especially impressive in a critic who has not previously specialized in James. Several times during the book this detailed mastery enables Tambling as close reader to trace threads of verbal and scenic echo across different genres and periods in the Jamesian text, for example, involving such words as "morbid" or "quaint" (70, 210). By locating a sequence of scenes with structural and other rhymes in The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl, and some of James's critical writing, Tambling develops a fascinating argument that Maggie Verver begins The Golden Bowl as "an Isabel." Then, after discovering that she has been betrayed, she becomes an Osmond, "the aesthete disposing different lives as she [End Page 97] chooses," as she chillingly edits and rearranges the novel's human relations "entirely in terms of their compositional appeal" (199; the last phrase is Tambling's quotation from Leo Bersani).
Beyond intertextuality within James, Tambling's familiarity with nineteenth-century British and French fiction allows him to develop deft and sometimes surprisingly specific intertextual relations between James and, primarily, Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, Flaubert, and Zola. Moreover, Tambling's self-positioning as an Englishman and a European has a rhetorical importance of its own in his book. It provides the perspective from which he develops his take on James's "international theme." Refreshingly, Tambling tends to approach this theme from the side of European, not American, identity. Recall, for example, the sketchy and uncertain personal history provided for The Wings of the Dove's Merton Densher. At the end of the novel, of course, Densher has become permeated by his complicated memories of Milly Theale and the months that he spent with her in Venice. Tambling articulates the irony: "Since he [Densher] is now a 'haunted man' [. . .] the American girl has created a sense of the past for the European, specifically English, male" (161). Tambling returns several times to his interesting idea that James's international theme often involves creating new pasts on one or both sides of the Atlantic. I especially like one of his suggestions regarding "The Aspern Papers": James's invention of the cosmopolitan early-nineteenth-century American poet Jeffrey Aspern, who is of course dead before the story begins, represents James's "wish" that the early Republic might have contained not only a Byron but also the culture and history necessary to produce such a poet. Thus, Tambling argues, the figure of Jeffrey Aspern marks James's creation for his native country of a Freudian "family romance," "replacing America's real past by a superior origin" (81).
At the level of local interpretation, Tambling's Henry James is consistently original and compelling. This is no small achievement for a book that engages seriously with so many diverse James texts. I suspect that anybody who loves to read James will find much to appreciate in Tambling's intelligent and sophisticated treatment both of familiar and of unfamiliar passages. Despite its intelligence, however, what will probably prevent Tambling's work from achieving the status of a major contribution or even of a "must-read" new book on James is its lack of a strong central argument that his local readings might serve to develop. Tambling's is not a thesis-driven book, nor one that concludes in a significantly different place than it begins. (In fact, it provides no conclusion at all.) This lack of a strong central argument is no doubt due to the book's slightly uncertain genre. It is the second contribution, after a text on Virginia Woolf, to St. Martin's Press's...