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The Henry James Review 24.1 (2003) 91-95
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Pierre A. Walker, ed. Henry James on Culture: Collected Essays on Politics and the American Social Scene. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999. 226 pp. $50.00.
Henry James on Culture is a collection of eighteen essays and short pieces by Henry James, some of which, as editor Pierre A. Walker points out, "have never been published before in book form, while the others have generally been available only in obscure collections" (xi). In his introduction to the volume, [End Page 91] Walker lays out his purposes and goals in bringing together this collection, goals both demonstrative and corrective in nature. First, the collection "demonstrate[s] firsthand the scope of James's engagement in current events," an engagement that spanned the whole of James's career (xi). Second, this collection has a corrective function: although instances of James's nonfiction have usually been given discrete and various classifications (literary or drama or art criticism, travel writing, biography, autobiography), the "variety of subjects and interests" typified by the essays in this collection, taken in conjunction with the better known essays, "strains the usual definitions" and "provide[s] evidence that Henry James should be thought of as a cultural critic, as that term is understood by academic scholars today" (xxxviii). And, Walker asserts, this volume "corrects" a "deficiency" in that the "writing on politics, gender, and religion" has not been as accessible as the better known and more often reprinted writing on literature, art, and travel (xxxix).
The essays are divided into four parts. Part 1 is comprised of essays written early in James's career, from 1878 and 1879 (just three years after James moved to Europe). Parts 2 through 4 comprise essays written in the last eleven years of his life, underscoring once again just how active he was in this comparatively brief but remarkably productive period. In fact, it is the conjunction of James as well-known fiction writer and James as nonfiction writer which makes this collection resonate so soundly with Walker's assertion that these essays also "demonstrate something of the perils of trying to reduce James's sense of himself to a single national identity and, indeed, of what follows from such an attempt—characterizing his identity as having a stable, essential core" (xxvii).
Part 1, "Essays about British Geopolitics, 1878-1879," reveals a writer who is keenly aware of the state of British colonialism and of colonial politics and who assumes an equal awareness in his contemporary readers. James writes, as Walker points out, "political commentary" (xiii), and the selections here move from reflections on British and Russian diplomacy in the wake of the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), to ruminations on the Second Afghan War (1878-80), to consideration of the policies of the Disraeli government (and, in general, of British imperialism) in Africa, to a brief review of a memoir of Bismarck during the "Franco-German"—as James calls it—War (19). James was an adept and knowledgeable observer, as Walker underscores in the contextualizing background he provides in his introduction. And indeed, having written the majority of the pieces included in Part 1 for The Nation, James was very much an international correspondent. In light of recent history, James's remarks on the "Afghan Difficulty" have an air almost of prescience about them and an astuteness that is engaging and fascinating. Writing about the British government's concern that the "northwestern frontier" to India, which Afghanistan represents to British interests and imperialism, may fall to Russia, James dryly observes that "It is, of course, not as a quarrel with Afghanistan pure and simple that the present complications are serious," but because other nations and parties (in this case, Russia) are involved (16). But earlier, he notes too that "The [British] public is very much in the dark, and it hardly adds to its illumination to suspect that this is also the case with the Government" (15). He concludes, "So quickly, just now, [End Page 92] does history...