- Henry James and the Visual
Henry James's comment that he owed any advantage gained from his visit to Florida to "the rightly averted, and the rightly-directed eye" is of a piece with Kendall Johnson's important study of Henry James and the Visual (letter to Witter Bynner, 17 February 1905). For at the foundation of James's strategy as a novelist and critic is the relation of seeing to thinking and knowing. This relation engages Kendall Johnson in terms of the discourse and representational strategies of the picturesque. As a result, Johnson's study explains an important element of James's narrative style and also puts readers in contact with the nineteenth-century discourse of the picturesque. [End Page 176]
Johnson distinguishes "visual" from "vision" in order to "emphasize sight as a process that is allusive and elusive in establishing meaning within and between social contexts" (6). Crucial for Johnson in the picturesque are human figures because they organize the narrative logic of any scene. James's invocation of the picturesque signals "moments when the pride of his characters balances precariously on their management of insecurities regarding how to recognize, classify, and, ultimately, respect national identity in the international marketplace" (9). Thus the picturesque supplies a way for understanding "the role of visual language in representing types of national culture, and, more broadly, in conceptualizing 'culture' as the kernel of national cohesiveness" (4).
Following the "Introduction," Johnson organizes Henry James and the Visual via five chapters and an "Epilogue." "Classifying Donatello: the visual aesthetics of American exceptionalism" models Johnson's strategy for showing "how visual aesthetics arbitrate national identity" (28). "A 'dark spot' in the picturesque: the aesthetics of polygenism in 'A Landscape-Painter'" illustrates James's intervention in the discourse of the picturesque. "Rules of engagement: the arch-romance of visual culture in The American" explains how "[t]he racial terms of the novel's cultural categories […] invite us to consider the novel's generic confusion as related to broader, contemporaneous scientific debates regarding the definition of 'culture' as a category of identity that could be displayed as a collection of things at international exhibitions" (90). "The scarlet feather: racial phantasmagoria in What Maisie Knew" attends centrally to the representation of the "'brown lady,'" an "American Countess" (123), which "fans ambiguity of racial type at the very intersection of British interests in India, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America" (125) and "call[s] attention to the ways stereotypes of Indians fit into the international network of race that James sensationalizes" (126). "Pullman's progress: the politics of the picturesque in The American Scene" investigates James's use of the urban picturesque and distinguishes James's "picturesque eye" (160) from those of his contemporaries and also from those, such as Emerson's, whose example established the picturesque mode in the generation before James's. In this chapter, Johnson recognizes meaning in James's "failure to build a national scene," which "dramatizes the social effect of feeling one's cultural authority dissipate" (177). "Epilogue: America seen" provides an overview of how Fanny Kemble's "visual methods" in A Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 "influenced [James's] engagement with the crisis of slavery and its civil legacy" (190).
One gap in the book has to do with a nuanced discussion of both particular rhetorical situations James engages that probably affected the deployment of the picturesque and his deployment of indirect discourse, through which a narrator / narrative persona reports a character's vision of the picturesque. That is, all passages of the picturesque aren't equally "James's," at least in any straightforward way.
Nonetheless, Henry James and the Visual is well worth reading for anyone interested in understanding the powerful representational effect and meaning of the picturesque during the nineteenth century and, especially, for learning how that mode was used and complicated by Henry James.