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  • "Clearnesses, Clearances":Telegrams and the Formal Economy of The Golden Bowl
  • Jennifer Sorensen Emery-Peck

Lydia Touchett, the most famous user of telegrams in Henry James's fiction, is introduced to the reader as a woman who has "thoroughly mastered the art of condensation" required for telegraphic expression and who is continually marked for her "devotion to the electric wire" (67, 220). Mrs. Touchett's style of telegraphic authorship is often transcribed in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), as in the following ambiguous telegram which gives a sense of her flair for the medium: "Changed hotel, very bad, impudent clerk, address here. Taken sister's girl, died last year, go to Europe, two sisters, quite independent" (67). In Portrait, James uses Mrs. Touchett's cryptic style to emphasize the economic constraints on the telegraphic form as Lydia explains her lack of clarity and her eccentric style in telegrams like this one to Ralph with the telling phrase: "clearness is too expensive" (98).1 In Mrs. Touchett's telegrams, her frugal compression breeds ambiguity and generates a coded speech that cannot be easily deciphered; James exploits her ambiguous transatlantic missives to stage scenes of communal reading where other characters puzzle over her potential meanings. The marked publicity of the telegraphic form in Portrait—unlike the letters in the novel which remain private—underscores James's interest in the telegram as a form of mediated and expensive communication that is always already public. In this early novel, James was intrigued by the telegram as a uniquely rich textual form for his fictional projects. Throughout his career, James continually returned to the telegram because this medium provided a material form of communication that generated a cryptic, condensed style tied to the costliness of transmission that often occasioned public consumption and collaborative reading. [End Page 164]

In 1898, James signaled his continuing interest in telegraphy as a subject and as a formal problem; in his novella In the Cage, James experimented with what it might mean if an unnamed telegraphist made free with the coded messages that she transmits. In this story, James plays with the perspective of his unnamed telegraphist as an authorial presence and stresses the telegram as a form of modern communication that is crucially shaped by the material conditions of its production in which words can only travel after the exchange of coins. James's telegraphist is elated by her fantasies of special communion with her clientele and yet, despite her imagined connections, the telegrams that she processes continually remind her of the socio-economic gulf between herself and her customers:

What twisted the knife in her vitals was the way the profligate rich scattered about them, in extravagant chatter over their extravagant pleasures and sins, an amount of money that would have held the stricken household of her frightened childhood, her poor pinched mother and tormented father and lost brother and starved sister, together for a lifetime. During her first weeks she had often gasped at the sums people were willing to pay for the stuff they transmitted—the "much love"s, the "awful" regrets, the compliments and wonderments and vain vague gestures that cost the price of a new pair of boots.


In passages like this one, James emphasizes that the telegraphist's occupation as word-counter and change-maker constantly reminds her of the "extravagant" and tangible cost of the telegraphic medium of communication. The telegraphist expresses her disdain for the thoughtless profligacy of her upper-class clientele: she describes one particularly interesting customer as "[belonging] supremely to the class that wired everything, even their expensive feelings (so that, as he evidently never wrote, his correspondence cost him weekly pounds and pounds and he might be in and out five times a day)" (382).2 Here, James marks the crucial difference between letter writing ("as he evidently never wrote") and the expensive, publicly transmitted, medium of telegraphy. In a telegram to Mrs. Hugh Bell, Henry James expresses his own "expensive feelings" and his awareness of their "cost" in an extravagantly cryptic message of his own: "Impossible impossible impossible if you knew what it costs me to say so you can count however at the...


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pp. 164-185
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