The Henry James Review 25.2 (2004) 195-198
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Dedicating their book to the memory of William T. Stafford, longtime professor of American literature at Purdue University and co-founder of Modern Fiction Studies, the editors of "The Finer Thread, The Tighter Weave" have taken a cue from their late professor who "loved the clash and noise of literary debate" (4) and have gathered seventeen critical analyses from "contentious" essayists who, as the editors assert, "dare to reencounter James and to rethink what James might have been up to" (5). Given Dewey's and Horvath's scholarly backgrounds in contemporary fiction, along with their Stafford-influenced concern with the "loving examination of the text," it is not surprising that, as their preface suggests, they desire to give more priority to issues of language and formal technique and to what they call the Jamesian "game-text" (4) than to any overriding theoretical agenda. In essays addressing themselves mostly to stories about artists, writers, and observers, we are, at almost every turn, made aware of the great complexity of James's "brevities" (5): the editors are quick to alert us to a James who experiments with the "slipperiness of form itself" (9) and whose self-conscious fictions "themselves create uncertainties over character definition and reader sympathy" (6). Though this volume is, for the most part, a formalist enterprise intent on locating the destabilizing, or deconstructive, tendencies within the texts, the essays, in some instances, attempt to link Jamesian aesthetics to decidedly ethical concerns and, in other instances, make important connections to such issues of class and gender that have lately come to dominate James criticism. The editors divide their book into two parts—the "Threads," consisting of readings of individual works, and the "Weaves," consisting of wider-ranging [End Page 195] studies of specific stories within the context of James's other literary productions and of his literary-artistic influences.
Several of the essays in Part One, as might be expected, examine the ways in which the stories explore both the problems of realist representation and the limitations of aesthetic idealism. According to Adam Bresnick's finely constructed argument, James, in "The Madonna of the Future," seems to be placing himself in relation to his literary precursor Balzac, who depicted the social infinite while failing, however, to probe, as James does, the moral and intellectual implications of the Kantian sublime. If the artist-figure in the story, Theobald, produces for his masterpiece only a blank canvas, James, as Bresnick asserts, is not only parodying the notion of aesthetic perfection—the "absolute beyond representation"—but is also suggesting there is "no escaping the confines of the representational" (25), however negative the content of the material representation (i.e., the blank canvas). It is James's own aesthetic theory that informs Molly Vaux's reading of the telegraphist-observer in "In the Cage," a tale which, for Vaux, points to James's changing attitudes toward the writer's aesthetic goals. Like the novelist in "The Art of Fiction," James's female perceiver "seeks to trace the 'implications of things'" (130), but she soon encounters what James himself discerns as the artistic "dangers in the limitlessness of the creative work" (132) and in "excessive subjectivity" (133).
Included among the essays investigating the problematic of the Jamesian perceiver are some that are more morally and socially engaged than others (though issues of cultural context never overshadow attention to linguistic concerns within the primary texts). Jeraldine Kraver, for example, uses Genette's theories of narratology to analyze "The Author of Beltraffio" in terms of the narrator's culpability in the tragic events surrounding Mark Ambient's sickly son. As Kraver argues, the narrator's abiding interest in the "formal perfection of art" (36) is what finally leads to the disaster, and her sensitive reading offers compelling evidence to demonstrate how James...