- James & Impressionism
SINCE THE 1970s, scholars have discussed and yet disagreed on the treatment of literary impressionism in James studies. The area of study includes James-specific analyses, as well as more general texts such as Tamar Katz’s Impressionist Subjects (2000) and Jesse Matz’s Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics (2001), the latter of which are leaned upon heavily as framework in Hannah’s own book, which pays tribute to all of them and seeks to complicate the existing body of criticism on the subject. Early on Hannah situates the corpus of literary impressionism as either embodying pictorialism or subjective experience as situated in the context of nineteenth-century culture, and then proposes to provide a “broader context” for interpretation by centering it on a “historically specific public” area. What that sphere embodies in Jamesian texts leads to studies of novels and short stories that expose James’s self-consciousness and critical awareness. Although indeed complicating the criticism, Hannah does pull from texts, Katz and Matz in particular, but (and this is a central point in his argument) he pinpoints the location of the “mediatory” impression in the space between the public and private spheres.
One of the great strengths of the first half of Hannah’s book is that it analyzes James’s texts that aren’t well studied (some not well known even in James studies), including many he covers in the first chapter: the four short stories “A New England Winter,” “Flickerbridge,” “The Private Life,” “The Coxon Fund” and the “much-neglected novel” The Reverberator. “A New England Winter”’s Florimund Daintry’s interesting parallel of having an “‘unlimited interest in his own sensations,’” as well as a well-developed sense of self-promotion, casts him directly in the middle of the troubling problem of reconciling the public and private. Daintry is a witness, often on the outside looking into private spheres, calling to mind more painterly, pictorial, and conventional images of Impressionism’s use of “visual framing” via the loge, a balcony, or windows that are apparent with Lambert Strether and the backdrop [End Page 282] of Parisian scenery in The Ambassadors; as we will see in later novels, this visual framing occurs in larger (though still intimate) public spaces like Lancaster Gate or Regent Park in The Wings of the Dove. In all of these texts, The Reverberator and The Ambassadors in particular, Hannah suggests that James pushes a process of discernment, “linked by his writing to painterly impressionism,” that furnishes the viewer with “pleasurable sensations and violent rupture … superficial play and penetrative analysis.” Also set in Paris, The Reverberator’s portrait of Francie Dosson, painted by expatriate Impressionist Charles Waterlow, embodies the enduring conflict between the American thirst for publicity and the European quest for privacy by using painting to evoke strong responses from new and traditional critics. Hannah makes an interesting claim that The Reverberator embodies part of “the impressionist art movement’s complicity with publicity, its alienation from valued privacy” and it, with the others, symbolizes how the evolution of James’s writing in the last half of his life began to adapt and change the language of pictorial impressionism.
Hannah’s second chapter in part argues that Jamesian impressionism appropriates themes and elements of both the literature and lives of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, in turn articulating “a vision of reading as subversively intimate,” one that confronts a developing “culture of surveillance” in Britain. The dangers—and potentials—of this culture are not lost on James, and for him, the works and careers of Pater and Wilde embody how tenuous a position the British aesthete occupies. As is apparent from his correspondence around this time, James eventually realizes a sort of demented achievement can result from the drama and infamy of a fall from such a position. Hannah quotes part of a 26 April 1895 letter James writes to his brother, William; it reinforces Hannah’s argument to include more of James’s letter as he both conceals and reveals his understanding of the aesthetic opportunities that result from the collective...