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  • Bring the Bodies Up:Excavating Washington Square
  • Barry Maine

If cultural anthropologists are correct that our relations with material objects (including the books that we love) are best understood as “entrapping entanglements,” as forged dependencies, it follows that our relations with places may be equally entrapping and entangling.1 One such place for Henry James was his birthplace at 21 Washington Place at Washington Square, which entrapped and entangled him in ways that are revealed, indirectly, in the only work of fiction he ever wrote that he named for an actual place. It is not a cheery story. Cruelty and sadism, familial punishment and revenge; dead children, deadened lives, ghostly relics hatching plots, and unwanted figures from the past returning as if from the grave; everyone and everything in the end tasting of ashes and ruin; and the heroine burying herself in her house on Washington Square, “for life, as it were.” It is Henry James’ American Gothic. Many critics have noted how closely the plot follows an entry in one of his notebooks in which he recorded a dinner table anecdote related by his good friend, the English actress Fanny Kemble, concerning her brother—named Henry—whom she exposed as a cad for attempting, unsuccessfully, to marry for money. But few have noted that none of the strikingly macabre elements in the story can be found there. There are dark forces in James’ American tale (one of the few he attempted) which extend beyond—or lie beneath—its drama. The palimpsest of Washington Square itself, its famous park and monument and architecture, what it preserves and what it conceals of its past, has its analog in the palimpsest of James’ own memory, as his own family history lurks beneath the surface of the story—or is buried beneath it. The reader needs a field guide to know where all the bodies are. [End Page 209]

Washington Square (1880) is one of James’ most popular novels, but it did not attract a wide audience when it was first published. The reviewer for the British Spectator mused wisely over how James finds that “life very seldom makes a whole … of the encounter between conflicting purpose and complicated circumstance,” and that this “dreary tale” is no exception.2 The reviewer for the Boston Literary World was even more puzzled: “If any of our more penetrating readers can say what Mr. Henry James’s last story amounts to, we shall be happy to publish the estimate.”3 Confirming W. D. Howells’ prediction that James would need to create his own readership, the novel has attracted many more appreciative readers over the years since its initial publication. Leon Edel declared it a “minor masterpiece” and Richard Poirier, William Veeder, Susan M. Griffin, and many other of James’ “more penetrating readers” have declared it a “masterpiece” as well and left off the “minor.”4 Its posthumous success in stage and screen adaptations is further proof, as if any were needed, of its compelling dramatic power and appeal. Indeed it may have been writing Washington Square that tutored James in what he would soon proudly trumpet in “The Art of Fiction” (1884) as his “scenic method.” The novel often reads like a play, its dialogue as sharp and witty as any James ever wrote, and its plot composed of dramatically charged speeches and “scenes” between memorable characters: Dr. Sloper, the over-bearing, overprotective father, with no faith in his daughter’s judgment or belief in her charms; Catherine Sloper, his dutiful love-struck daughter, who is made of finer stuff than nearly anyone in the story can appreciate; Morris Townsend, her fortune-hunting suitor, whom the narrator defends for placing a monetary value on his “fine natural parts”; and Aunt Penniman, the widowed romantic in a perpetual frenzy over a love affair as much her own as her niece’s. They all work feverishly at cross purposes, illustrating with as much dramatic irony as James’ later work, The Aspern Papers, how “stratagems” (the doctor’s, the fortune hunter’s, and the aunt’s) can beget “spoils” (the doctor’s ruined relationship with his daughter, the fortune hunter’s loss of a fortune, and the aunt’s...


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pp. 209-231
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