Henry James: An Alien’s “History” of America by Martha Banta (review)
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Reviewed by
Martha Banta. Henry James: An Alien’s “History” of America. Rome: Sapienza Università Editrice, 2016. 348 pp. €30.00. (Paperback).

Martha Banta’s first book on Henry James, Henry James and the Occult: The Great Extension, appeared in 1972 and remains an essential part of the secondary literature on James’s supernatural fiction. In the years since the appearance of Henry James and the Occult, Banta has published six other monographs on a wide array of topics. She has earned, and with good reason, numerous accolades, and the variety of topics that her books have covered reveal her to be a cultural critic in the true sense of the term. But in spite of the significance of that first book, none of the books since 1972 has focused primarily on James. And yet Banta has always remained a regular participant at conferences on James and contributed numerous articles and book chapters on James. The great question, then, was when a second book on James would appear. The wait for that second book is over, and Henry James: An Alien’s “History” of America proves worth the wait.

This new book develops and brings together many of the concerns and interests—especially The American Scene, the New York Edition, and the autobiographies—about which Banta has written and presented at conferences, all within a central focus on James’s identity as an expatriated American. Ranging widely over the entire James corpus, Banta shows how James negotiated both in his life and his writings opposing tensions: romance and reality; past memory and present recollecting; what one perceives and what one knows; imagination and consciousness; elasticity and margin; being both native and alien, in other words both of the place and not of it, whether the place be James’s native soil (the United States) or his adopted homeland (Britain). At one level, therefore, Banta’s purpose is to demonstrate how “James’s ingrained habit of balancing ‘on the one hand’ against ‘on the other’ is ever on view” (83). Such a purpose may appear to make James into a structuralist obsessed with binary oppositions, but in fact the book does not show James to be a deconstructionist-before-his-time who exploded binary oppositions. Rather, Banta shows that James strove for a Hegelian synthesis, or at least for an uneasy equilibrium. [End Page E-1]

The book demonstrates how James negotiated these opposing tensions in his writing and in his personal life: “James was obsessed by certain issues: the roles taken by aliens of every sort; the complexities of ‘reading’ situations through a mix of memory and immediacy; the unique composition of an America defined by both lacks and abundance” (284). Banta shows that James’s response to these tensions and these issues as well as his expatriation and alienation was a kind of late-Victorian and Edwardian self-fashioning. Her book makes “an extended case for the ways in which James’s self-assertion of alienation evolved from a complex set of views, experiences, distinctions” (126, emphasis mine). Alienation in this book is James’s complicated sense of belonging and at the same time not belonging, both in his native country, the United States (where he was not always at home), and abroad, particularly in Britain (where he maintained his home). Banta shows that rather than experiencing alienation as undesirable, he “refined his awareness of what it means to be an alien” (43) as part of his moving “freely in and out of differently shaped personhoods” (41). As the book concludes: “James remained that very particular kind of American Alien: the one who holds to the personal narrative he crafted with such care. This was the ‘surrounding Accent of the Future’ he made his own” (337, emphasis mine).

Henry James: An Alien’s “History” of America is divided into seven chapters, each of which centers on a period in James’s life and a particular text or group of texts. The first chapter is about James’s first twenty-six years (1843–1869) but discusses them primarily as seen through the prism of A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother. This...