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  • The Princess Among the Polemicists:Aesthetics and Protest at Midcentury
  • Michaela Bronstein (bio)

In 1941, Ralph Ellison drafted an essay entitled “Recent Negro Fiction,” which eventually appeared in the Marxist magazine The New Masses. He asked readers to “consider Henry James’ often stressed plead [sic] for the presence of a ‘central intelligence’ in the novel.” This central intelligence, for Ellison, “is analogous to the role played in real life by advanced consciousness,” through which a historical group “keep[s] its ranks in line as it spirals upward in the historical process” (Ralph Ellison Papers, Folder 1.104.10). This whole section of the draft never made it into the final version, appearing on 5 August 1941—when the emphasis on controlling the rank and file might have seemed unwise—but in the creative space of the draft, Ellison supposes that the Jamesian center of consciousness could—startlingly—become a metaphor for Communist Party organizing.

James’s commentary on form was not the only aspect of his art to gain new political energy in this period. His most explicitly political novels—The Bostonians (1886) and The Princess Casamassima (1886)—seized a degree of attention that they did not exact in their own time or since. “I have entered upon evil days,” he wrote in 1888 about the reception of The Princess and The Bostonians and the damage they seemed to have done to his career (qtd. in Gard 182).1 Yet when, in 1964, James Baldwin listed 10 novels that had helped him break out of the ghetto, The Princess Casamassima made the list—and aside from the contemporary Charles Wright novel The Messenger (1963), it is probably the inclusion most obscure to readers today (Eckman 168–69).2 [End Page 26]

By the time Baldwin started mentioning it in interviews, The Princess was already riding a wave of success. In 1950, Lionel Trilling placed it among the classics of the nineteenth-century bildungsroman; in his essay on the novel in The Liberal Imagination, he pairs it with The Bostonians as the two James novels “most likely to make an immediate appeal to the reader of today” (58–59). Ellison’s 1955 Paris Review interview opens with the interviewer’s comparison between Invisible Man (1952) and The Princess, tacitly quoting Trilling’s view (Conversations 6). Irving Howe offered another high-profile examination in his 1957 Politics and the Novel. Baldwin referred to it again in 1968 as a book for a “black power militant” to read (“Portrait” 2). Today, The Princess has fallen into relative obscurity: scholarly studies occasionally devote a few pages or even a chapter to this novel, but it is rarely taught, and nonspecialists are generally only vaguely aware of its existence.3 On the surface, its fading might be surprising: after all, in our age of politicized and historicist criticism, maybe The Princess should have knocked the abstractions of The Golden Bowl and the privileged romance of Portrait of a Lady off of our syllabi. Numerous critical books elucidate class discourses in James’s other novels; relatively few devote their attention to his only novel specifically about class warfare.4

But between, say, 1940 and 1970, The Princess found its audience, amongst intellectuals white and black; suddenly, it was not just another minor James novel, but one of the key achievements of James’s career. The terms of the novel’s success illuminate the contemporary debates about the relation between art and protest such that Ellison’s association between Jamesian style and Communist politics might not seem so strange. Modernism’s cultural place in the 1940s and 1950s may seem dominated by New Critical readings and assumptions, but modernist aesthetics and its ethics of craft had a much wider set of interlocutors and uses.5 The transhistorical aspirations of modernism—its desire to conceive of art as containing all history and lasting into the future—were not always covert strategies for dismissing the political dimensions of art. The transhistorical, here, is not the timeless or the unchanging; instead, as The Princess Casamassima traveled in time, it engaged with new politics and developed new meanings and uses.

The Princess Casamassima was one of a group of novels that...


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pp. 26-49
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