Analysis of Henry James's Works

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  • Topic: Henry James, William James, Alter ego
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New World Ghosts (Henry James, ‘The Jolly Corner’)

You might remember the image from the first lecture on the module: 70th birthday portrait (1913) of HJ by John Singer Sargent in the National Portrait Gallery.

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Five years earlier, ‘The Jolly Corner’ was published in the English Review (December 1908). HJ first had the idea in August 1906.

There are different definitions of the short story. But if we follow The Complete Tales of HJ, ed. by Leon Edel, it was HJ’s 108th published story. And he only had 5 left to write.

So JC is very late HJ. He was 65 when it came out. He wasn’t to complete another novel, though he left two unpublished at his death on 28 February 1916 – The Ivory Tower and The Sense of the Past. In those last eight years his main achievements were the Prefaces to the NY edition, and two volumes of autobiography: A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother.

As I suggested last week, James’s Prefaces to the NY edition offer one important way of understanding Gothic literature. HJ wrote about the ghost story in the Preface to Vol XII (TS) and Vol XVII (the other ghost stories).

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But his Preface to an early novel, The American, is also relevant. HJ doesn’t mention Gothic, but he does talk – as Hawthorne and Walpole before him had done – about ‘romance’ (if you do The Romance of Fiction next year, you will probably return to this famous passage).

James here draws a distinction between fiction which surrounds itself with ‘the air of romance’ and fiction which is anchored in ‘the element of reality’. There are no hard and fast distinctions here, and James says that writers like Scott, Balzac and Zola committed themselves both to romance and to realism: these `rich and mixed’ writers washed us `with the warm wave of the near and familiar and the tonic shock … of the far and strange’. At a later point in the Preface he adds that `it is as difficult … to trace the dividing-line between the real and the romantic as to plant a milestone between north and south’.

We are coming at them from a different direction, maybe, but there should be some familiar themes here.

Associating romance and mixture (and ambiguity): it looks like HJ is reformulating what Walpole was getting at right at the beginning of Gothic fiction: combining different impulses – the verisimilitude associated with the modern romance and the marvels of ancient romance.

But HJ goes further in analysing the romantic. Not everything `far and strange’ qualifies as romance, he points out. It’s not a matter of boats, caravans, tigers or ghosts (or bats, or trapdoors, or castles).

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It’s not the kind of danger or the appreciation of danger which counts, HJ argues. It’s more a difference between ‘the real’, by which he means ‘the things we cannot possibly not know’ and the romantic - ‘the things that, with all the facilities in the world … we never can directly know; the things that can reach us only through the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thought and our desire’.

Repeat and elaborate. Genre is defined not externally or in terms of the objects it contains, but internally and psychologically, in terms of particular kinds of experience.

And there is another key point in James’s thinking about genre. Realism and romance are part of a spectrum – the names for different tendencies in a given work of fiction. In some cases both tendencies may be present. Realism relates to the things we know – aspects of universal human experience. Romance relates to the things we never can directly know, and these need not necessarily be obvious examples of the ‘far and strange’ like ghosts.

And HJ sums up in a very famous passage:

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‘The only general attribute of projected romance that I can see, the only one that fits all its cases, is the fact of the kind of experience with which it deals – experience liberated, so to speak; experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered, exempt from...
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