Navigation – Plan du site

Sunspots and Blindspots in The Europeans


Notes de l’auteur

I am grateful to the organizers of seminars or conferences at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London (February 2003), the British Association of American Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University (April 2004), DEMA, Université de Provence (July 2004) and the Department of English and American Studies, University of Manchester (October 2005) for giving me the opportunity to present earlier versions of this paper. Particular thanks go to the participants at these events, whose comments and responses materially assisted the development of the ideas presented here.

Texte intégral

1In July 1878, when the first number of The Europeans appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Henry James could hardly be said to be at the beginning of his career. Nor yet had he reached the middle of it. He was, let’s say, at the end of the beginning. It was at this juncture, I’ll argue — after the trials and occasional false starts of the early work, before the more firmly established commitments of the mature phase — that the representational cross-currents which played through his work as a whole came most closely to the surface. In the following year, James would publish his critical biography of Hawthorne, and one can easily imagine The Europeans (set as it is in the New England of the 1840s) as a preliminary foray into Hawthorne territory, with James seeking to register, if not a rejection of his predecessor’s influence, then at least a claim to distance, to difference. Yet there are distinctly Hawthornean notes in The Europeans — echoes, oblique allusions — and, as I’ll argue, the novel ultimately stages a curious return of allegory, an impulse that James himself associated with Hawthorne and the romance tradition. The writer who would produce The Europeans and Hawthorne was, of course, already the author of the essays collected in French Poets and Novelists, published early in 1878. But although James’s novel was clearly influenced by transatlantic literary models, his response to French realism was by no means unqualified. In a sense, this was to be expected: as I have suggested, James was testing various representational strategies, and these, as I hope to show, were entertained rather than foreclosed by the sub-title he chose for The Europeans — “A Sketch.” A detour through the history of this literary form will lead me to argue that late nineteenth-century critical discourse was both more complex and more suggestive than an acquaintance with post-war literary theory might lead one to expect. And it is ‘theory’ that forms the main subject in the second half of this essay. I want to explore what The Europeans can tell us about questions of genre, tradition and periodization, particularly with reference to ‘modernity.’ I’ll be looking at the return of allegory in The Europeans, and suggesting that it is structurally central to the novel. But I’ll also be arguing that The Europeans manifests equally intriguing representational techniques at the lexical level. I will suggest in closing that there is a relationship between these levels, and that a seemingly local and even trifling issue such as James’s handling of the semicolon can be connected with the more obviously important issue of temporality in the modern novel.

2The fact that The Europeans was a sketch proved a touchstone for its earliest critics. In the Spectator, R. H. Hutton accepted that the sub-title had been chosen “accurately enough” (Gard 49). The idea of the sketch was also a starting point for reviewers in the Athenaeum, the North American, Appleton’s Journal, the Eclectic Magazine and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (see Gard 53, 57, 63 and 70). The Pall Mall Gazette called attention to the term, as did the Tribune, the Free Press, the Graphic and the Independent (see Hayes 50-56). What did the reviewers expect from a narrative that presented itself in this way? Sometimes it was simply a question of length: Hutton thought that “two thin, widely-spaced, and largely printed volumes” didn’t amount to a proper novel: that was one reason the word ‘sketch’ was accurate (Gard 50). In contrast, the Pall Mall reviewer felt that the term was “very improper” since The Europeans “nearly extends to ordinary novel-size” (Hayes 50). More often, though, the question was one of intellectual substance rather than sheer wordage. For Hutton, The Europeans was a “slight novel” based on “slender materials” (Gard 49). The Tribune reviewer thought The Europeans was a sketch because it lacked “the robust tone which we are accustomed to associate with full-grown books” (Hayes 52). In part, the defining difference between the novel and the sketch was one of continuity and consistency: for the Harper’s reviewer, The Europeans lacked “the intimate fusion of parts essential to narrative or dramatic unity” (70). And certainly a relative absence of plot and occasionally of character development belonged to the immediate connotative field of the sketch. For the Eclectic, the term suggested an avoidance of “details […] accessories […] painstaking elaboration of minor points” (56). Along similar lines, the Appleton’s reviewer suggested that James’s “events and persons” were “outlined rather than analysed”, with the author depending on “the reader’s imagination” (Gard 63).

  • 1  In 1827, Sir Walter Scott compared the writing of Defoe to Flemish painting “where, though the sub (...)
  • 2  I am grateful to John Fagg for drawing my attention to Hamilton’s work.

3Although the idea of the sketch raised some immediate questions about literary form and technique, James’s reviewers were also responding to another more automatic but less easily definable association. The Europeans was a sketch, not because it was short, or low on narrative development and complication, but because it presented its readers with a picture. Hutton was quick to note that the contrast between Felix Young and the Wentworths was “exquisitely painted.” Felix himself was “painted with exquisite humor” and the effect of the novel as a whole was that of “a picture full of […] fine touches” (Gard 50-1). In the Academy, W. E. Henley was similarly insistent on the pictorial dimension when he compared The Europeans to “a rare etching.” For him, the quality of the novel lay not in its “tone” or in any “arrangement of masses” but in James’s “beauty of line” (54). To a contemporary ear, these statements sound distinctly belletristic. Comments about James’s “loving appreciation of local coloring in and about Boston” and claims that his characters were “sketched with the pencil of a true artist” would be enough to make most academic critics wince (Hayes 52-3). But the pictorial analogy belonged to a distinguished discursive tradition extending at least from Sir Walter Scott to George Eliot.1 In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, then, it was perfectly conventional to describe literature in terms of painting. But James’s decision to call The Europeans a sketch was informed by a more specific discursive context, and in her account of the “cultural life” of this form, Kristie Hamilton has demonstrated the extent to which the literary sketch came to be intimately associated with the commercialisation of literature, the rise of a mass readership and above all the extraordinary growth in periodical publications during the middle decades of the nineteenth century.2 Adopted by such authors as Poe, Hawthorne and Melville, the sketch played a significant role in the development of a national literary tradition following the seminal publication of Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819-20). Yet the sketch cannot simply be identified with a white, male, middle-class tradition based in New York and New England: sketches, as Hamilton insists, “were published by writers from all sections of the country, of both sexes, and of different social classes” (6).

4It may well be, then, that the sub-title of The Europeans represented an attempt on James’s part to more effectively or distinctively position himself within the literary marketplace. Hamilton certainly argues that the employment of popular literary forms such as the sketch was part of a “refashioning of […] elite masculine subjectivity” during this period (62). But it wasn’t simply a matter of market placement. The richly various characteristics that were evoked in the minds of contemporaries by the idea of the sketch disclosed a number of governing tensions. Hamilton argues that the sketch gave expression to a “struggle for dominance” between “two ways of seeing: one, the detached, ‘sauntering gaze’ and the other, an involved, proximate form of perception” (133). The sketch’s claim to objectivity was counterpoised by its frequent and calculated partiality, its intense subjectivity. Form potentially told against feeling, the private against the public register, domestic loyalties against foreign fascinations. And if the sketch did indeed evoke expectations of immediacy and veracity, a close fidelity to the actual, its artlessness inevitably shaded off into the artful, the factitious rather than the factual. So the sketch didn’t only throw issues of gender, class and region into relief. As a literary form, its very heterogeneity brought to the surface a series of conflicts about the matter and manner of literary representation. In one of Hamilton’s examples, an anonymous contributor writing in an 1847 number of the Voice of Industry (a periodical publication produced by women factory operatives in Lowell, Massachusetts) drew a distinction between “the Romance of Labor” and “the reality.” At this point, Hamilton claims, “the language […] of the urbane sketch writer” suddenly “turned against itself” (99). At the level of genre, Hamilton argues that the sketch offered “a generic label which subsumed […] the essai, the Theophrastian character, the eighteenth-century periodical essay, the bagatelle” (15). Yet, as she implicitly acknowledges, this seemingly open-ended and pluralistic form was cut across by a more definite fracture line as multiplicity gave way to a narrower and more heavily freighted artistic alternative: the “romantic aesthetic” on the one hand, “early realism” on the other (5).

5It’s unlikely that James was entirely aware of this cultural history as he began to write The Europeans. Coming after a ‘study’ (“Daisy Miller”, 1878) and before a ‘portrait’ (The Portrait of a Lady, 1880-81), his ‘sketch’ was part of a personal artistic trajectory. But there’s no doubt that he was making a self-conscious intervention in an established debate. In a March 1877 letter to William Dean Howells, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, James proposed to write a four-number tale to commence serialization the following year. One of the questions at issue between the two writers was that of “‘cheerful endings’.” Howells had voiced reservations about the final chapters of The American. James defended his ending on the grounds of its “inevitability.” A marriage between Mme de Cintré and Newman was “impossible” not only for practical reasons but because, in the end, “we are each the product of circumstances and there are tall stone walls which fatally divide us.” A happy ending, James argued, would have been a “sop to readers who don’t really know the world and who don’t measure the merit of a novel by its correspondence to the same” (Letters II, 104-5). The word isn’t mentioned, but ‘realism’ is definitely in the air, and James’s attention to “correspondence” and “circumstances” is what one would expect from the author of the chapters on Balzac, Flaubert and Turgenev in French Poets and Novelists. But the crucial point in the letter to Howells is that James is proposing to write “a very joyous little romance:” arguably, then, he was returning to Hawthornean models rather than breaking with them.

  • 3  For a similar argument, see Swann 197. For Hamilton’s discussion of the passage from The Marble Fa (...)

6In the late 1870s, as we have seen, the question of the sketch was closely connected to the debate about realism and the French novel. But, as Hamilton suggests, the term possessed another set of credentials. In The Marble Faun (1860), Miriam and Hilda examine a portfolio containing work attributed to Raphael and Leonardo. Hawthorne suggests that such work makes the spectator “more vividly sensible of a great painter’s power, than the final glow and perfected art of the most consummate picture,” and goes on to assert that: “[t]here is an effluence of divinity in the first sketch; and there, if anywhere, you find the pure light of inspiration, which the subsequent toil of the artist serves to bring out in stronger lustre, indeed, but likewise adulterates it with what belongs to an inferiour [sic] mood” (138). The emphasis on artistry and inspiration, as well as the interest in the unfinished and the fragmentary, does indeed belong to the “Romantic aesthetic” invoked by Hamilton.3 In Hawthorne, James repeatedly remarked upon “the absence in Hawthorne of that quality of realism” which could be seen above all in Balzac, Flaubert and Zola (Literary Criticism I, 321). The judgement sounds, and is, a negative one. But it was not exclusively so, in part because James insisted that Hawthorne nevertheless possessed “a high sense of reality” (412). And the fact that Hawthorne was in James’s view entirely innocent of “literary theory” tells at least as much against French realism as against James’s predecessor (321). True, Hawthorne was provincial; he was anything but an intellectual. Yet James encourages us to think that these very deficiencies produced a unique compensatory sensibility: better Hawthorne’s “cat-like” sensorium than “theory” or the “fashion” of realism (394, 321). Even in the very first lines of The Europeans, James is, I think, attempting to re-create something of this “sense of reality.” The “dull, moist snow-fall” which greets Eugenia as she stands at the window of her Boston hotel in the opening lines of the novel is reminiscent of the observer’s rueful response to New England’s climatic shortcomings in Hawthorne’s “Night Sketches,” which James described in his biography as a picture of life in a small New England town “at the end of a long, dull, rainy day” (The Europeans 875; Literary Criticism I, 349). In Hawthorne, the “sombre” scene is “mistily presented through the windows” as the narrator notes both the background “bustle of traffic” and the rain-drops in the foreground as they “patter against my window-panes” (Tales and Sketches 549). Spectator, window, city: the same elements and a similar play between them infuse the opening scene of The Europeans. And when, in the novel’s first line, James describes “[a] narrow grave-yard” located “in the heart of a bustling, indifferent city,” one recalls the opening paragraph of Legends of the Province House, in which Hawthorne’s narrator enters “a small and secluded court-yard” within “the busy heart of modern Boston” (The Europeans 875; Tales and Sketches 626).

7Reading The Europeans in this way obviously depends on selective quotation. But there is, I think, something going on here that has a larger significance than the (in any case unanswerable) question of whether James was thinking of Hawthorne as he drafted his opening scene. The sketch did indeed, as Hamilton argues, project “two ways of seeing,” and the play between involvement and detachment expressed itself in an experiential shuttling between the inner and the outer (rooms and streets articulated in the framed mediation of a window pane), public space and private recess (grave-yards in bustling city centres). In The Europeans, as Eugenia makes her first visit to the Wentworth house, James introduces a further relationship between centre and periphery, the city and the country. She and Felix are travelling in “a great barouche.” The Baroness, leaning far back and swaying her lace-fringed parasol, looked to right and to left and surveyed the way-side objects. After a while she pronounced them “affreux.” Her brother remarked that it was apparently a country in which the foreground was inferior to the plans reculés: and the Baroness rejoined that the landscape seemed to be all foreground (905).

  • 4  I am grateful to Carl Bardsley for his remarks on the connection between these passages.

8Substitute a train for the barouche and there is a curious anticipation here of the scene in which the Marches travel from Boston to New York in William Dean Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889).4 Somewhere beyond New Haven, March draws his wife’s attention to the autumn landscape visible through the windows of the train: “Not quite so loud a pattern of calico this year,” he said, with patronizing forbearance toward the painted woodlands whirling by. “Do you see how the foreground next the train rushes from us and the background keeps abreast of us, while the middle distance seems stationary? I don’t think I ever noticed that effect before. There ought to be something literary in it; retreating past, and advancing future, and deceitfully permanent present — something like that?” (34).

9In The Marble Faun, the sketch intimates the glow and lustre of the completed painting. It represents — stands for, but also conveys — the original, the unique, the transcendent. By the time of A Hazard of New Fortunes, in contrast, the literary sketch has been firmly established as a staple of the magazine industry: Basil March finds sketches of urban “low life” merely “picturesque” whilst Conrad Dryfoos hopes that they will make “the comfortable people understand how the uncomfortable people live” (132). The changing fortunes of the sketch could indeed be used to map a transition from ‘romance’ to ‘realism.’ But such an axis doesn’t really explain James’s insistence on Hawthorne’s “sense of reality.” For James, this consisted in a certain “local and national quality” that was evident in a text like The House of the Seven Gables and could be read “between the lines […] in the indirect testimony of [Hawthorne’s] tone, his accent, his temper, of his very omissions and suppressions.” It was only “a vague correspondence” to a “reminiscence,” but Hawthorne’s reader received an “impression of a summer afternoon in an elm-shadowed New England town.” “The shadows of the elms,” continued James in confessedly “fanciful” terms, “are exceptionally dense and cool; the summer afternoon is peculiarly still and beautiful; the atmosphere has a delicious warmth, and the long daylight seems to pause and rest” (Literary Criticism I, 412-3). Elsewhere in Hawthorne, James’s figures had geological or botanical overtones: Hawthorne’s work prompted images of shallow soil and struggling vegetation. But here the terms are meteorological, a matter of temperature, light and atmosphere. The question is no longer one of genre, of romance or realism, but of “tone”, “temper” and “accent.” The “vague correspondence” apprehended by James had nothing to do with conventional notions of verisimilitude. But it was not that the cable had been severed and reference suspended as that Hawthorne’s prose transmitted something besides its manifest signs, something one read “between the lines” — a stirred association, a felt memory.

10I have been suggesting that the familiar generic axis of romance and realism understates the complexity and sophistication of late nineteenth-century literary critical discourse. Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s objection that James had opened The Europeans by “exhibiting horsecars in the streets nearly ten years before their introduction” sets more flatly literalistic criteria than would be required by even the narrowest exponent of realism on the French model (Dupee 23). Elsewhere, although the reviewers nodded towards France and realism, their terminology had rather a different provenance. Two of the commonest epithets for The Europeans were ‘bright’ and ‘brilliant.’ Such terms — like James’s conception of Hawthorne’s ‘tone’ — lack critical precision. Yet they have an intensity and immediacy, a sensitivity to currents of response that run below articulate meaning, which deserves exploration. A similar register was established when James drew attention to “something cold and light and thin” in Hawthorne’s work, to the “extraordinary blankness” and “paleness of colour” in his journal (Literary Criticism I, 339, 351). We could, perhaps, write this off as another instance of James reaching for the language of affect rather than that of analysis — being “fanciful,” in other words. These sensory analogies nevertheless serve intriguingly to destabilize any notion of the text as the picture-effect of an object-cause, the representation of a prior presence. The “reminiscence” conjured up in The House of the Seven Gables belongs not to Hawthorne but to James and the “initiated reader” (412). In this instance, the text is no longer conceived of as the end point in a sequence mediated by an originating author. It is, rather like the window in the opening scene of The Europeans, a point of transmission, a hinge articulating separate elements. But James is not suggesting merely that content carries over into form as that in some way content is form, matter manner. What one reads “between the lines” in Hawthorne — including the “omissions” — is closely related to the “paucity of ingredients” available at the “local and national” levels (412-3). Yet these omissions aren’t an effect but a primary instance of the lack.

11Such slippages between representation and represented were not simply the flourishes of a writer entering upon his mature phase, for they were also a staple of the common or garden literary criticism of the period. Even Hutton’s suggestion that Felix (who is himself a painter) was admirably “painted” created an odd fold in the textual surface, a resonance between form and content which suggested that a literary character might share certain qualities with the textual medium itself. With something of the same effect, Richard Grant White argued in the North American that the “paleness” of James’s humour extended or repeated itself in the “pale […] asceticism” of the Wentworths (57-8). It was part of the general pallor that James made no provision “for a story even of the slightest kind” (58). And “slightness,” sometimes slightingly applied, was another critical catchword. For Hutton, The Europeans was a “slight novel,” its story of the “thinnest” (49-50). Once again, a judgement at the formal level slipped imperceptibly into an assessment of the novel’s content: the “thin and refined provincialism of Boston society” (50). Admitting that the novel was indeed “‘thin,’ and empty,” even James would concede the “extreme slightness” of The Europeans in response to criticism from his brother William (Letters II, 193). One might say, I suppose, that describing The Europeans as slight and thin because New England culture was slight and thin is about as conceptually satisfactory as saying that the opening chapter of Bleak House is “foggy.” But the terms can be read more richly and suggest, not that the text failed to re-present the world in the fullness of its appearance, thinned it out, sold it short, as that the writing shared with what it represented, forming an integral part of the world even in its etiolation. America was so essentially sketchy that a more ample literary form would inevitably have failed to do it justice.

  • 5  On Howells, William James, the “‘slipperiness’ of vision” and pragmatism, see also Cutrer 261. On (...)
  • 6  March’s later insight into the fact that “we are each several characters” qualifies Trachtenburg’s (...)
  • 7  For a discussion of the relevance of Schivelbusch’s work to the literary history of the sketch, se (...)

12If the folds and slippages I have been describing cannot adequately be thought in terms of a generic opposition between romance and realism, it may be that the question can better be posed as one of period. Attempting to overcome the familiar opposition of realism and modernism, Fredric Jameson suggests in The Cultural Turn that realism “is so fundamentally a part of modernity that it demands description in some of the ways that we have traditionally reserved for modernism itself” (148). If this is the case, James’s sub-title would again be a useful reference point, since for Kristie Hamilton the literary sketch was closely associated, not only with the transition from the “romantic aesthetic” to “early realism” but also with the “fragmenting mobility of early modernity” (8). For Ian Bell, The Europeans traces a “new structuring of desire within a culture of consumption” that produces “peculiarly modern” ways of seeing and thinking (148, 155). In particular, “the opposition of surface and depth” becomes “a reliable index to a limited imagination” (154). James’s insistence on the relational and aspectival isn’t simply a matter of individual perception and identity. For the overall project of The Europeans — “to liberate the reader from novelistic realism,” according to Bell — inevitably casts doubt on the stability of relations between the “representation” and the “real thing” (175, 186). In The Incorporation of America, Alan Trachtenburg suggests along similar lines that the postbellum years challenged any idea that realism involved “faithfulness to the act of seeing” (184).5 For Howells in particular, a commitment to “balanced and proportioned seeing” was in Trachtenburg’s view repeatedly confronted by “unresolved gaps and rifts” so that on occasions “romance” had to be pressed into service in order to preserve “realism” (191-2). Basil March’s conversion of the woodlands into a calico print and of the motion of a train into “something literary” arrests the real in an image, fixes it with a moral. Yet although the aestheticizing formulae of the character cannot simply be attributed to his creator, the degree of Howells’s detachment remains unclear.6 We might well say that Felix and Eugenia’s discussion of the American “foreground” is also aestheticizing and, in a sense, anti-modern. In The Railway Journey, Wolfgang Schivelbusch argues that, because they enable the traveller “to relate to the landscape through which he was moving,” foregrounds have distinctly “pre-industrial” connotations (63). On the point of condemning the “wayside objects” as “affreux” from the comfort of her barouche, Eugenia is hardly “joined […] to the landscape” like Schivelbusch’s pre-modern traveller. Quite the contrary: the New World roadside prompts a remarkably quick and final repudiation of the proximate. And it’s in this sense, I think, that we can associate Eugenia’s point of view with what Schivelbusch calls “panoramic perception,” with a mobility that comes from apprehending the object-world through an apparatus that is itself in motion, like a train, or that is otherwise mediated, as, for instance, by a hotel window (64).7

  • 8  On “knowable community”, see Raymond Williams 165.

13I am not sure, though, that the idea of the modern is equally useful when we turn to matters of form. Take, for example, the opening lines of The Europeans: “A narrow grave-yard in the heart of a bustling, indifferent city, seen from the windows of a gloomy-looking inn, is at no time an object of enlivening suggestion; and the spectacle is not at its best when the mouldy tombstones and funereal umbrage have received the ineffectual refreshment of a dull, moist snow-fall” (875). It’s perfectly true, at the level of content, that the whole passage offers a telling account of modernity in Boston circa 1840. James is demonstrably sensitive to the urban environment, the massing of population, the uniform but isolating nature of consumption. But in order to grasp the loss of “knowable community” as the subject we have to read such a passage as a kind of picture, when in fact its full range of effects involves the ear as much as the eye.8 The familiar tropes of modernity tell us little about the heft of the Jamesian sentence, which at the risk of seeming fanciful seems to me fundamentally to depend on the punctuation and particularly on the deft handling of the semicolon. We again seem to have come round to ‘tone.’ But there is nothing fanciful about The Oxford Manual of Style, which distinguishes five main uses of the semicolon. I am here concerned with the third, which occurs when “clauses are linked by a conjunction.” Here, the Manual stipulates, one can use a semicolon “to impart a greater emphasis to the subsequent clause than either the comma or the conjunction would alone” (Ritter 124). Lynne Truss similarly suggests that the semicolon “tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added.” For Truss, semicolons are about “expectation and elastic energy […] they propel you forward” (114).

14Part of the effect of the semicolons in The Europeans does indeed involve the way in which they point forward. Take, for example, James’s opening description of Eugenia: “she was not pretty; but even when it expressed perplexed irritation her face was most interesting and agreeable” (876). There is “expectation and elastic energy” here. But at this point it is useful to turn to the OED, which suggests along rather different lines that the semicolon is used to separate sentences (or clauses) “the latter of which limits the former.” What the OED picks up, and what the Oxford Manual neglects, is the way in which the semicolon can be used to establish a critical relationship between the parts of the sentence. The semicolon is used for emphasis, but it also establishes a limitation or gap, and in this way it comes to have semantic as well as syntactic importance. In the opening lines of The Europeans, for instance, forward movement is not particularly pronounced. Although the second clause extends and refines the first, James’s semicolon seems to mark a looming deficit in the world it depicts rather than “expectation and elastic energy.” Let me take another example from later in the same paragraph: “The window-panes were battered by the sleet; the head-stones in the grave-yard beneath seemed to be holding themselves askance to keep it out of their faces” (875-6). To replace the first semicolon with a colon would impair the meaning. This is not because the semicolon gives additional emphasis to the second part of the sentence or that it separates two sentences in which, as the OED has it, “the latter […] limits the former.” It is rather that the semicolon points backwards as well as forwards, introducing a regressive movement into the dynamic of the sentence. James invites the reader to read against the grain, to speculate on the relation between the graveyard and the inn and, by extension, between the occupants of these respective locations. The passage continues as follows: “A tall iron railing protected them from the street, and on the other side of the railing an assemblage of Bostonians were trampling about in the liquid snow. Many of them were looking up and down; they appeared to be waiting for something” (876). Replacing the semicolon in the second sentence with a colon would again damage meaning, partly because the movement of the sentence is not forwards from cause to effect but backwards from effect to cause: the Bostonians look up and down (effect) because they are waiting. But the main reason a colon wouldn’t work as well here is that the critical capacity latent in the semicolon gives James’s sentence an ironic dimension. “Many of them were looking up and down; they appeared to be waiting for something.” A colon would flatten the irony, which, though James was not, of course, familiar with the conventions of text messaging, seems planted in the middle of the sentence like the subtlest of winks.

  • 9  In his “Epilegomena to Mimesis,” Auerbach later spoke of the “one-sidedness” of this account (559)

15The suggestion in The Cultural Turn that realism could be subsumed by the more general question of modernity indicates a dissatisfaction that Jameson had earlier expressed in The Political Unconscious, where he argued that modernist and postmodernist approaches to literary texts tended to “construct a straw man or inessential term — variously called the ‘readerly’ or the ‘realistic’ or the ‘referential’ text — over against which the essential term — the ‘writerly’ or modernist or ‘open’ text, écriture or textual productivity — is defined and with which it is seen as a decisive break” (2). I suspect that it is these later models that produce whatever surprise we may experience on realizing that critical discourse in the 1870s was hardly referential and in some ways offered distinctly ‘early’ anticipations of ‘later’ positions. Realism as modernism, then? On the face of it there doesn’t seem any problem with the idea that the Jamesian semicolon is a local instance of an ‘openness’ that might well be seen in terms of the modern. Critics such as Edward F. Mooney have recently situated James’s work in the context of a modernity glossed in terms of “an awareness of the difficulty of knowing one’s own wishes” and of “the disturbing recognition that insight, wisdom, or reconciliation come only partially and too late” (333). In Homer, the return of Odysseus brings about timely knowledge. But in James, by contrast, “the ceremonies of mutual recognition are much more subtle, problematic, and fragile, for they do not confirm established identities but attempt to articulate uncertain identities whose shape is tentative, underway, in transit.” In Homer, it’s all there: we’re told all we need to know. But in James, “there is a recurrent fear […] of a void, a ‘black hole’ devouring all meaning” (340). It is, Mooney concludes, “as if we are stained by a primordial fault or fissure in our being” (342). The Homeric example provides striking evidence of the persisting influence of Erich Auerbach, who begins Mimesis with an account of the “clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated” world of the Odyssey (3). Well before theory’s attack on realism, Auerbach delivered an extended critique of simple reference. For him, the landmark texts of Western literature didn’t set out to present faithful pictures of some external reality. In the Christian tradition which for Auerbach represented the beginning of European humanism and of historicism, the shadowless landscape of Homer gave way to a very different terrain, one in which the emphasis fell more on epistemology than ontology, more on knowledge — or rather, its absence — than on vision. Where were the two speakers in the account of the sacrifice of Isaac? “We are not told.” From where did God call to Abraham? Again, “we are not told.” And where was Abraham? Once more, “we do not know” (8). Here, both “representation” and “reality” — the operative terms in Auerbach’s sub-title — lack the qualities of visibility and externality that he found in the Odyssey, and the absence (absence itself, perhaps) defines the tradition described in Mimesis.9

  • 10  On modernity and ‘blindspots,’ see Bull 32-3. See also Sorenson.

16In a review of the fiftieth anniversary edition of Mimesis, Terry Eagleton discusses the limits of “representationalism” and doubts whether “the self can be captured within its own view of the world, any more than the eye can be an object in its own field of vision.” The “human subject,” Eagleton suggests, is a “blindspot at the centre of the picture” (17).10 In spite of so general a narrative predicament (realism collapsing into modernism collapsing into some even vaster representational black hole) we can’t simply identify the silences of Biblical mimesis with modernist ‘openness.’ But although this doesn’t solve the problem of the break, Eagleton’s notion of a ‘blindspot’ is strikingly appropriate. As he projected his planned “romance” to Howells, James promised his editor a “sun-spot” so bright it would “put your readers [sic] eyes out” (Letters II, 105).

  • 11  I am grateful to Peter Rawlings for drawing my attention to these passages.
  • 12  See Ward 128, Bell 162-3.

17The idea that Jamesian representation depends upon constitutive absences is in itself hardly new. The reviewers of The Europeans had no difficulty in recognizing that the effect of a literary sketch depended on what it left out. For White, The Europeans brought to mind “some of those very clever things of which so many are done by French painters: a mere outline, with a dot or a line suggestive of light and shade set here and there, and then filled with colour very faintly washed in” (Gard 59). For Constance Fenimore Woolson too, the strength of The Europeans lay in what wasn’t there: James’s characters did “nothing at all” and what remained were “mere hints” as to “reasons, motives, and causes” (66). As we have seen, James’s own literary criticism was informed by a richly various lexicon of non-being: Hawthorne was defined by the “vacancy” of his “field of vision.” The whole effect of a work like The House of the Seven Gables depended on reading “between the lines” (Literary Criticism I, 352, 412). Of the “process of adumbration” in “The Turn of the Screw”, James wrote that his “values” were “all blanks” (1187-8). Are the figures seen by the governess at Bly ghosts or hallucinations? We are not told. What took place between Merton Densher and Milly Theale in the days before the latter’s death? Again, we are not told. And what is the article manufactured in Woollett? Once more, we do not know. These are rudimentary ‘blindspots’ — minor informational lacunae that do little to problematize the ‘centre’ in ‘centre of consciousness’ or the ‘point’ in the ‘point of view.’ But they indicate a quality of James’s work that is a unifying theme for contemporary critics. From Todorov’s claim that “Jamesian narrative is always based on the quest for an absolute and absent cause” (The Poetics of Prose 145) to Mooney’s sense of a “‘black hole’” (340), James’s critics seem mainly (and with numberless individual variations) to be talking about something that isn’t there. I may seem, then, to be repeating a familiar tale. But I want to pursue the point about tone because I think it sheds new light on the familiar tropes of modernity. In the Preface to The Golden Bowl, James insisted that, when it came to producing a “play of representational values,” not even the “humblest question involved, even to that of a shade of a cadence or the position of a comma, is not richly pertinent” (Literary Criticism II, 1338). In 1914, he would claim in an interview that “a fine sense for the semicolon, like any sense at all for the pluperfect tense and the subjunctive mood, on which the whole perspective in a sentence may depend” was “anything but common” (Walker 142).11 Here the semicolon seems as pre-modern as Schivelbusch’s disappearing foreground: without it, for James at least, there’s no perspective, no finer sense. And if we shift to the structural level, The Europeans seems again to set its face against the modern. In the letter to Howells, having identified “tragedies” as his preferred subject, James went on to introduce terms drawn from comedy and pastoral. The novel itself made repeated references to a lexicon drawn from fairy tales and the Arabian Nights.12 But the “idyll,” as Tanner rightly notes, is accompanied by “darkness” and Eugenia’s fate in particular casts “something of a shadow” over the closing chapters (10). Hutton was quite right when he described The Europeans as a “grave little comedy” (Gard 51). Even in the opening scene, the “narrow grave-yard” and the “mouldy tombstones and funereal umbrage” intimate mortality, and the mirror in Eugenia’s room is surely redolent of some seventeenth-century Vanitas painting. Eugenia’s preoccupation with the “multifold braids of her hair” suggests that she is reluctant to read the message in the mirror, an inference confirmed by her imaginative translation of the Boston horsecar into a “life-boat” or “life-car” (875-6). Although Eugenia, as James informs us, “hated to be reminded of death,” Robert Acton’s failing mother provides a particularly insistent memento mori (1011). At the start of Chapter 10 in particular, and having been for some time, as Henley aptly puts it, “relegated to the background” (Gard 64), Eugenia finds mortality forcing itself into the foreground: on this particular Sunday morning of which I began with speaking she stood at the window of her little drawing-room, watching the long arm of a rose-tree that was attached to her piazza, but a portion of which had disengaged itself, sway to and fro, shake and gesticulate, against the dusky drizzle of the sky. Every now and then, in a gust of wind, the rose-tree scattered a shower of water-drops against the window-pane; it appeared to have a kind of human movement — a menacing, warning intention (995). Shortly after this passage, America is said to present itself to Eugenia as “a smooth straight wall of rock” (996). She has not, it would seem, caught the “life-car”. My point is not only that the scene in the drawing-room is linked to the opening scene — linked by the atmospheric connection between autumn rain and the sleet of May and still more by the posted presence of Eugenia at a window — as that both passages depend for their effect on something like allegory. In Hawthorne, James would be dismissive of this mode, describing it as “quite one of the lighter exercises of the imagination” (Literary Criticism I, 366). But, when, five months after the letter to Howells and some ten months before he completed the manuscript of The Europeans, James described his reaction to George Frederick Watts’s “Love and Death” in a Galaxy article on “The Picture Season in London”, he took a somewhat different line: “Love and Death” is an allegory, an uncomfortable thing in painting; but Mr. Watts’ allegory is eminently pictorial. On a large canvas a white draped figure, with its back to the spectator, and with a sinister sweep of garment and gesture, prepares to pass across a threshold where, beside a rosebush that has shed its flowers, a boy figure of love staggers forth, and, with head and body reverted in entreaty, tries in vain to bar its entrance. The picture has a certain graceful impressiveness, and the painter has rendered with peculiar success the air of majestic fatality in the pale image which shows no features (The Painter’s Eye 142).

  • 13  The idea of a Watts influence seems unlikely given James’s comments elsewhere: in 1879 he describe (...)

18In spite of the iconographic similarities, I’m not insisting that Watts’s painting was in James’s mind as he drafted the final chapters of The Europeans.13 Even if he was thinking of “Love and Death,” the reassembled pieces of the allegory fail to add up. One might have expected Felix, whose “amatory powers,” as James told Howells, are “boundless” (Letters II, 106), to have some connection with the “boy figure.” Yet Felix’s subsequent and tacit refusal to carry out Eugenia’s equally tacit request “to assist her by all honourable means to marry the best fellow in the world” (1000) — and James’s narrator makes an unusually overt appearance to establish this point — rather makes it seem that it’s Felix who takes on the form of a rose­tree, that he plays Death to Eugenia’s “figure of love.” In that it echoes the opening of the novel, the drawing room scene has a clear structural importance. But the reprise only confronts us, as Poirier puts it, with “ironic allegory,” an allegory that draws attention to correspondences only to play permutations upon them that deepen the effect whilst suspending final reference (144).

  • 14  On the relation between irony and modernism, see also Colebrook 68, 165.
  • 15  I am grateful to Ian Bell for drawing my attention to this passage.

19At one level, with its extensive internal discourse of irony, The Europeans looks like a textbook case of “stable” irony, which depends on verbal, intended and finite meanings (Booth 5). But the scene in the drawing-room is non-verbal and non-finite; it involves isolation and fatality rather than Wayne Booth’s “amiable communities” (28). Even if stable irony is as fragile, as prone to deconstruction, as the realist claim to reference, the strategy of “representing and pointing to the limits of […] representation in the same gesture” remains, as Eagleton notes, characteristic of the way in which modernism works with the blindspot through irony (17).14 Yet, in Jameson’s hands at least, the recuperation of realism within modernism carries with it a distinctive set of spatio-temporal assumptions. We can see these at work as early as Marxism and Form, where Jameson discusses the “absent center” created by fictionalised artworks in novels about artists. “[T]his emptiness of the work within a work,” he writes, “this blank canvas at the center, is the very locus of the not-yet-existent itself; and it is precisely this essentially fragmentary and aesthetically unsatisfying structure […] which gives it its ontological value as a form and figure of the movement of the future incomplete before us (132).15

20This passage could be set beside the thumbnail of Mimesis in The Cultural Turn: The adventures of syntax down the ages, from Homer to Proust, is the deeper narrative of Mimesis: the gradual unlimbering of hierarchical sentence structure, and the differential evolution of the incidental clauses of the new sentence in such a way that each can now register a hitherto unperceived local complexity of the Real — this is the great narrative and teleological thread of Auerbach’s history (147).

21Surveying the grand transition from the divine to the human in narrative and history, Jameson sets the scene for a more narrowly periodized realism based on the revelation of “local complexity” and a modernism which is, presumably, the final form of syntactical “unlimbering.” Yet this is a historiography of the line and the break, as unidirectional in its way as Basil March’s attempt to resolve the movement of the train into “retreating past, and advancing future, and deceitfully permanent present” (A Hazard 34). In this context, and in an admittedly oblique way, The Europeans gives us a useful angle on some contemporary theoretical dilemmas. Nobody would expect James to share Jameson’s sense of the “form and figure of the movement of the future.” Yet even with a properly problematized conception of realism we might reasonably expect to see something of the “local complexity of the Real.” If we turn to Benedict Anderson’s attempt to reconstruct Auerbach’s account of the replacement of a providential order by humanist historicism, however, this “teleological thread” doesn’t seem to emerge. For Anderson, the shift takes place above all in the sense of time, the decline of a medieval sense of “simultaneity-along-time” and the rise of a horizontal conception of temporality in which “simultaneity is […] transverse, cross-time, marked not by prefiguring and fulfilment, but by temporal coincidence, and measured by clock and calendar.” For Anderson, horizontal time is closely associated with the rise of realism, in which, as he puts it, the novel becomes “a complex gloss upon the word “meanwhile” (Imagined Communities 24-5).

22Anderson’s ‘meanwhile’ is clearly evident in Howells. In A Hazard of New Fortunes, for example, seeing lovers on the benches on Washington Square, March has the sense that “at the same hour the same thing was going on all over the country” (269). By contrast the narrower frame of The Europeans does indeed, as Richard Poirier puts it, exclude “contingent life” (98). This may well in part be the result of the difference between a sketch like The Europeans and a novel in which the sketch is only one among a number of themes such as Hazard, and more generally between ‘thin’ and ‘full’ narratives. But in the Howells example, the ‘meanwhile’ feeling seems if anything to belong to what Trachtenburg sees as the attempt to romance the real, acting, at least for March, as a reassuring sign of stability. There isn’t the same kind of certainty in The Europeans, which, if it isn’t too grand a way of putting it, doesn’t seem to share the positivist historical assumptions of an Anderson or a Jameson (both of whom seem to me to neglect Auerbach’s troubled sense that, somewhere between Balzac, whose “atmospheric realism” didn’t yet amount to a fully humanist historicism, and Woolf’s “fragmented omnitemporality,” the mimetic project lost its way (Mimesis 472, 545). There is not one “absent center” in The Europeans, and there is no promise of future fulfilment. The novel’s ‘lightness,’ its ‘brightness’ and its ‘thinness,’ its synaesthetic folds and autologous slippages, cannot be identified with a single, unrepresentable contradiction. Both at the lexical and structural levels, the movement of meaning seems to flow backwards rather than forwards. James’s temporal register seems vertical rather than horizontal, but it is less a matter of prefiguration and more that of the “reversal that takes place in time” which for Muecke characterizes post-Romantic irony (21). Along with Strother B. Purdy, Peter Rawlings has done much to reveal the intellectual context for the “dislocation of linear, uni-directional concepts of time” in James, and Rawlings’s sense of the “power of a burgeoning anteriority” in post-Civil War America is clearly relevant here (Rawlings 277, 273). But, like Mooney’s sense of “the temporal fissures of our finitude,” this seems to take us back to the familiar problems attendant on a periodizing concept such as that of modernity. I am in danger of ending by stating the obvious, which is, I suppose, that all narratives — narrative itself — has something sketchy about it. But I want instead to close by suggesting that the distinctive achievement of The Europeans (and possibly of James’s writing generally) consists, not in presenting pictures (sketchy or otherwise) but in establishing certain tones and rhythms. Like the folded allegorical undertones and those winking, backward-glancing semicolons, James’s uncommon sense of “the pluperfect tense and the subjunctive mood” turns his narratives away from becoming, from the perfective movement towards completion or transformation, and towards that which is done and can no longer be changed. Like Christopher Newman, Eugenia’s imaginative demands upon the world are inevitably limited by the “tall stone walls” of circumstance. In this sense at least, the sunspots and blindspots in James’s “joyous little romance” were perfectly consistent with realism.

Haut de page


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. by Willard R. Trask, intro. by Edward Said. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003 [1953].

Bell, Ian F.A. Henry James and the Past: Readings into Time. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991.

Booth, Wayne C. A Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1974.

Brooks, Peter. Realist Vision. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Bull, Malcolm. Seeing Things Hidden: Apocalypse, Vision and Totality. London: Verso, 1999.

Colebrook, Claire. Irony in the Work of Philosophy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Cutrer, Emily Fourmy. “A Pragmatic Mode of Seeing: James, Howells, and the Politics of Vision,” in American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, ed. By David C. Miller. New Haven: Yale, 1993. 259-75.

Dupee, F.W., ed. The Question of Henry James. London: Wingate, 1947.

Eagleton, Terry. “Pork Chops and Pineapples,” London Review of Books, 23 October 2003, 17-19.

Eliot, George. Adam Bede, ed. by Stephen Gill. London: Penguin, 1980.

Fineman, Joel. The Subjectivity Effect: Essays toward the Release of Shakespeare’s Will. Cambridge: MIT, 1991.

Gard, Roger, ed. Henry James: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1968.

Hamilton, Kristie. America’s Sketchbook: The Cultural Life of a Nineteenth-Century Literary Genre. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Tales and Sketches, A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys, ed. by Roy Harvey Pearce. New York: Library of America, 1982.

——. The Marble Faun; Or, The Romance of Monte Beni, ed. by Richard H. Brodhead, London: Penguin, 1990.

Hayes, Kevin J., ed., Henry James: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Howells, William Dean, A Hazard of New Fortunes, ed. by Phillip Lopate. London: Penguin, 2001.

James, Henry. The Europeans, in Novels 1871-1880, ed. By William T. Stafford. New York: Library of America, 1983. 875-1038.

——. Letters. II. Leon Edel, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1975.

——. Literary Criticism, I (Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers), Leon Edel and Mark Wilson, eds. New York: Library of America, 1984).

——. Literary Criticism, II (French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition), Leon Edel and Mark Wilson, eds. New York: Library of America, 1984.

—— . The Painter’s Eye: Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts, John L. Sweeney, ed. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1956.

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

——. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London: Routledge, 2002 [1981].

——. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. London: Verso, 1998.

Mooney, Edward F. “What Has Hegel to Do with Henry James? Acknowledgment, Dependence, and Having a Life of One’s Own,” Inquiry 45. 2002. 331-50.

Muecke, D.C. Irony. London: Methuen, 1970.

Poirier, Richard. The Comic Sense of Henry James: A Study of the Early Novels. London: Chatto, 1967.

Purdy, Strother B. The Hole in the Fabric: Science, Contemporary Literature, and Henry James. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

Rawlings, Peter. “Grammars of Time in Late James,” Modern Language Review 98 (2003), 273-84.

Ritter, R.M. ed. The Oxford Manual of Style. London: BCA, 2002.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. Leamington Spa: Berg, 1986 [1977].

Sorenson, Roy A. Blindspots. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

Swann, Charles. Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tradition and Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Tanner, Tony. Introduction to The Europeans. London: Penguin, 1984. 7-29.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Trachtenburg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Truss, Lynne, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. London: Profile, 2003.

Walker, Pierre A., ed. “James’s First Interview,” in Henry James on Culture: Collected Essays on Politics and the American Scene. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. 138-45.

Ward, J.A. “The Europeans and the Structure of Comedy,” in Henry James: Modern Judgements, ed. By Tony Tanner. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Williams, Ioan, ed. Sir Walter Scott on Novelists and Fiction. London: Routledge, 1968.

Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. London: Chatto, 1961.

Haut de page


1  In 1827, Sir Walter Scott compared the writing of Defoe to Flemish painting “where, though the subjects drawn are mean and disagreeable […] yet the skill with which they are represented by the painter gives an interest to the imitation upon canvass which the original entirely wants” (Ioan Williams 179). Taking up the comparison in Adam Bede (1859), George Eliot referred to the “quality of truthfulness […] in many Dutch paintings,” finding “a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence” (223).

2  I am grateful to John Fagg for drawing my attention to Hamilton’s work.

3  For a similar argument, see Swann 197. For Hamilton’s discussion of the passage from The Marble Faun, see America’s Sketchbook, 3-4.

4  I am grateful to Carl Bardsley for his remarks on the connection between these passages.

5  On Howells, William James, the “‘slipperiness’ of vision” and pragmatism, see also Cutrer 261. On realism and vision, see Brooks.

6  March’s later insight into the fact that “we are each several characters” qualifies Trachtenburg’s sense that Howells remained committed to the stabilities of realism (A Hazard 440). The emergence of a distinctively modern and plural sense of personal identity is also evident in Howells’s portrayal of Beaton’s “other selves” and in his reference to the “duplex action” of Fulkerson’s mind (112, 334). On March becoming “a pragmatic seer”, see Cutrer 265.

7  For a discussion of the relevance of Schivelbusch’s work to the literary history of the sketch, see Hamilton 135-40.

8  On “knowable community”, see Raymond Williams 165.

9  In his “Epilegomena to Mimesis,” Auerbach later spoke of the “one-sidedness” of this account (559).

10  On modernity and ‘blindspots,’ see Bull 32-3. See also Sorenson.

11  I am grateful to Peter Rawlings for drawing my attention to these passages.

12  See Ward 128, Bell 162-3.

13  The idea of a Watts influence seems unlikely given James’s comments elsewhere: in 1879 he described Watts’s allegories as “too big and mystical” (The Painter’s Eye 164). In 1897, they were “mostly interesting […] as a fresh memento that nothing in a work of art can take the place of representation” (244).

14  On the relation between irony and modernism, see also Colebrook 68, 165.

15  I am grateful to Ian Bell for drawing my attention to this passage.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

T. J. LUSTIG, « Sunspots and Blindspots in The Europeans », E-rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, document 1, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.538

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals