Henry James and the Fin de Siècle [article]

Lee Clark Mitchell, Universitätsbibliothek Der FU Berlin, Universitätsbibliothek Der FU Berlin
Henry James and the Fin de Siecle Literature, as well as criticism--the difference between them being delusive--is condemned (privileged) to be forever the most rigorous and, consequently, the most unreliable language in terms of which man names and transforms himself .1 All but exactly a century ago, on January 5th, 1895, Henry James finally made his London theater debut. The story of that terrible disaster has been frequently told: how he labored intensely for five years, writing scripts that
more » ... repeatedly failed to find a producer, until he finally succeeded with Guy Domville, a costume drama set in eighteenth-century England. James was so nervous on opening night that he went instead to see a performance of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband before returning to his own premiere just as it was ending. Mischievously? foolishly?-we will never know for sure--the actor-manager invited the author onstage, where James endured (in his own words) for "an abominable quarter of an hour . . the hoots and jeers and catcalls of the roughs, whose roars (like those of a cage of beasts at some infernal 'zoo') were only exacerbated (as it were) by the conflict." The play was not very good. Toward the end of the last act, the hero asserts "1 am, sir, the last of the Domvilles," to which a voice in the gallery supposedly retorted, "And it's a bloody good thing y'are." 2 Yet remarkably, on the very next day James "vibrated with the sense of liberation, and he began to enjoy, physically and intellectually, a freedom which had hitherto been foreign to his 2 nature. "3 Moving to Rye, he began writing narratives unlike anything he had ventured before, "scenie" and "dramatic" fictions that would lead to his great late masterpieces. He had discovered, that is, in the shambles of his playwriting interlude the key to the kind of writing that would transform hirn from an accomplished author into America's most important novelist. I open with this anecdote because literary studies faces a similar problem at this fin de siecle, finding its audience a bit rambunctious, coming to an end and needing to know where to go next. The transition may not be as dramatic as James's, but there is a developing uneasiness with directions that literary study has recently taken. Two decades ago, dissatisfaction with the "linguistic turn" of' structuralism and post-structuralism-with the disembodied study of language free of historicalor social context--Ied to aseries of critical movements concerned to show how literature is always political. And in politically charged times, that was a truth weIl worth recovering. In particular, Foucault and Geertz inspired the rise of New Historicism, whose salutary effect was to show how fully literature is inflected not only by issues of economics, philosophy, law, anthropology, and so on, but by the particular structures themselves characteristic of these disciplines. Literature, like any other cultural practice, produces hierarchies that structure personal identity, whether through race, class, gender, or other social oppositions. And through the past decade, an extraordinary range
doi:10.17169/refubium-21725 fatcat:nodni2poqjg7hbpq6lbs3effae