The Language of a Master: Theories of Style and the Late Writing of Henry James

The Language of a Master: Theories of Style and the Late Writing of Henry James

The Language of a Master: Theories of Style and the Late Writing of Henry James

The Language of a Master: Theories of Style and the Late Writing of Henry James


Smit addresses the abstraction and complexity of Henry James' late style through three basic critical approaches: style as identification, as expression, and as imitation.

Those critics who focus on James' style as identification are concerned with the unique or distinctive elements of his prose. Smit argues that the basis for choosing these features is subjective. The features studied are not evenly distributed in James' work, and at the level of most literary analysis the perception of the style varies from one reading to the next.

Style as expression stresses the aesthetic quality or personality of the writer. Smit compares five kinds of writing James produced during the winter of 1899- 1900 and shows that the variety of his writing cannot be correlated with any specific expression of personality.

Smit surveys the Jamesian devices for representing mental activity and concludes that they are independent of his style. The most convincing explanation for James' style is psychological. As a shy man, James developed a way of talking that kept people at a distance, and this carried over into his writing.


The past ten or fifteen years have not been easy ones for those interested in stylistics. From its inception, the discipline, if that is not too grand a term for it, has had its critics, of course, many of whom played variations on René Wellek's observations at the close of the 1958 Indiana Conference on Style that "literary style is to my mind not exhausted by linguistic analysis: it needs analysis in terms of the aesthetic effects toward which it is aiming" and "the danger of linguistic stylistics is its focus on deviations from, and distortions of, the linguistic norm. We get a kind of countergrammar, a science of discards" (p. 417). But these early criticisms suggested their own solutions: one could concentrate less on deviations and more on the recurrent and normal, and one could complement linguistic description with aesthetic analysis. When Jonathan Culler demonstrated, in a detailed consideration of Roman Jakobson's poetic analyses, that linguistic analysis of a text would not uncover its significant patterns and thus could not provide a discovery procedure for stylistics (pp. 55-74), it was still possible to hope that a redirection of the field would solve the problem. Thus Roger Fowler, in Linguistics, Stylistics; Criticism? proposed that "the description itself must be purposeful" (p. 154) and. M. A. K. Halliday demonstrated how such a purposeful description could be achieved by using a functional grammar in Linguistic Function and Literary Style: An Inquiry into the Language of William Golding's 'The Inheritors'. Even when Stanley Fish argued, using Halliday as a prime example, that "the absence of any constraint on the way in which one moves from description to interpretation" leads to "the result that any interpretation one puts forward is arbitrary" (pp. 72-73), it was possible to counter the objection by incorporating the reader as an entity whose reactions were guided by (nonarbitrary) linguistic and literary competences, a tack reflected in Jonathan Culler's . . .

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