The Comic Sense of Henry James: A Study of the Early Novels

The Comic Sense of Henry James: A Study of the Early Novels

The Comic Sense of Henry James: A Study of the Early Novels

The Comic Sense of Henry James: A Study of the Early Novels

Excerpt

The extraordinary amount of published criticism on the works of Henry James does not encourage the idea that the element of comedy in his novels is either strong or pervasive, and even those few who allude to it do not claim that the examples they have noticed, except possibly in The American, make any very significant sense. This book is meant to show how attention to comic expression in James's early novels can, in fact, lead us through the language to his most vitally personal meanings. Such a process ultimately allows us to recreate from qualities of his style some of the psychological identity of the author, particularly in the best of the early novels, The Portrait of a Lady.

When encouragement was needed that the emphasis on comedy was worth-while, it was most generously given by Douglas Bush and Kenneth B. Murdock, who were the first to read the manuscript. Albert Guerard, Jr., and Robert O'Clair made useful suggestions about style and organization, and David R. Ferry first confirmed my sense that certain oddities of expression in James were comic in their intention. To Alice Cooper and William R. Taylor, to Robert Garis, Joseph Pequigney, and William Abrahams, I am indebted for honest and amiable criticisms, and to Thomas B. Whitbread, Robert W. Coles, and my brother Philip Poirier for helping in various and kindly ways.

Criticism assumes that the questions one asks are meaningful to others, and for a sense of this I relied on those just mentioned, and on others, particularly Reuben Brower, who formed the image of an audience at once humbling and encouraging. And yet, a critical account such as this is an extremely personal undertaking. So much so that to write on a particular novelist, especially on one who was so conscious of his art as Henry James, is to feel that the necessary revelations about one's habits of response and standards of judgment are as much a part of the subject as are the novels themselves. This feeling is likely to occur at a time like the present when the criticism of fiction, particularly of American fiction, reflects in so few cases the kind of critical intelligence exemplified by James himself. In place of it we find, most frequently in the academic environment, a tendency to read novels the way Aladdin rubbed his lamp. A bit of pressure at a pre-selected point brings forth a not unfamiliar djinn -- a cultural or psychological motif, romanticism or some other ism, an 'organic whole' into which everything can be dropped (and lost), or one of a number of depend-

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