Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Grotesque Encounters in the Travel Writing of Henry James

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Grotesque Encounters in the Travel Writing of Henry James

Article excerpt


This essay examines the question of why Henry James was so addicted to the use of the word 'picturesque', especially in Italian Hours, at a time when elsewhere it was regarded as an overworked, commercial mode of conceptualization. James exploited, it is argued, the unstable boundary between the 'grotesque' and the 'picturesque' (as did Edgar Allan Poe) found in the late eighteeth-century writings of William Gilpin, Uvedale Price, and others, partly for homoerotic purposes. In Italian Hours, Ruskin's abhorrence of the 'low picturesque' is directly attacked as James revels in the erotic potential of ruin, decay, and mutilation, and that 'interchange and intorientation', as identified by Bakhtin, made possible by carnival.


'If the pure picturesque', wrote James in 1870 after visiting Lake George, 'means simply the presentation of a picture, self-informed and complete, I have seen nothing in Italy or England which better deserves the praise.' (1) Evacuated senses of the picturesque abound in James's travel writing, but recuperated and exploited in the process are a complex genealogy, and darker, less determinate, reaches. Three years later, in 'Summer in France', reflecting on the 'considerable stretch of duskiness and crookedness', James identifies himself as a 'sentimental tourist' who 'does not care if his favourite adjective happens to imply another element which also is spelled with a p. It is nothing to him that the picturesque is pestiferous'. (2) James revels in the palpable sense of history on offer in mouldering structures and decrepit indigents, especially when situated in realms of the liminal, in twilight zones and on borders of all kinds; his heaviest investment, however, is in the carnal possibilities and contingent senses of self thereby released.

Elements of the picturesque, overlaid with the tawdry protections of the discourse of tourism, circulated in ways barely effable for James within erotic economies whose contours were very much those of Italy and southern Europe. Though the material for James's mobilizations of the picturesque was frequently Italian, or scenes with Italian or southern European inflections at least, its tendency to fold into the grotesque, or the arabesque, was in part distinctively American. (3) By adopting formulas of the picturesque (over-deployed, as James well knew, to the point of banality long before the 1870s), James located both an apparently innocuous code for the oblique expression of furtive desires and transgressive senses of the self and an arena for corresponding performances, or for their rehearsal at least. Frequently, the picturesque mise-en-scene is one of carnival, with its alluring miscegenations and its potential, as Bakhtin argued, for the defining characteristics of the grotesque: 'exaggeration, hyperbolism, and excessiveness', forms of 'interchange and interorientation', and the 'drama' of the 'grotesque body'. (4)

Martin Price has constructed four aspects of 'picturesque theory': the 'appeal to the principles of composition to be found in landscape painting', 'the application of principles of perception to the creation of landscape and architectural design', the 'dissociation of visual, pictorial, or generally aesthetic elements from other values in contemplating a scene', and the 'recognition of the value of roughness and complexity'. (5) Variably important as these are for any consideration of James's travel writing, the 'value of roughness and complexity' is at the troubled centre. In the fractures, silences, and frequently bizarre moves of James's travelogues and attendant meditations, and in their reach for the grotesque, there are registrations of the thin partitions between the strange and the illicit, the perverse and the perverted, the attractively picturesque and the erotically desirable. Retrieved by James is the original and ultimate inseparability of the picturesque and the grotesque, what Malcolm Andrews has called the 'semantically protean existence' of the former and Frederick Burwick the 'subversive element' of the latter, with its indulgence in the 'fantastically distorted and ugly', and its association with the homosexual and homoerotic in works such as Denis Diderot's La Religieuse (1769). …

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