Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Levels of Disclosure: Voices and People in Henry James's Italian Hours

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Levels of Disclosure: Voices and People in Henry James's Italian Hours

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The formal subject matter of James's Italian Hours encompasses the great names of art and history and the details of a familiar topography. But the reflective voice which emerges within the text identifies living faces in a crowd, individuals observed, friends preserved in anonymity, insights reaching towards narrative completion. Levels of intimacy range from the most cheerfully impersonal--the humorous American deliberately New World values, to a more veiled treatment of relations and friends whose rooms and villas surrender the detail of their own lives. The most revealing half-spoken longings for strangers, handsome and anonymous, reveal a James whose strength of desire is betrayed by a more searching and intuitive register often at odds with the more self-conscious urbanity of the professional essayist.

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The single-volume unity of Italian Hours contains in reality a mixed collection of essays spanning much of James's writing life. Many pieces were printed between 1870 and 1874, before any of the important fiction, others are of the 1880s and the later additions for the 1909 volume are sustained by the interpretative complexities, the evaluating personality of the observer. In fact the unifying impetus for the reader lies in constructing the voice of that often idiosyncratic and highly informed aesthetic judgement. The sequence of essays follows no chronology and even the geographical ordering--much dwelling upon Venice and a movement southwards as far as Naples with a return to Tuscany--is (unlike Goethe's Italienische Reise) arbitrary. Thus are compacted and ordered the impressions of fourteen visits to Italy gathered across a lifetime.

In a process that is simply not available in the fiction, James assumes a number of voices, one self-conscious and reflective of an awareness of a public assumed through trivial but gratifying assertions, another evoking membership of a socially exclusive elite, distinguished by position and privilege and echoing with celebrated historical names and memories. And finally there is the observer of human beauty suggesting a longing that could, if recognized, be only heterosexually modified and was, in any case, more likely to be sublimated into a desire for place rather than people. In such moments of semi-disclosure the authority of shared assumptions and history is lost. Everything is individual, private yet unswervingly coherent.

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If the tones of this last, most private speaker are tentative, even abject, the contrasting voice that reinforces norms speaks directly to a specific, known audience, an America represented by the predominantly liberal and New England readers of the New York Nation and the Atlantic Monthly. James was familiar to the Nation subscribers who would have known his sketches of American life in Rhode Island, Vermont, and New York as well as Canada. W. D. Howells requested similar material for the Boston Atlantic Monthly and would later publish Roderick Hudson in serial form in 1875. James was writing for those who, if they had not visited Europe, might conceivably do so: his fellow Americans, it might not need saying, if James had not later detached himself from this tradition. There is an identity established in these pages, constructed on public items of experience (as well as a more subjective discourse), neither strident nor naive, often contained within a rhetorical flourish in an arch, self-deprecatory, even paternalistic way. Quincy Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts was still home for the young writer, however reluctant his residency and there was no reason why he should not have become a 'Boston man of letters'. (1)

This referential framework is absent from the short stories of these years. In the freer half-narrative, half-speculative discourse of Italian Hours American place-names offer some secure, confirming hold for the reader and they suggest James's continuingly (for the time) 'new-world eyes'. …

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