Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

More Than a Line: The Unmistakable Impression of Significance and the Dashes of Henry James

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

More Than a Line: The Unmistakable Impression of Significance and the Dashes of Henry James

Article excerpt

Henry James's authorial signature clearly is bound to the undecidability in the stylistics of his published prose. His personal notebooks, however, reveal that the horizontal line (in the form of dashes and underlining) is how this former visual artist notes (to himself) what is significant in his private texts. Using a passage from his notebooks and several from his published works, this essay explores how James uses the visual line to generate otherwise unspeakable significance in both his private notes and in the works he intended for publication. We begin with a modest note that will eventually become "The Jolly Corner":(1)

Rome, Hotel d'Europe, May 16th. [1899] Note the idea of the knock at door (petite fantaisie) that comes to young man (3 loud taps, etc.) everywhere--in all rooms and places he successively occupies--going from one to the other. "I" tell it--am with him: (he has told me;) share a little (though joking him always) his wonder, worry, suspense. I've my idea of what it means. His fate, etc. `Sometimes there will be something there--some one.' I am with him once when it happens. I am with him the 1st time--I mean the 1st time I know about it. (He doesn't notice--I do; then he explains: `Oh, I thought it was only--' He opens there is some one--natural and ordinary. It is my entree en matiere.) The denouement is all. What does come--at last. What is there. This to be ciphered out(2)

The disjunctures, the disruptions, the gaps, the breaking of thoughts where James signs the text as indisputably his--these mark the generation of Jamesian significance; they tangle his narratives but signal what his text is ultimately "about." The author's premiere literary signature lies in his ability to give utterance to elusive meanings that cannot be spoken outright.

In James's original notebooks--in the journals he kept for notes on publications and the tiny pocket diaries he walked around with--horizontal lines abound: lines run between words; lines run beneath them. The visual impact of his ubiquitous lines (in the original notebooks) is inescapable. They delineate thoughts, break apart clauses, underscore ideas, and give emphasis. In short, they are part of his personal lexicon and integral to the coding of his thoughts. When his notebooks are eventually published, thirty-one years after his death, the countless dashes make it into the published notes, but the copious underlining is translated into italics. The bold editorial act of italicization maintains the stress placed on select words, but it destroys an important facet of James's notes: the sheer number of horizontal lines traversing his text and thus the significance he placed on the physical line itself. In viewing the original notes, the impression one has, the visual image inscribed on one's retinas and in one's brain, is of an almost illegible scrawl punctuated by a plethora of horizontal lines. Obviously (in the original notebooks) the horizontal flourish is essential to James's thought processes. Emphases certainly survives in the translation for publication--on those words that are italicized--but what is lost is the significance attached to "the line." In James's original notebooks, the horizontal line is unmistakable and therefore significant. This impression of significance, I want to argue, is crucial to understanding the larger Jamesian text.(3)

The visual--both linguistic representations of visual images and visual impressions of material texts--plays such an important role in his work that it is ultimately impossible to distinguish between James the literary artist and James the visual artist, even if the medium under discussion is language.(4) His early formal training as a visual artist constantly surfaces in his later literary endeavors in a variety of ways, and numerous early critical studies are devoted to the visual aspects of his works. Allan Wade's The Scenic Art (1948) and Alexander Holder-Barell's The Development of Imagery and Its Functional Significance in the Novels of Henry James (1952) discuss James's acute attention to visual impression and his particular penchant for rendering scenery and tableau. …

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