Quiet Testimony: A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature

By Shari Goldberg | Go to book overview

4 / James: Testimony without Life

There is a dead woman in Henry James’s account of his visit to Charleston in The American Scene. He introduces the image as a point of comparison, but it startles the reader nevertheless; it is as if James has stumbled on a corpse in the midst of the sleepy southern city. This corpse, it turns out, is quite extraordinary: it testifies to the city’s lifelessness, and on careful examination, it thereby turns out to be not quite dead, to have enough life in it to speak. Unlike Melville’s vision, in which the dead sink like stones from the text’s purview, James’s image arises as if from the text’s depths, bringing with it an understanding of testimony that disturbs the assumption of death’s finality.

The image appears after James has noted that although he had “caught the wide-eyed smile of the South” in Charleston, “a deficiency was clear, which was neither more nor less than the deficiency of life; without life, all gracefully, the picture managed to compose itself. Even while one felt it do so one missed the precious presence; so that there at least was food for wonderment, for admiration of the art at play.”1 A hint of paradox informs these sentences: the city suffers from a deficiency of life, but, nonetheless, it manages to compose a picture of itself. It somehow accomplishes what ought to require the “precious presence,” and James proposes that the unusual occurrence resembles the suggestiveness of a corpse:

To what, all the while, as one went, could one compare the mysti-
fication?—to what if not to the image of some handsome pale per
son, a beauty (to call her so) of other days, who, besides confessing

-120-

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Quiet Testimony: A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction- Arriving at Quiet 1
  • 1- Emerson- Testimony without Representation 22
  • 2- Douglass- Testimony without Identity 57
  • 3- Melville- Testimony without Voice 87
  • 4- James- Testimony without Life 120
  • Conclusion- Staying Quiet 149
  • Notes 155
  • Bibliography 179
  • Index 191
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