HENRY JAMES, IMPRESSIONISM, AND THE PUBLIC by Daniel Hannah, Reviewed by Ellen Bayer
 

HENRY JAMES, IMPRESSIONISM, AND THE PUBLIC
By Daniel Hannah
(Ashgate, 2013) xiii + 215 pp.
Reviewed by Ellen Bayer on 2013-12-15.

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"Impressionism" calls to mind images of water lilies, haystacks, boating parties, or cathedrals draped in dappled light. Since the term cannot escape its connection to the French Impressionist painters, scholarship on literary impressionism has diligently sought to connect prose and paint. At first glance, this seems an attractive approach to literary studies; who wouldn't want to immerse themselves in the gorgeous canvases of painters such as Renoir and Monet to see how their technique might have influenced the writers of their time? For decades now, scholars have done just that. Up to the middle of the twentieth century, literary impressionism was occasionally treated in studies such as Ferdiand Brunetière's "L'Impressionisme dans le roman" (1896) and Ford Madox Ford's "Techniques" (1935) and The March of Literature (1938). But sustained critical analyses of this literary "movement" do not come along until the second half of the twentieth century. The first books on it emerged in the early 1970s, with Viola Hopkins Winner's Henry James and the Visual Arts (1970) and Marlies Kronegger's Literary Impressionism (1973). These were followed in the 1980s by studies such as H. Peter Stowell's Literary Impressionism: James and Chekhov (1980), James Nagel's Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism (1980), James J. Kirschke's Henry James and Impressionism (1981), Paul B. Armstrong's The Phenomenology of Henry James (1983) and Marianna Torgovnick's The Visual Arts, Pictorialism, and the Novel: James, Lawrence, and Woolf (1985). The year 2000 brought us Robin Hoople's In Darkest James: Reviewing Impressionism 1900-1905 and Tamar Katz's Impressionist Subjects, followed closely by John G. Peters' Conrad and Impressionism (2001) and one of the best works in the field, Jesse Matz's Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics (2001). More recently, we have Max Saunders's Self Impression (2010) and Adam Parkes's A Sense of Shock (2012). By no means exhaustive, this list demonstrates that literary impressionism commands ongoing scholarly interest, but scholars do not yet generally agree on how to define it.

Many of the studies cited above fall into one of two categories: pictorial or phenomenological. Pictorial studies compare the French Impressionist Painters to such late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century writers as James, Crane, Conrad, Ford, Chopin, Cather, Woolf, and Mansfield, among others. These studies suggest that writers either translated painterly techniques into prose or modified certain elements of them in their fiction. But this "Sister Arts" approach suffers from predictability. As W.J.T. Mitchell observes, it "will not make any waves: it will simply provide confirmation and elaboration of the dominant historical and conceptual models that already prevail in the discipline, offering the sort of highly general, watered-down historicism that can be extracted to match up visual art and literature" (Mitchell, Picture Theory [1994] 86). Given the limitations of the pictorial approach, some scholars have used phenomenology to probe the subjective nature of impressions, and, by extension, reality. Like pictorialists, however, phenomenological critics work by comparative analysis. As a result, neither kind of critic steadily examines impressionism as a distinct literary mode. In Henry James and Impressionism, for example, Kirschke devotes three-quarters of his text to James's experience of Impressionist art and just one chapter to impressionist techniques in his fiction.

Hannah's book foregrounds literature. As a study of impressionism in its distinctively literary form, it joins Parkes's A Sense of Shock (2012). Like Parkes, Hannah eschews comparative analyses and opts instead to situate the literary impression in its broader cultural moment. While much of the scholarship on literary impressionism highlights the work of Henry James, as Hannah does here, he draws on social and cultural contexts as a means of framing narrative strategies. Contraposing the public and private in James's world and work, he demonstrates how impressions bring into focus "an increasingly tenuous line between" these two spheres in the late-nineteenth century (xi). For James, Hannah argues, the erosion of this border leads to a moment of crisis in which the impression mediates between the public and private: "it is the impression's capacity to mediate between 'external' and 'internal,' public and private fields of experience," writes Hannah, "that generates its critical flexibility in James's reimagining of 'experience'" (8).

Hannah acknowledges his debt to recent investigations of the mediatory role of the impression, especially to Matz, Peters, and Katz. But in showing how the impression bridges "the interspace between private and public," Hannah claims that his work can "speak more broadly to James's engagement with disparate cultural-historical shifts in the realm of publicity at the tail end of the nineteenth century" (13). Indeed, while Hannah picks up some threads from previous scholarship--such as the mediatory framework, elements of the phenomenological approach, and James's attitude toward Franco-American Impressionists--he breaks new ground by examining "the complicated ties between James's narrative strategies, his engagements with the literary marketplace, and his practice of cultural criticism" (x). Applying recent findings on publicity in James's career, Hannah contends that the impression played a central role in James's negotiation of the public/private divide.

Hannah's own management of the divide between his book and previous scholarship on impressionism is not always adroit. While he has thoroughly studied the work of his precursors, he feels obliged to review their studies at the beginning of each section, note their limitations, and explain how he will overcome them. The pattern of exposition soon becomes predictable. Nevertheless, this is a minor flaw in a book that asks new questions about literary impressionism in general and Jamesian impressionism in particular: "What, for James, were impressions?" Hannah asks. "Why were they so often the crux moments of his narratives? What space did they open out for James's critical engagement with late-nineteenth-century cultural forms? What kinds of reading publics did James's rhetoric of impressions appeal to or, even, call into being?" (x). These questions open new lines of inquiry as Hannah compels us to see the centrality of impressions in James's work, to see his "persistent, pivotal, and complicated returns to the impression, to impressionability, and to even a shutting down of impressionability in his late writings, as unstable yet generative entries into imaginings of the public" (15).

For all the novelty of his argument, Hannah pays his debts to traditional approaches. Besides tracing the philosophical history of the impression, especially in the writings of Locke and Hume, he reviews both Impressionist Painting and British Aestheticism as a way of defining the cultural moment of James's fiction. In a regrettable application of the Sister Arts approach, he also needlessly compares what Strether sees (in The Ambassadors) to Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881). Yet while he sometimes suggests that Strether's way of perceiving borrows the language or painterly techniques of the Impressionists, Hannah does not claim--as others have--that James crafted his scenes as Impressionist paintings, and he makes no other comparison between prose and paint. Eschewing such comparisons, this book includes not one reproduction of an Impressionist painting. The only such painting to be found with this text is on the cover, where Hannah's larger claims about James's ambivalence toward the public are metaphorically reinforced by Gustave Caillebotte's Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann (1880).


In depicting a single male figure gazing out onto a Parisian boulevard from the privacy of his apartment, the painting puts him on a threshold of sorts; neither wholly private nor wholly public, he observes a public spectacle while also distancing himself from it so that he can hardly be seen himself. James's characters likewise prize these mediatory vantage points for taking in impressions, so without distracting us from the topic of literary impressionism, Caillebotte's painting serves to introduce the theme Hannah pursues throughout his analysis.

In his chapter on James's response to British Aestheticism, Hannah turns the tables on surveillance itself. From the mid-1880s, he says, James borrowed from the writings of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde "to articulate a vision of reading as subversively intimate, a vision that could offer critical and queer resistance to an emergent culture of surveillance that targeted the impressionable aesthete, the coded homosexual, as a threat to the public's supposed moral coherence" (53). But rather than simply absorbing the aestheticism of Pater and Wilde, Hannah notes, James adapted their philosophies and spoke to their limitations. For Pater and Wilde, Hannah observes, the impression serves as "a pleasurable concealment of the self and an act of contagious, sexually dissonant influence, escaping its own illusion of self-containment" (59). James's texts, on the other hand, "centered on the impression's capacity to destabilize (even contaminate) exchanges between author and audience"; in so doing, Hannah argues, James remodels the themes of aestheticism and "relocate[s] the trope of contagion that haunted aestheticism's reception as an effect of narrative itself" (59).

Here as elsewhere, Hannah applies his theoretical framework to close readings of several works by James. Analyzing "The Author of Beltraffio" (1884), The Tragic Muse (1888), and The Sacred Fount (1901), he contends that James's fictions "frame their responses to the aestheticist genealogy of the impression as explorations of influence, concealment, and exposure" (59). In shifting his lens to the anxieties of concealment, exposure, and impressionability, as expressed by both James and British Aestheticism, Hannah shows how potent literary impressionism could be, and likewise indicates how James's management of it evolved throughout his career.

In his final chapters on What Maisie Knew (1897), The Wings of the Dove (1902), and The American Scene (1907), Hannah argues that these novels represent James's "visions of the futures opened out by . . . private-public fluidity," and that "for James, the impression and an author's impressionability become crucial elements in the survival and adaptability of fiction" (15). To guide his analysis of each novel, Hannah identifies a specific aspect of the fragile border between public and private. Chapter Three examines the child as an impressionable subject, drawing on current work in childhood studies while also pointing to James's own understanding of trends in child psychology and educational theory. "[I]mpressionability," Hannah contends, is "the means by which the child and the reading public is educated and, sometimes violently, managed" (100). Turning to James's larger concerns about the future of his art in a changing literary marketplace roiled by "futurology" (149), Hannah argues that in The Wings of the Dove James "seeks to represent the impression's capacity both to reflect and transcend a public culture seemingly at odds with the fostering of impressionability" (123.) In the final chapter, which moves from James's anxieties about the future of the novel to his concerns about the future of the nation, Hannah takes James's conception of his own "impressionability as a troubled gauge for reading the future of the [United States]" (154). In the American Scene, James must reconcile his memory of his homeland with the reality that greets him after an absence of twenty years. Along with the changing roles of women, immigrants, and African Americans, the commercially- and materially-driven American public sphere forces James to surrender his early impression and, writes Hannah, "do justice to this monstrous public sphere, to even, by writing it, rewrite its value" (157). Together, these final chapters illustrate the trajectory of James's impressionism in his later works, where it serves to suggest the future of the home, the literary marketplace, and the nation. Hannah thus demonstrates that impressions play a central part in James's way of addressing the encroachment of the public upon the private sphere.

The impression, Hannah concludes, "allows James to reflect on how the public sphere maintains itself by acts of framing and stamping, accounts of transmission and omission, that mirror the very narrative gestures he himself is engaged in" (191). Yet toward the end of James's life, Hannah observes, he began to call "into question the value of impressionability and [turned] to supposedly unimpressionable subjects as artists in their own right" (191.) Nevertheless, while James's writings in response to the First World War are said to encapsulate the themes of this book, its Conclusion does not fully explain James's late interest in "unimpressionable subjects." Hannah could have easily devoted an entire chapter to James's later career and the final evolution of his impressionism, and the Conclusion does not adequately account for this shift in James's late work.

Furthermore, Hannah slights The Portrait of a Lady (1881), which many scholars consider James's most impressionistic novel. Since its connection with impressionism has been up to now chiefly analyzed by means of Sister Arts analogies, Hannah misses an opportunity to revise our understanding of how its impressions work. But this book considers more than twenty works of James across the length of his career in a variety of genres--criticism, reviews, notebook entries, short stories, and novels. Besides casting new light on a number of Jamesian works that frequently recur in studies of his impressionism, Hannah also examines several pieces that critics have overlooked. By showing how deeply and extensively James's impressionism informed his craft, Hannah opens new possibilities for the study of literary impressionism.

Ellen Bayer is Assistant Professor of English at DePauw University.


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