A provision full of responsibilities: senses of the past in Henry James's fourth phase
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Narratives of literary careers, like all historical narratives, are ideologically overdetermined constructs a truth to which F. O. Matthiessen was by no means blind when he argued, in 1944, that Henry James's career should be understood as culminating in the intricate and fascinating designs of his final and major phase. Matthiessen's high valuation of the three novels James published at the beginning of the new century The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl was proffered (polemically, it is worth recalling) in the face of a reigning critical orthodoxy that for two decades had read James's oeuvre as a cautionary, even pathetic tale of deracination, expatriation, and subsequent decline. For Matthiessen, of course, such a misreading of James he singles out Van Wyck Brooks and Vernon Parrington in particular was eloquent evidence of what happens when you divorce the study of content from form. It is hardly surprising, then, that recent historicist and cultural critics have, in their turn, resisted the story of James's career bequeathed them by Matthiessen and his formalist, New Critical descendants; following the lead of John Carlos Rowe, contemporary James criticism has, in fact, increasingly sought to question, destabilize, and render uncanny the high-modernist Henry James, whose destiny always seems to end in the intricacies of his late style and its retreat from life into the palace of art. As Rowe would be the first to point out, there is no question here of returning to Brooks's and Parrington's blunt dismissal of James's later fictions.
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Enacting History in Henry James