In a 1952 essay entitled “The Critic Who Does Not Exist,” Edmund Wilson asked, “Have we not been unfortunate in the lack of a criticism which should have undertaken, for example, to show how Hawthorne, Melville and Poe, besides becoming excessively eccentric persons, anticipated, in the middle of the last century, the temperament of our own day and invented methods for rendering it?” More than 30 years later, Wilson’s hypothetical critic has yet to materialize. Still, the connections between—one might almost say the synonymity of—19th-century American literature and modernism (usually thought of as a 20th-century, vaguely Anglo-European phenomenon) are strengthened by the appearance of two new books on, not Hawthorne, Melville, or Poe, but Henry James.
In Henry James: An American as Modernist, Stuart Hutchinson (an Englishman, incidentally) says that “the major nineteenth-century American authors were necessarily modernists in the sense of being fabricators, rather than imitators, of reality”; in this he recalls Stephen Spender’s idea (in Love-Hate Relations) that American writers were self-creating, as opposed to their self-actualizing English counterparts. English writers were heir to modes of vision “so long established in history as to seem impersonal and absolute,” according to Hutchinson; by contrast, the American writers always seemed to be rubbing their eyes in disbelief and uncertainty, like the characters in The Scarlet Letter who cannot discern the meaning of the meteor which appears, full of portent, in Chapter 12. To borrow English lenses didn’t help; they only made American vistas appear distorted and unnatural. If there was to be an American way of seeing things, a purely American literature, it had to be totally new, that is to say, modern. It couldn’t derive from American structures of reality; there weren’t any. It couldn’t come from English structures; they didn’t travel well. The basis of the new had to be found outside of the real world. Thus Huck Finn does not begin his story by painting himself into a palpable landscape; Huck tells the reader that his provenance is in another, earlier book. And here is the link to modernism. The story of Leopold Bloom is set in Dublin only in a spatial sense; its roots go deeper than that, all the way back to Homer’s epic of “the man. . .of many resources” (The Odyssey, Book I). In the modern world, literature is born of literature, not reality. And even in the two cases cited, the difference between Old World and American modernism is evident. Whereas Ulysses is born of a centuries-old classical text, Huckleberry Finn comes from a new book, one as American as itself—indeed, the same author wrote both novels.
Because the earliest American novels had no background and exist at least in part to provide background for later novels, there is a marked insubstantiality about them. Hutchinson notes that
few, if any, characters in nineteenth-century American novels are confident of what they should be and do. The novels they are in are correspondingly provisional in structure. The characters feel themselves, and are represented as, the actors of uncertain roles. Frequently, they and their creators turn to moral allegory in an attempt to resolve fundamental selfdoubt. Hunters, Indians, whales and (naturally) women are simply seen as either good or bad.
The insubstantial, quasi-solipsistic ground of these novels is apparent behind their provisional structures, if “novel” is even the word to use for works that seem to be part lyric, part romance, especially in contrast to the dense, thickly peopled books produced in England at the same time. While Thackeray was writing Vanity Fair (1848) and Dickens David Copperfield (1850), Melville was writing Mardi and Redburn (1849) and Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter (1850). It is the difference between the sea and a single wave, between the solar system and starlight. Typically the world of the English novel is homogeneous and interconnected; it is a world in which church, state, and human relationships come together in such institutions as courtship and marriage. But ever since Leslie Fiedler published Love and Death in the American Novel in 1966, it has been something of a truism that 19th-century American novelists do not handle sex effectively, and Hutchinson continues the argument here, saying that “in nineteenth-century English novels marriage, which legitimizes sexual relationships, is often the climax of the characters’ discovery of their true selves. It signifies too a public confirmation of the identities discovered. The resulting, or expected, children are tokens of the characters’ confidence in their ability to make an acceptable mark on the course of life.” But in 19th-century American literature, says Hutchinson, “characters are sustained to the end by their own self-questioning. They have no confidence that the self will find accommodation in the world.” They remain children, in other words, like Ishmael or Huck Finn or the child in Whitman’s “There Was a Child Went Forth.” That child goes out and sees it all, from “the Third-month lambs and the sow’s faint-pink litter, and the mare’s foal and the cow’s calf to the blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure.” The child never grows up; instead, all things become “part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.” In Hutchinson’s words, the child devours experience, therefore rendering it endlessly transient. He never settles into adulthood, never accepts the reality of anything; instead, he wonders, less like a country boy of the last century than like a quantum physicist or a modern painter, “whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?”
Rendering experience endlessly transient: this is the childlike/Jamesian/American/modernist mode. For Hutchinson, the quintessential James novel is not one of the usual nominees: not The American, not The Portrait of a Lady, not one of the late works from what Leon Edel refers to as the period of “high, golden light.” Hutchinson’s choice is What Maisie Knew, the story of a child who is tossed back and forth between divorced and self-centered parents, “practically disowned,” as James says in his preface to the novel, “rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis ball or a shuttlecock.” In the novel itself, Maisie is pulled to the maternal breast at one point, and even there, “amid a wilderness of trinkets, she felt as if she had suddenly been thrust, with a smash of glass, into a jeweller’s shop-front, but only to be as suddenly ejected with a push.” The situation is, as Maisie’s savior governess Mrs. Wix declares, “an extraordinary muddle to be sure.”
According to Paul B. Armstrong, Maisie extricates herself from the muddle of her life by learning that she can rely on no one: neither her hysterical mother nor the kindly but weak Sir Claude nor even Mrs. Wix, who proves to be rigid and dogmatic in the end. What Maisie knows is that she holds her existence in her own hands; as Armstrong says, “in a world where care has lapsed, consenting to the necessity that hardly anyone cares may be a necessary condition for confronting one’s own responsibilities for taking care of one’s own potentiality- for-Being.” Maisie is both a realist and a modernist, and she leaves an inherited world for one she must create herself. Like Maisie, James “stands with one foot in the nineteenth century and one foot in the twentieth” (What Maisie Knew was first published in 1897). “The extent to which James maintains faith in the real is a measure of his allegiance to the great tradition of verisimilitude in the novel. But the extent to which he challenges the epistemological assumptions of mimesis by questioning the determinacy and independence of reality suggests the degree to which he announces the modern preoccupation with meaning and interpretation.”
To Hutchinson as well, What Maisie Knew is a novel which not only looks back to other 19th-century American tales of arrested development but also forward to the great modernist muddles of this century. In a single daring and compact paragraph Hutchinson argues that
With its sense that its characters may wear only a mask of life, What Maisie Knew might have been The Blithedale Romance or The Confidence Man or Huckleberry Finn or The Counterfeiters. With its sense that its characters live as dispossessed spectators, it might have been all these novels again or The Mayor of Casterbridge or Remembrance of Things Past, both having many scenes in which characters gaze through windows at what they are separated from; it might too have been The Waste Land (“each in his prison/Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison”). With its sense of the inevitable relativity of structures of meaning, What Maisie Knew relates again to any of the above works and even to Ulysses. . . . Maisie’s reflection on the relativity of the characters’ ages is reminiscent of Joyce’s speculation in “Ithaca” on the changing relations in time of Bloom’s and Stephen’s ages. Last of all, with its sense that the central character remains uninitiated into final knowledge, What Maisie Knew might have been The Trial. These thoughts of Maisie’s, in Mrs. Wix’s presence, might very well have been Joseph K’s: “Was the sum of all knowledge only to know how little in this presence one would ever reach it?”
One awaits eagerly the appearance of Edmund Wilson’s Critic Who Does Not Exist. In the meantime, that critic’s path has been paved by two new books which bring an underappreciated novel into welcome scrutiny and, at the same time, offer us a significant change in the way we think about modernism.