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American Designs: The Late Novels of James and Faulkner.

By Jeanne Campbelll Reesman. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. xx, 229 pp.

Reesman opens her comparative study of James and Faulkner with a statement few could contest: "It is hard to imagine Henry James and William Faulkner ever speaking to each other had they ever met, and neither would have been likely to acknowledge similarity, let alone a shared approach." Indeed. That the shy, soft-spoken, ex-New Yorker and long-time expatriate with a tendency to stammer would have felt free to engage in easy conversation with the reticent, soft-spoken Mississippian who chose in the end never to leave home strikes us as most unlikely. To Faulkner James was a nervous nelly, the master of an outmoded tradition whose genteel confinements the younger man took it upon himself to break open. Had James ever known about Faulkner, he might well have felt inspired to author a little book about the Southerner along the lines of his sometimes condescending study of the bleak provincialism that nearly, but not quite, did in Hawthorne.

Notwithstanding the apparent chasm between James and Faulkner, "arguably America's two greatest novelists," American Designs takes as its admirable mission to instruct its readers, through a "sustained comparison," how the two came together over "the problem of knowledge." Reesman forthrightly lays down what she intends to accomplish in taking on "three major literary critical issues: the hermeneutics of the novel genre, the intense importance of this novelistic form for American literature, and the way James and Faulkner explore the novelistic designs they inherited and transformed."

The key term is "hermeneutics," defined here as "knowledge as a group of interpretations," privileged over "epistemology," or "knowledge as a single truth." Reesman wants us to understand how vital it is to view -- not only James and Faulkner -- but the entire American literary tradition from the perspective of narrative designs that defy closure and invite a community of interpreters. What is more, she insists upon connecting the hermeneutic enterprise to the moral questions that attend today's "opening of the canon and the general emphasis on new voices in literary interpretation."

Reesman's crucial opening chapter sets up Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature as the most readily available "philosophical" justification for the hermeneutic approach. The chapter rounds itself off with Mikhail Bakhtin providing the "theoretical" basis for comparing the strategies developed in James's and Faulkner's later novels that alike favor fluid dialogic structures over closed-in systems. But to make certain that we get her point that novels harbor diverse views rather than single truths, Reesman packs her introduction with reminders of what a roster of literary scholar-critics have been telling us on this score for years. Whether or not they knew it at the time they made these disclosures about the freewheeling nature of American literature, Lazar Ziff, Leo Marx, Sacvan Bercovitch, Emory Elliott, and Richard Poirier are hermeneuticists. In turn, these summaries share room in the chapter with still others (Carolyn Porter, Anne Norton) who have been talking about putting a stop to closed-shops for some time when it comes to canon formation and the creation of feminist theory.

The initial effect of the pages devoted to a review of American literary history is unfortunate. They introduce a tone of deja vu very early that will thicken in the succeeding chapters. They convey a sense of diligent homework (a virtue always in need of curbing when it crosses the line to become that worst of all academic habits, name-dropping) that is worsened by a seeming unawareness that these so-called revelations are warmed-over stuff after all. Smarter if this opening chapter had cut fast-forward from Rorty to Bakhtin, and then gotten on with the rest of the project. The impact of Reesman's thesis is diminished once we are given time to recognize that the Bakhtinian approach, whether applied to James or to Faulkner, is hardly new. Swiftness off the mark of her argumentative attack might have helped to cast some fairy dust over the fact that--however sound Reesman's premises--they are hardly startling.

The lack of having anything really new to say continues to frustrate the high ambitions of American Designs, and this is a pity. For it is important that Faulknerians urge themselves to know James better and that Jamesians get down off their high horse to understand the similarities, and the differences, between two authors who constantly, naggingly, brilliantly, asked, "How do we know?"

The book's admirable intentions are constantly eroded, for a series of reasons. One is the way the threads of the argument that are supposed to support its main theoretical contributions keep unraveling. Bakhtin (prime player of "dialogicity" as he is meant to be) disappears for long periods. Rorty is similarly discarded after his initial usefulness as a validator of hermeneutical philosophical systems is concluded. True, we never lose sight of Reesman's continuing search for examples that elucidate James's and Faulkner's narrative assaults against fixed designs and their search for a community of voices; but it is precisely this terrain we've been taken over many times before at the hands of other critics. There is the character in a Moliere play who experiences the shock of learning that he has been speaking prose all his life; we need to discover with a marvelous jolt that the "prose" we've been used to from reading the novels of James and Faulkner would be better called "hermeneutics." Alas, such marvelous jolts are largely missing.

The self-contained readings Reesman provides for The Ambassadors, Absalom, Absalom!, The Golden Bowl, and Go Down, Moses are often exquisitely rendered, but they too frequently cover ground traversed by earlier critics. The fact that we move through chapters that alternate a Faulkner novel with a James novel in a concerted effort at comparative analysis does not suffice. The apples and oranges under comparison are still the apples and oranges that have been available from the theoretical market-place down the block.

Fresh insights do emerge (see the very nice remarks about the Jamesian ficele as a conveyer of important knowledge), but too many of the disclosures of meaning are being disclosed one more time. Old stories are repeated (such as Faulkner's ranking of Wolfe over Hemingway). Certain full-scale treatments by prior critics go unrecognized (as the importance to both James and Faulkner of the willingness to fail that was written out in 1979 as "failure and success in America"). Several moss-covered views remain in place (such as Leon Edel's notion about James's "horror of modernity"--a view recently, and brilliantly, scotched by Ross Posnock's The Trial of Curiosity). American Designs may have aspired to the radical overturning of our ignorance about the relations between two major authors' obsessive concerns over the nature of knowing, but it is conservative for all that in its theoretical approach and its formal presentations. The final chapter on Go Down, Moses "offers a song of redemption and freedom"; Maggie Verver of The Golden Bowl is "James's ultimate American heroine": here it is not a matter of whether other interpretations which roundly reject these views are "correct"; it is more significant that Reesman's readings in these instances have the feel of having been unwrapped from a long-ago critical tradition, rather than being unsheathed to expose the gleaming, sharp edge of the hermeneutical knife.

In 1860 Henry James, Senior, told his friend Emerson of a dinner of the Saturday Club he attended in Boston and the impression he had had of one of the guests, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who seemed to have "the look ... of a rogue who suddenly finds himself in a company of detectives." As already noted, Reesman opens her book with a provocative statement (which also alludes to the Hawthornian connection) that it is hard to imagine James and Faulkner ever meeting. She has done her readers a good service in showing that these two writers (and Hawthorne too) actually could have sat at table together. It would have added greatly, however, if she had assessed them as James's father did Hawthorne--seeing them as "rogues" caught under the scrutiny of suspicious detectives. For they were dangerous men, what with their sly, wily, subversive attacks upon the literary establishment, the poses they took as innocents who cause no threat (Who me? I'm just a country boy and farmer. Who me? I'm merely a genteel guest at nobs' dinner parties), and the criminals' passion they put into shattering golden bowls and destroying swamp-mansions built upon dreams of dynastic power. But in American Designs all sense of intellectual roguishness is absent, and thus there is no need for shrewd criticism of the type one hires on skeptical detectives to provide. Diligent decorum is the rule at this critical table where the silver flatware seems in no danger of being pinched.
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Author:Banta, Martha
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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