letteratura mondo
ISSN 2281-1966

"I have everything to unlearn": Henry James, cultural studies and mass culture

By Donata Meneghelli

Henry James's studioHenry James has always been considered the elitist and aloof writer par excellence. This essay investigates the impact of culturally oriented critical perspectives on the study of James, lowering him into the conflicts and imbalances that lacerate the field of cultural production and his own position as an author writing within that field, exposed to all the tensions that pass through it.
The last decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth are a crucial moment, in which the status of literature and of the literary writer undergo dramatic changes: as Frederic Jameson has put it, “two literary and cultural structures, dialectically interrelated […] find themselves positioned in the distinct and generally incompatible spaces of the institutions of high literature and what the Frankfurt School conveniently called the «culture industry», that is, the apparatuses for the production of «popular» or mass culture”. Literature becomes more and more a commodity, which is bought, sold, which can (or cannot) produce money, which is judged for its marketplace value. James is a writer that experienced first hand this epochal phase: a novelist, but also a critic, a reviewer, simultaneously protagonist of and witness to the literary scene of his era. And if he is certainly the high priest of form, the “difficult”, opaque, and for some even unreadable writer, he is also – at the same time – he who exploited expedients and topoi of the melodramatic imagination, who accepted publishing in magazines and in installments, who came to terms with the illustration of his texts, who did not hesitate seeking new editorial markets such as popular low-cost periodicals. He has dramatized these issues in his “tales of the literary life”, a series of brief texts, most written between 1888 and the first years of the twentieth century, characterized by a multilayered chiastic structure which testifies to James’s ambivalence and contradictions. This essay proposes to consider these tales as a “multiple otherbiography” of the “high brow” writer in the late modernity, negotiating with his demonic or fascinating other(s): popular literature, the image, the growing power of the press, magazines, best sellers, advertising, and the dream of writing for as large an audience as possible.


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