Psychological realism: henry james



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Leonard, James S. "Realism." American History Through Literature 1870-1920. Ed. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst. Vol. 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006. 943-953. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 2 Feb. 2012.

PSYCHOLOGICAL REALISM: HENRY JAMES

James made his most important contribution to realism theory in his essay "The Art of Fiction" (originally published in Longman's Magazine in September 1884), which is regarded as one of America's classic statements of literary criticism. In this essay James proclaims the writing of fiction to be one of the fine arts and examines at length the comparison between fiction and painting (whereas many of Howells's detractors compared his approach to photography). James, like Howells and Perry, regarded the novelist more as a craftsman than as a creative genius. The writer of fiction must meticulously observe, and turn his or her impressions into art. For James the only reason for existence of a novel or short story is that it "represents life." The "supreme virtue of the novel," in his view, is "the air of reality," which he explains as "solidity of specification" (p. 12). That is, the novelist must create a convincing image of life, one that seems as if it might really happen. James also agrees with Perry that the crucial action in a story should be internal. Extending the comparison between fiction and painting he remarks, "A psychological reason is, to my imagination, an object adorably pictorial; to catch the tint of its complexion—I feel as if that idea might inspire one to Titianesque efforts" (p. 19). Here we see James's conversion of realism to something less literal than Howells's model. James advocated and practiced what came to be known as "psychological realism"—a devotion not to the precise reproduction of external detail but to a rendering of the nuances of the inner lives of his characters. However, for all his advocacy of careful observation, he gave at least equal Page 947  |  Top of Article weight to what he called in 1909 the "crucible of the imagination"—a notion not far removed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "secondary imagination," which "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate." Thus, James effected a sort of fusion (sometimes identified with impressionism) of the realistic with the Romantic that moved in the direction of twentieth-century modernism.



Howells identified James as the "chief exemplar" of a "new school" of fiction writing deriving from Nathaniel Hawthorne and George Eliot. James's fiction, like Howells's, avoids the exotic and the superficially dramatic, but he plumbs the psyches of his characters much more deeply than Howells. His fictions revolve around such situations as a governess trying to understand the moral and psychological forces that have been working on the children in her charge (The Turn of the Screw); a man wondering what his life might have been like if he had stayed in America and had a "career" instead of going to Europe and having none ("The Jolly Corner"); a man too obsessed with his own destiny, failing to make the human connection that he might have made if he had simply been attentive to the world around him ("The Beast in the Jungle"). In each case James gives readers a "central consciousness" through whom they can understand the events not simply in terms of the details of their occurrence but also in terms of their significance. James's fiction satisfies his own and Perry's criterion that the real action of the story should be in the minds of the characters, yet he makes that action visible by means of symbolic entities that he uses, as he says, to "paint" the "psychological reasons"—entities such as ghosts, "the beast," the subtly flawed golden bowl in the novel by that title, and so forth. In this, again, he is part realist and part "modernist."

Other important writers who produced works related to Jamesian psychological realism were Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, and Edith Wharton. Bierce mined his own traumatic experiences in the Civil War to craft stories that explored the psychological effects of violence and the nearness of death. Crane (1871–1900), who was himself too young to have personally experienced the Civil War, nonetheless chose it as his setting for The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which considers how an ordinary person might react to being thrown into a bewildering situation that demands heroic courage and stamina. Wharton is often characterized as a lesser version of James himself, though her works were actually more popular than his. Like James she wrote stories that treated the psychological nuances of social life among the culturally sophisticated, in whose conversations the unsaid was frequently as significant as the said.


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