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Peer Reviewed

Performing the Everyday in Henry James' Late Novels

Thomas J. Otten, Boston University

Maya Higashi Wakana. Performing the Everyday in Henry James’s Late Novels. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. ix+193pp. $99.95 (c).

Rev. by Thomas J. Otten
This is a kind of book scholars don’t write much anymore. A novel-by-novel reading of one of an author’s major themes has come to seem too much a tautological restatement of the object of scrutiny rather than a critical interrogation of its terms or a contextual explanation of where those terms come from. Taking her inspiration from the sociology of Erving Goffman—a list of abbreviations to his writings takes the place usually accorded to James’s own in volumes like this one—Maya Higashi Wakana devotes her chapter-length studies of The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl to showing that “self and other(s) are . . . inextricably linked” (14), that the rules of civility lend a performative nature to each interaction, and that Jamesian characters are profoundly insecure. Arguing for a “microsocial” approach to James’s late novels—that is the “everyday” of her title—Wakana conceives of the interpersonal realm as “formed alongside larger power relations”: “James depicts a microsocial order that has a distinctly separate set of claims from that of the larger world that we generally refer to as ‘society’” (8, 6).
Not surprisingly, Goffman’s terms of performance, self-presentation, and civility provide some lucid paraphrase of Jamesian concerns. Writing of the scene in The Ambassadors where Strether encounters Chad and Mme. de Vionnet in secret tryst on the river, Wakana captures the mutual embarrassment that the encounter induces with this quotation from Interaction Ritual: “just as the flustered individual may fail to conceal his embarrassment, those who perceive his discomfort may fail in their attempt to hide their knowledge, whereupon they all will realize that his embarrassment has been seen and that the seeing of it was something to conceal” (48). This insight does, I think, add something to James’s own summation of the scene—there was “the element of the awkward all round”—and provides a useful gloss for all those scenes in late James where characters see each other seeing a nameless “it.” Similarly, Goffman’s idea of “performance teams” who switch and adapt scripts according to the presence or absence of others brings a precise vocabulary to the shifting dyads—Charlotte and Maggie, Maggie and Adam, Charlotte and Amerigo, and so on—whose endless rearrangement makes up so much of the complexity that is The Golden Bowl.
At this level of sociological annotation, then, this book is genuinely useful. At a more conceptual level, the book disappoints because it stays so resolutely inside James’s texts and their representations of personal identity and interpersonal relationships without ever asking how these preoccupations came to be of such overriding interest in the first place. To call for a microsocial approach to the nineteenth-century novel is not a very revealing polemic: it leads to studying those novels very much on their own terms, since microsociety is to an extraordinary extent what novels of the period obsess over. Likewise, to center one’s study on self and others is to repeat without really altering—or explaining--those novels’ own ways of structuring meaning. And so the chapters here mainly follow their texts’ plots, beginning with a novel’s beginning and ending with its end. Once past the introduction, the chapters almost always stay resolutely within the novels themselves, only rarely interrupting their analysis with passages from Goffman or, even more rarely, other theorists. The effect is that the chapters read too much like interpretive summary. Goffman himself does not provide much of an outside from which to view James’s strangest novels because his argument is really a latter-day expression of Jamesian culture, particularly in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which begins with an epigraph on masks from George Santayana and which develops its argument about audience segregation (one performs differently with one’s peers than with one’s elders, say) with a quotation from the chapter on the consciousness of self from William James’s The Principles of Psychology.@ In Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Anthony Giddens observes that while Goffman has many interesting things “to say about how privacy is sustained in day-to-day life . . . he implies that privacy is a universal need, and rarely places his account of it in a historical context.”@ As with privacy, so too with many of Wakana’s concerns, and as with Goffman, so too with this work of his latter-day disciple: the sensibility which governs so much Jamesian fiction—that the world of interpersonal relationships is both crucially determinative of meaning and endlessly interpretable in its vicissitudes—needs to be understood as itself a historical development.
Thomas J. Otten teaches English at Boston University. He is the author of A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the Material World (2006) and of essays in ELH, Yale Journal of Criticism, American Literature, PMLA, and MLQ.