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John Carlos Rowe, "Our Henry James in Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture" (New York: Routledge, 2023), 252 pp.:


John Carlos Rowe, Our Henry James in Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 2023), 252 pp.

In contextualizing John Carlos Rowe’s study of complex, diachronic, and transmedial influence and intertextuality in and of Henry James, it seems only fitting to begin with a double layer of referentiality: Richard Salmon’s 1998 article “Henry James, Popular Culture, and Cultural Theory” opens with an epigraph taken from John Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture concerning the relation between high culture and popular culture. As Fiske claims: “Of course, popular culture does not resemble a highly crafted sonnet or lyric poem, nor does it attempt to reproduce the psychological depth and density of texture of a novel by Henry James (for which we should all be truly grateful)” (qtd. in Salmon 211). Fiske here uses James as a stand-in for high culture marked by “psychological depth and density of texture” whose absence—whether we are indeed grateful for this or not—sets it apart from popular culture. Salmon, however, complicates this assumption of a clear dividing line between “the master” and “the popular” via “a survey of the ongoing critical attempt to map Henry James’s engagement with the terrain of popular culture” (211). As our understanding of the popular as a theoretical and historical concept continues to shift and as popular culture continues to reference James, that critical exploration is still—even almost 30 years after Salmon’s assessment–“ongoing.” John Carlos Rowe, the author of, among many others, The Other Henry James (Duke UP, 1998) and editor of A Historical Guide to Henry James (Oxford UP, 2012, with Eric Haralson) and Henry James Today (Cambridge Scholars, 2014), is a widely renowned James-scholar, whose decades of work on the late-nineteenth-century author clearly mark his 2023-study Our Henry James in Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture. The monograph is an exhaustive study of the myriad ways in which “Henry James has been popularized, even though he is by no means a popular writer” (218).

The introduction offers an in-depth review of the changing status of James and “the popular” in scholarly literature and will be useful to both expert and novices. It addresses James’s engagement with mass media, his striving for popularity in print and on stage, and—importantly—his mode of addressing the key social issues of his times. Rather than the aloof expatriate of privilege, whose main fascination lies in his portrayal of splendor unimaginable to many of his contemporaries and to most of his current readers, and in his mastery of literary aesthetics, Rowe identifies a Henry James whose “genius is to have identified such problems” as immigration, gender, and sexuality “as critical” to U.S. society (7). To make this case, the first of two parts which make up the book, aptly titled “His Times,” delves into the seemingly familiar territory introduced in the by now canonical studies of Salmon or Marcia Jacobson, namely James’s indebtedness to the popular genres and media of the nineteenth century. Yet, Rowe’s selection of intertexts broadens the horizon considerably as he not only addresses James’s use of sentimentalism and melodrama but also the importance of theater to his oeuvre and his critical engagement with influential contemporary thinkers.

Part II, “Our Times,” shifts gears to explore how directors and writers have taken up James’s texts and themes (primarily) in movies and novels of the 1950s to today. I consciously chose “taken up” as a broad term, since Rowe is indeed not interested only in adaptations but what he terms James’s “influence.” The chapter on Hitchcock might be the most surprising among them, insofar as Rowe himself acknowledges that “there is no direct influence of James’s text on Hitchcock’s film” (18). The argument rather hinges on the role of high culture in times of social crisis and two male auteurs’ comparable reliance on women as projection spaces of cultural anxieties. Chapter 6 treads more familiar territory, insofar as Rowe offers an in-depth discussion of the cinematic adaptations of James by Peter Bogdanovich, which, however, becomes partially sidetracked by elaborations on the director’s “personal problems” (146). Movies made in the 1990s by a diverse number of directors, among them Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, build the substance of the third chapter in part II, which focuses on the shifting representations of sexuality (sometimes explicitly queer or graphic, sometimes weirdly conventional or repressed) and the relative box-office success of these different filmic versions of James’s stories. In the final chapter, Rowe returns to literature, when he makes good on his introductory promise to address the ongoing importance of James’s cosmopolitanism, namely through a transnational exploration of James’s legacy. This extends from Leslie Marmon Silko’s discussion of the value of James’s perspectivism to Colm Tóibín’s biographical exploration of James’s Irishness to James Baldwin’s use of James as a point of reference in his literary studies of racial and sexual outsiders of U.S.-American society.

In contrast to this very wide net of references and contexts in the two main parts, the book is framed by an almost intimate preface and epilogue aptly titled “My Henry James.” Rowe opens his monograph with a reflection on his pedagogy, in which he invites us into his classrooms and shares his process of designing courses on canonical authors that are meant to encourage his students to become better readers of James. In the epilogue, he invites us—I would argue—to become better readers of Our Henry James, as Rowe clearly contrasts his Henry James, “the troubled, anxious, sometimes duplicitous author and person, who continued nevertheless to interpret the changing worlds around him” (216) with “our Henry James.” The latter is the version of James discussed particularly in Part II, where he becomes a stand-in for “a kind of cultural nostalgia” (217) or where his complex depictions of pressing social concerns of his times—which continue as the unresolved issues of our times—are simply misinterpreted. The matter of misinterpretation invoked in introductory comments of this essay through the dividing line between James as an icon of high culture and a notion of popular culture which lacks its depth and density emerges as the key issue of the monograph. I would even venture that whether one agrees with this assessment will determine the level of enjoyment readers will take from the book (I am stressing enjoyment because whether readers will learn from Rowe’s vast knowledge and detailed analysis is unquestionably the case). If, in fact, “the most compelling reason for James’s continuing popularity [is] his ambiguity” (xii), as Rowe repeatedly and convincingly argues in this book, what is the basis for deciding which adaptations, sequels, and quotations, are wrong? Throughout Part II, Rowe makes the argument that James continues to be relevant to producers of popular culture as source and inspiration, because he asked all the right questions and offered complex material which helps “us” work through our societal issues (be that the status of women or cultural anxieties regarding sexuality though not all readers implied in the “we” of these chapters might agree with Rowe’s use of sexual terminology or assessment of feminism). By looking at adaptions diachronically, Rowe is able to map shifts in our use of James on to the “rapidly changing social values” (164) and thus to address the intersections of high culture, popular culture, and ideology. Yet, these valuable insights are continuously connected to Rowe’s focus on “pattern[s] of misreading” (181), in which each attempt to solve James’s indecision and ambiguity is not taken as a sign of successful adaption but instead points to his work being “misinterpreted without much concern for his original meaning” (181). This begs the question whether faithfulness in adaption necessarily needs to extend to a text’s political indecision, or whether it is not precisely in turning ambiguity into standpoint that adaptions keep James relevant for new audiences.

Arguably, Rowe anticipates such reactions, as he ends the book with a set of highly intriguing questions rather than a firm conclusion. Insofar, the book shows its indebtedness to “the master” by also embracing indecision and thus leaving readers to find their own answers. None of this, however, takes away from the fact that this is an impressive work of scholarship and a laudable labor of love.

Katrin Horn (Universität Greifswald)

Works Cited

1 

Jacobson, Marcia. Henry James and the Mass Market. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1986. Print.

2 

Salmon, Richard. “Henry James, Popular Culture, and Cultural Theory.” The Henry James Review 19.3 (1998): 211-217. Print.

3 

Rowe, John Carlos. Our Henry James in Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2023. Print.

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