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The Continuum of Consciousness

Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James’s Novels

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Jennifer Eimers

The Continuum of Consciousness: Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James’s Novels examines the transformative experience of art in James’s fiction. In a 1915 letter to H. G. Wells, James declares, «It is art that makes life.» This book traces the rich implications of this claim. For James, viewing art transformed the self. Many of his contemporaries, including his famous older brother, William, were deeply interested in the study of perception and individual consciousness. James’s fictional use of art reflects these philosophical discussions. Although much valuable scholarship has been devoted to visual art in James’s fiction, the guiding role it often plays in his characters’ experiences receives fuller exploration in this book. A prolonged look at visual art and consciousness through the lens of nineteenth-century British aestheticism reveals intriguing connections and character responses. By highlighting and analyzing his representations of aesthetic consciousness in four novels at specific moments (such as Basil Ransom’s and Verena Tarrant’s contrasting responses to Harvard’s Memorial Hall in The Bostonians and Milly Theale’s identification with a Bronzino painting in The Wings of the Dove), this book ultimately explores the idea that for James art represents «every conscious human activity», as Wells replied to James.

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CHAPTER TWO: The Influence of Architecture in The Bostonians 41

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Chapter Two The Influence of Architecture in The Bostonians “Recent generations, gathered in from beneath emptier skies…must have found in the big building as it stands an admonition and an ideal.” The American Scene (48–49) The Emersonian optimism that Isabel Archer embodies continues to ap- pear in James’s fiction, though in The Bostonians (1885) it is expressed not through any one person, but rather through ideas about America’s cultural potential. In 1837 Emerson issued his challenge for a true American poet in The American Scholar. His call reflected a growing national concern that Ameri- cans “have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe” (62). The ready adoption of European artistic and cultural tastes concerned intellectuals in all creative arenas—literary, artistic, and architectural. Roger Stein notes that by 1840 the problem of cultural self-justification “had divided Americans who were concerned with art roughly into two camps: those who felt that art in America should be stimulated only by our native resources, and those who felt and feared that to cut ourselves off from the European traditions of art was a form of cultural suicide” (14). Emerson firmly entrenches himself in the first camp when he laments in Self-Reliance (1841) that American culture imitates rather than invents: “Our houses are built with foreign taste; our shelves are garnished with foreign ornaments; our opinions, our tastes, our faculties, lean, and follow the Past and the Distant” (149). Holding that the American atmos- phere offered artists a plethora of...

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