American Morality

  • Vivien Jones


We can fully understand the complex modernism of Henry James’s late essays, and of the prefaces to the New York Edition of his works, only by recognizing its source in an early prescriptive moral idealism. James’s first attempts to articulate a theory of fiction are to be found in short reviews of contemporary novels and there is a vital continuity between his early, brash generalizations at the expense of these usually rather poor examples of the form and his mature aesthetic. James’s criticism never entirely lost this prescriptive note: it was, after all, always a workshop and testing-ground for his creative practice. But as his theories matured, his critical method matured. Like so many since he turned to France for critical guidance, learning, importantly, from fellow-practitioners like Balzac and Flaubert, but also from French critics — and especially from Sainte-Beuve, advocate of descriptive, impartial criticism. Though he eventually left Sainte-Beuve’s biographical empiricism behind, it was the Sainte-Beuve model which initially helped James to escape the narrowing effects of prescription and self-interest, and the generous urbanity of tone in his later criticism is witness to the lasting influence of his first French master.


Human Nature Moral Responsibility Early Review Moral Consciousness Ambivalent Sexuality 
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  1. 1.
    For previous discussions of James’s critical apprenticeship, see Morris Roberts, Henry James’s Criticism (Cambridge, Mass., 1929)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Cornelia Pulsifer Kelley, The Early Development of Henry James, rev. edn. (Urbana, Ill., 1965)Google Scholar
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  6. 11.
    Critical documents from the controversy are collected in Theories of American Literature, ed. Richard Ruland, 2 vols, The Native Muse and A Storied Land (New York, 1976); and see James W. Tuttleton, The Novel of Manners in America (Chapel Hill, 1972).Google Scholar
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    William M. Gibson and George Arms, A Bibliography of William Dean Howells (New York, 1948).Google Scholar
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    ‘Realism in Art: Recent German Fiction’, Westminster Rev. (1858); rpt. in Literary Criticism of George Henry Lewes, ed. Alice R. Kaminsky (Lincoln, Nebr., 1964) p. 87.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, a typically ambivalent comment from the North British Review: ‘what is conspicuous above all else is the skill with which she groups her materials, and the manner in which she deals with revolting topics, so as to hinder the startled reader from tossing her volume away in sheer disgust’: ‘Sensation Novels: Miss Braddon’, North British Rev. 43 (1865) 201. Cf. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (London, 1978) pp. 163–8.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Vivien Jones 1985

Authors and Affiliations

  • Vivien Jones
    • 1
  1. 1.Balliol CollegeOxfordUK

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