Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Bostonians (1886)

This is about as weird for Henry James as anything I've read by him yet. For one very obvious point, it is set entirely in the New World, with barely a reference to Europe. It involves a post-Civil-War Southern aristocratic gentleman, baying packs of Boston feminists, and a family of professional frauds. It is as exaggerated and distorted a view of 19th-century American society as could be constructed, I sense, based on what else I know. Once acclimated to the strange scene in this novel I found at least one unsettling bent toward my own sympathies. But James is not particularly taking a position. This is more like a Tom Wolfe novel a century too early. He is mocking and skewering it all—the level of contempt itself is bracing. Thus, for every jab I enjoyed that he took at the South in the person of Basil Ransom (whose name I kept perversely reading as Basil Rathbone), I had to wince and take issue when he attempted to make the feminists seem silly, willfully misunderstanding in order to dismiss them. By today's standards, James is the one who looks silly, with his witless intimations of lesbianism and generalized sexual frustration, or female hysteria. His hollow, belated appreciation of one of these feminists just feels insincere. In all this, there is also one of the more inane romances ever conducted via the cloak of a novel of manners. The concluding chapters dither about senselessly, with the worst symptoms of serialization in some ways. Only the throwaway very last sentence of the last paragraph finally delivers anything like a resolution. But because The Bostonians is a farce there is no resolution, nor can be. The greatest interest here for me was more historical, dredging up some sense of 1870s Boston as a focus of progressive / liberal / radical social change, analogous to San Francisco a century later. Many of the feminists' most basic priorities, such as the right to vote, seem now to have no argument whatsoever against. So it's interesting also to attempt to parse out some "common sense" view that would exclude it, which surfaces here, not just via the Southern gentleman Ransom, who himself more or less still demurs on the issue of slavery, let alone his views on women, but also embedded within the balancing tone of the third-person narrator, our authority of last resort. Interesting, but weird.

"interlocutor" count = 4 / 250 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library.

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