Volume II, Number 2, Fall 2006

"On a Jamesian Ethics of Manners: Henry James’s cultural criticism" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is Senior Assistant Professor at Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Email: akovacs@lit.u-szeged.hu


Henry James is known as a novelist of manners rather than a theorist of manners. Still, in this article I wish to show James the theoretican of manners in his little known, so called fourth phase. This is the time, after 1905, when he had already written his major novels. Usually, this period of his work, till his death, is considered to be on the margin of critical interest. Yet, I have selected four essays of his output in order to show in what way his criticism of American manners is in line with his general theory about the responsibility of the man of imagination, a notion that comes up in these essays, and, of course, in his former novelistic production. The argumentation consists of three parts: the first in a lead-on about the fourth phase, then the second provides an analysis of his criticism of American manners, and thirdly, his idea of manners is compared to his idea of the life of the imagination in his only speculative essay from the fourth phase. My project is to show the similar structure of manners and the life of the mind in these texts.

1. James’s Fourth Phase

The name of the phase refers to William James’s comment on Henry’s The Golden Bowl in 1905. William disliked the style of The Bowl, Henry’s third manner and expressed a need for a fourth, possibly more straightforward manner (Caramello, 1993: 464). Henry’s fourth manner, however, is wide off the mark William set: it can be seen as a modification of the third in two major respects: real material is handled and the genres relied on demand the use of the first person Henry had previously tried to avoid. Ross Posnock and Beverly Haviland called this part of James’s work his second major phase, one of autobiography, cultural criticism, and aesthetics (Posnock 1995: 23-4; Haviland 1997: xv). The pieces that constitute the phase are first and foremost The American Scene about James’s travels in the U.S.; two and a half volumes of autobiography; articles and lectures; the Prefaces to The New York Edition, two novels; several tales.

The critical reception of these pieces is a fascinating story to me as it represents trends in the James industry and critical theory simultaneously. James’s contemporaries did not consider the writings of the phase to be pieces of cultural criticism at all. Critical orthodoxy in the 1930s, exemplified by Van Wyck Brooks, read them as degenerate productions of the expatriate (Brooks 1925). Formally oriented criticism, heralded by F. O. Matthiessen, tended to read them as footnotes to a work already unified, focused on artistic qualities, and used them for background or biographical information (Matthiessen 1944). Avant-garde criticism stressed the freedom of signification and the ambiguity of the writing (Schloss 1992: 39 40; Caramello 1993: 465). However, the contemporary interest in multiculturalism and cultural studies, finds this phase of James doubly interesting: he is writing about culture and society explicitly and is also expressing his personal view of the problems encountered.

The works have achieved their ‘cultural’ receptions individually as different genres used for the construction of James’s personal narrative. Among them The American Scene is the hottest text to date (Buelens 1997: 166, 2002). In the articles written about his trips in the U.S., James encounters an America different from that of his memories and is first and foremost forced to consider the phenomena of race and racial vs. national identity: immigrants at Ellis Island, Jews in New York and anti-Semitism, African Americans in the North and in the South, the fate of the native natives: American Indians; the relativity of being native and alien. James’s position to these issues is characteristically ambiguous and is subject to debate (Warren 1993: 141; Blair 1996). Secondly, his approach to gender issues is another problem at hand: masculine and feminine roles and his rejection of the American ideal male position in them (Banta 1998: 30). Thirdly, he is preoccupied with the problem of the past: America as he remembers it and as it is. In the face of what he dislikes, he reconstructs his past in a nostalgic image of America (Rowe 1976: 134). Last but not least, the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of the work are also explained: against Posnock’s combative idea of the aesthetic, Buelens stresses the mediating value of the aesthetic in political action, while McWhirter explores the ethical stance behind the project (Posnock 1991, 1998: 226; Buelens 1997: 170, 2002; McWhirter 1997: 157).

The volumes of James’s autobiography have been analyzed as narratives of the emergence of the artistic imagination. His A Small Boy and Others, Notes of a Son and Brother, and the incomplete The Middle Years constitute a reconstruction of the artist’s self through the stories of learning to ‘see’. Autobiography as fictional construction of the self is in the foreground. Like the autobiographies, the Prefaces of The New York Edition are also read as slabs in a monumental work of construction, that of the figure of the author. James the artist becomes the hero of the Prefaces; the Master whose work is fictionalized (McWhirter, ed. 1995). Let us note that essays like “The Lesson of Balzac” and “The Future of the Novel” complement the critical output but are not yet handled as parts of the construction of the Master. The novels The Sense of the Past and The Outcry and the late short stories make up another area of reconsideration for Jamesians. James’s relation to the genre of the romance, his use of first person narration in the fourth phase make one reconsider old critical tenets (Haviland 1997).

Interestingly, the articles written around the time The American Scene was conceived, “The Question of our Speech” (1905), “The Speech of American Women” (1906-7), and “The Manners of American Women” (1907), project the fate of manners and taste in American culture as opposed to European civilization. Against the absence and nostalgia presented in the articles, the fourth text, the metaphysical essay titled “Is there a Life after Death?” represents ideals: the purpose of one’s reliance on the imagination. There is a strong conviction manifested in this essay of the ability of imaginative constructs to counter physical death. (Henceforward, the essays will be referred to as QS, SA, MA, and LD, respectively.) There appears a contrast between the Jamesian criticism of manners and his celebration of the life of the mind.

2. The Question of American Manners

The three articles on the speech of Americans in general and manners and speech of American women in particular constitute a desperate criticism of the state of American culture and civilization on James’s part. The way James stresses the importance of civilized speech and habits indicates his belief in a framework of speech, manners, and civilization wherein ‘everything is related.’ Let us survey first James’s vision of the case, then explicate the model of relations.

The situation of manners in America is deplorable. Both common people and allegedly cultured ones seem to get along without having learned basic rules of behavior and expectations of decency. In “The Question of Our Speech” James demonstrates how one’s inability to communicate decently (beginning, middle, and end) comes down to an absence of manners (QS 42-3). He is soon to realize that although his problem is with the state of manners in American society as such, he can discuss the case of American women only. As far as he is concerned, the manners of American men—due to the traditional division of gender roles in the U.S.—are possibly even more deficient than those of women. The sphere of American men is business, Wall Street, and the football field, whereas women use authority and the whole social field is abandoned to them. So considering the case of American women one encounters a paradox: preoccupied by cultural and social activity they do not take the trouble to care about the way they speak (SA 67).

The lack of manners is demonstrated not only by the way American women speak but also by how they eat and read. The reason for this is simple: the ability of speech is not simply a manifestation of manners or culture. In James’s view talk, speech, manners, morals, and civilization are dependent on each other. His discussion of the question of speech attests to the hierarchy of social abilities or skills he is concerned with. His first distinction is between talk and speech, the site where everything begins: talk equals simple chatter. Speech is more: a knowledge of different tones of voice, syllables, forms, shades of articulation. (SA 76, 78; QS, 44) The interest of speech is the chief joy of and addition (agrèment) to intercourse (SA, 76), an opportunity for taste: intercourse and taste depend on our keeping up a sense of life by the quality of our speech and sounds (SA, 77).

Intercourse or conversation means an ability to communicate, to be able to address and respond. An example James often comes back to is the proper way to ask for a favor, its three part structure: the introductory part, the asking, and the closing acknowledgement. When one talks, it is only the middle or content part that is paid attention to. As an addition, speech represents an attention to civilities and forms of conveying content. At the same time, speech is not solely repetition but an active use of possible forms and tones, a living organism (QS, 55) that needs the active involvement of its user. In conversation, even the expression of unimportant content becomes an enjoyable activity between speakers. So there is a strict pattern in which talk, speech, and conversation presuppose each other. The prime importance of speech for James lies in his idea that the educative process cannot begin without the knowledge of speech. If American/s (women) cannot use speech, they cannot study to converse, they cannot be educated.

At stake in studying is the ability to achieve manners and taste that have the highest status in James’s system. Speech results in conversation; conversation is the matter of coherent culture. Knowledge of handling social situations is manners: a great help in being with others. Speech is at the forefront of manners, and when the good yell is used as the only tone, a chaos of manners follows. Thus the question of manners is raised simultaneously with the question of speech. Selection and comparison needed for speech are really abilities necessary for taste, too. Good breeding is the use of secure good manners. The locus reached through an ability to converse is the realm of manners.

The aim of good speech, manners, and taste is to achieve civilization, a coherent culture. For James civilization as such exists in Europe only where all the terms above constitute a coherent culture. In America taste has not yet been achieved, therefore one cannot talk about American civilization but the fact that America did not follow the example of European culture. A reason for this might be that Americans are unaware of the overall connections among things:

For everything hangs together, and there are certain perceptions and sensibilities that are key – a key to the inner treasury of the consciousness, where all sorts of priceless things abide. Access to these is through those perceptions; so don’t hope that you can just rudely and crudely force the lock. Everything hangs together, I say, and there is no isolated question of speech, no isolated application of taste, no isolated damnation of delicacy. The interest of tone is the interest of manners, and the interest of manners is the interest of morals, and the interest of morals is the interest of civilization (SA, 78)

James fortifies this claim in QS, where one can find a similar passage about relations among people:

All life therefore comes back to the question of our speech the medium through which we communicate with each other, for all life comes back to our relations to each other. These relations […] are verily constituted, by our speech. […] The more it suggests and expresses the more we live by it […] (QS, 44)

So in the background of James`s harsh criticism of American manners we can find his idea of the value of speech. Life as an area of our interpersonal relations is constituted by speech, but speech in turn provides perceptions and sensibilities that may become issues of manners, morals, and eventually of civilization. Consciousness is the container of our perceived relations with each other, of our life. Our perceptions together make up our civilization. Therefore what on a personal level is the question of life and living, is on the societal level the question of civilization.
3. “Is There a Life After Death?“

As an antidote to the pessimism of the previous three essays, I propose to have a look at another essay titled “Is There a Life After Death?” Its tone is more optimistic since its subject is the possibility of conscious life. It is worth viewing it as a supplement to the previous three pieces: we can compare their terminology.

The title of James’s philosophical essay “Is There a Life After Death?” presents us with a paradox. Life and death are supposed to be in opposition to each other, mutually exclusive states; once life is over, death begins. Still, the question in the title is about the possibility of undoing the exclusive opposition by some means. It seems that in the Jamesian framework there is a possibility of a third way, a non-exclusive opposition — the individual’s personality, and thus the concept of the imagination has a major role to play. The context of the question is the elderly James questioning himself about basic values that he has held from his youth and that seem to be ignored by actual life.

The essay projects a framework in which instead of the opposition life – death there is a network of minimal pairs. First, life can be divided into two kinds: life not lived and lived life (or living), its opposite. Within life, life lived is a life in which individual consciousness is active, it is able to sense relations and make associations. Non-life is the opposite of lived life on this existential level: it means the absence of conscious reflection. Both kinds of lives are lives on a material level; the difference between them is on the existential plane. With the introduction of the existential aspect the dual opposition of life and death is broken up and a hypothetical possibility of an existential life after the death of the body is opened. In this sense, the question in the title refers to the possibility of a renewed lived life in the existential sense after physical death.

Perhaps it is not surprising now that there are not only two possible answers to the question above. If the question entailed a twist with the inclusion of the existential dimension, the answer will necessarily involve this aspect, too. So, as far as James is concerned, there are two types of people answering the question, one group that is aware of the question itself and the possibility opened by it, and the other group that has never even considered this question. Those who have never considered it live life on a material level: the life of the scientist in which it is sheer nonsense to ask the above question because he is absolutely unaware of the possibility of the existential dimension. The second group consists of people who are aware of the question and either want to live life after death or not. The personal intention, in James’s opinion, will depend on the kinds of happenings the person has encountered in the course of his life.

In this framework the term ‘being’ denotes lived life rather than non – lived life. Lived life with the activities of the consciousness is at the center of James’s concerns. The question, from the perspective of metaphysics, is whether ‘being’ as the existential center of an individual’s life has a chance to go on after death if the person wants it to. Also, as this yes or no question is explicated, it becomes more problematic how one can attain ‘being’ in order to be able to opt for a “life after death.”

For James, personality is the main factor that can ensure lived life and thus differentiate being from non – being. As James puts it, it all depends on the weight of the interest of what life has predominantly said to us (LD 116): if it had anything to say, then being in the sense of personal awareness of life is offered. James presents the permanent features of personality and then rephrases the question in the title of the essay within this new context.

The introduction of the temporal aspect into the scheme of the personality is James’s reason for worry. If the personality is seen in time, then several questions arise as to its durability. Firstly, it seems that personality resists tenses other than the present tense. Associations, reactions of the sensibility are always happening now, consequently, the personality knows about itself as it is now and not as it was yesterday. Also, one has to consider that to think about the personality itself is an abstraction, because if the personality exists in the present and is an ongoing progression, then to think about it is only possible in terms of a hypothetical “I,” a sign to reckon with when different experiences of that same “I” are talked about. That is, one can know about the practice of the personality through the linguistic reduction of the actual experience as experience of the same hypothetical “I.” Thirdly, it seems that although James firmly believes in his general idea of being and personality, his contemporaries do not seem to be interested in it at all. This leads to the last and biggest problem, whether it is possible to reconstruct personality after death knowing about its basic nature in the present and the contemporary neglect of the issue as a whole.

The question “Is there a Life after Death?”, then, is a question about the death of the human personality. James’s conviction is that immortality is personal if anything: only with a reliance on the notion of a personal being, the maintenance of an existential dimension can we ever consider the question. Is it possible to think of the life of the consciousness, of personality in time? Is it possible to renew the personality, the action of the mind? These questions can only be answered if the notion of experience is seen to constitute the background of “lived life” and “personality.”

The process of experience entails the problem of personality and lived life as its workings explain the ways in which the latter two are produced. Experience in the essay is characterized as personal, and an experience of another existence (LD 117). Another existence is practically the adventure of the personality; it is a reaction dependent on one’s sensibilities. One’s sensibilities, in turn, constitute one’s experience of nature, life, society and knowledge (LD 120). It is this adventure of the sensibility of the consciousness that creates intensity: a vibration as James likes to put it. Notice the similarity to the description of the personality here. It is as if in this system personality was a question of experience: a conviction that if experience is attained, you will have a personality and through that lived life. Thus we are back to the title again. No wonder, then, that the initial question is also rephrased, now in terms of experience: “Do we feel capable of a brutal rupture with registered promises, started curiosities, waiting initiations? The mere acquired momentum of intelligence, of perception, of vibration, of experience in a word, would have carried them on, we argue, to something, the something that never takes place for us, if the laboratory brain were not really all.” (LD 121)

In fact in this passage there is also an attempt to answer the question. The answer is not concerned with how ‘things’ are in the world but rather with how they are in the individual’s consciousness. “What it comes to is then that our faith or our hope may to some degree resist the fact, once accomplished, of watched and deplored death, but that they may well break down before the avidity and consistency with which everything insufferably continues to die.” (LD 121) So the renewal of the personal process of experience depends on the faith or hope of the experiencing person.

And this is where he brings the concept of the imagination into the discussion, the play of the imagination as the practice of consciousness and the imaginable relations to be perceived wherever one directs the reflector of consciousness. The life of the mind and the play of the free imagination are now presented as the two major aspects or means of enlarging consciousness that gives one the vision of being with unlimited relations.

For James, incidentally, the mapping of experience was exactly the main topic of his life as an artist. And it is as an artist that he can appreciate experience, independence of thought, boundlessly multiplied personal relations most. He claims that this is the tool that carries one beyond a profound observation of the world (LD 124). The project is that a man of imagination living an intellectual life and sensitive to questions of being should enlarge questions of being and share them with or make them shareable for others. The artist must “surrender to invasive floods” (LD 124) that make up nine-tenths of his consciousness and that make him interesting. James thinks he lived and worked like this and, accordingly, he has the reason to desire the renewal of existence, existence the forms of which he had cultivated, that is, being.

The full answer to the question in the title of the essay is possible to give in terms of the explanation above. Life after death can only be that of the lived life or being of one’s personality. Lived life means intellectual life, the awareness of consciousness that involves the life of the mind and the play of the imagination. Cultivation and observation change into processes different from our ordinary understanding of them. They become faculties that enable one to perceive unlimited relations. Cultivation in this sense means that one’s personality becomes a process for the sake of survival in the existential sense. Also, one has to realize that reality and the world are not the reasons of personal experience but are the results of it.


Both in the articles about the manners and speech of American women and in the metaphysical essay James is concerned with relations that make up life in the existential sense. His criticism of American women presents the absence of his ideal of civilized speech and behavior that would result in a life of interpersonal relations. His discourse on the life of the mind surveys the metaphysical purpose of engaging in imaginative activity. Taking the trouble to make distinctions in conversation has the same imaginative status as has immersing oneself in intellectual engagements. Both sets of relations involve a moral aspect. The critic of manners has the responsibility to remind others of their duty to cultivate their taste. Similarly, the man of imagination has the responsibility to decide to have a life or not. For James, ‘being’, i.e. life in an existential sense, is first and foremost a question of deciding to live a life of imaginative cultivation. Both civilized speech and an active mind serve life — in the existential sense.

Let me add one last word on the notion of culture used in this argument. In James’s critical output the importance of the individual perceiver appears in a process of interpretation that is directly connected to culture. What can be the intellectual roots of his concept of culture? As we know, culture taken as an ideal both of society and the human mind that has its root in the humanistic tradition can be seen in two diverse ways. One is, with the Enlightenment philosophers, to develop the idea in opposition to the idea of nature. In this case, only a society stripped of cultural bonds and customs can be just and effective because the principle of competition would prevail in it. The other way to think about culture is to say, together with Victorian cultural critics, that a society without cultural bonds has no cohesion and falls into anarchy. Likewise, the mind loses all practical and moral orientation when it is stripped of culture, and the world becomes chaos (Schloss 1992). On the basis of the above articles, I have to make a claim about James’s Victorian intellectual legacy. Comparing his notions of speech and manners to those of Matthew Arnold on culture would make another essay, though.

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