Volume IV, Number 2, Fall 2008

"The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James: The Production of a Civilized Experience by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács" review by Gabriella Vöő

Gabriella Vöő is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Literatures and Cultures, University of Pécs, Hungary. E-mail:

The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James: The Production of a Civilized ExperienceThe Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James: The Production of a Civilized Experience
Ágnes Zsófia Kovács
Lampeter: Mellen, 2006.
261 pages, ISBN: 0-7734-5787-9

Real criticism, claimed Henry James in his late essay “The New Novel,” has its purpose in “the very education of our imaginative life.” It is the intersection of issues of imagination, knowledge, and morality that The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James is concerned with. The book examines the work of an author who was most of all interested in the limits and potentials of consciousness and their representation, as well as with the moral status of individual subjects. The discussion of the oeuvre by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács takes its pivot in the Jamesian idea that knowledge is produced in social interactions, and the process of its production must be subjected to cultural criticism.

The tripartite structure of the book permits the reader to follow James’s evolving views concerning the functions of the imagination through discussions of his essays in literary criticism, the major novels of consecutive phases in his career together with their prefaces, as well as his nonfictional writings belonging to the field of cultural criticism. Accepting Tony Tanner’s argument about an underlying epistemological “system” in the writer’s art criticism (that is also discernible in his assumptions about the nature of experience and its representation), the author of the study proceeds to unravel the philosophical principles at work in the technical intricacies of the major novels. Furthermore, she reveals that the same epistemological premises are present in James’s view of culture.

The first part of the study, “The Case of James,” includes the chapter on “The role of the moral imagination in Henry James’s essays on literature” which sets the theoretical terms of the approach by discussing the essays in literary criticism as a coherent unity, without imposing on them a division into phases. Arguing the point that “there is a virtual epistemological model of the creative process in James that incorporates the faculty of the imagination” (23), Kovács reconstructs a definition of the imagination implicit in the theoretical writings, as well as the value and scope of it as pointed out by James. In the discussions of essays on Maupassant, Balzac, Flaubert, Daudet, Turgenev, the book on Hawthorne and, finally, of the seminal theoretical essay “The Art of Fiction,” she proceeds to reveal how James arrives at the notion of the imagination as a faculty and of experience as a function of the perceiving mind, and states that creating the illusion of reality is the supreme purpose of the novelist.

“Imagination and Experience in the Novels,” the extensive second part of the book sets out to explore the hermeneutics of James: how the term “imagination,” applied extensively in the novels, is related to the theoretical framework delineated in his critical writings. The author performs meticulous and eye-opening incursions into the novelistic oeuvre from the three distinct phases of James’s career, the early (The American and The Portrait of a Lady), the experimental (What Maisie Knew, The Sacred Fount) and the late phase (The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl). In James’s view experience, although it is essentially a function of consciousness, has a social nature and develops, or rather, is educated, through social interaction. In thoughtful considerations of the major novels’ relevant aspects, the analyses reveal, on one hand, the moral relativism of codes operating in society as well as their manipulative applications by characters like Madame Bellegarde, Madame Merle, Mrs. Newsome or Mrs. Costello. On the other hand, we learn that for the characters privileged by representation (Isabel Archer, Lambert Strether or Maggie Verver), the understanding of their situation in the theater of social interaction, no matter if it results in a sense of triumph or failure, grants the possibility of freedom. Illuminating performances of close reading follow the development of the idea of imagination, experience, and moral sense, revealing how James’s definitions of the imaginative experience are related to issues of execution. This part of the book also examines a pivotal category of characters, the “centers of consciousness,” in the epistemological context of the international theme. The process of understanding monitored by James in the minds of Americans on quest tours in Europe is, claims Kovács, “a cross-cultural, American – European, experience that indicates two different uses of the imagination” (141). Having introduced the Jamesian assumption that the imagination is grounded in social manners, the study further explores it in James’s nonfictional writings.

According to James, the imagination is regarded as epistemological exploration. If the way we imagine something is also the way we understand it, then culture also plays a key role in the contextual model of understanding already present in the earliest critical writings, like the book on Hawthorne. The third and concluding chapter, “Imagination and Cultural Criticism” takes a road little traveled by, and examines essays seldom discussed along with James’s theory of fiction. Here we can make a closer acquaintance with James as a critic of American culture, articulating his disappointments in modern American life as reflected in social relations. The articles written in the early years of the twentieth century, e.g. “The Question of Our Speech” (1905), “The Speech of American Women” (1906-7), “The Manners of American Women” (1907), or “Is There a Life After Death” (1910) account for a fourth phase in James’s career. In a discussion of James as a cultural critic, Kovács makes a case for the “affinity between the ability of speech and the faculty of the imagination” (200). Additionally, she also addresses the problem whether James’s criticism was rooted in Arnold’s elitistic conception of culture. To counter this assumption she points out how James worked on the side of popular culture, the novel being, at the time, as a form of entertainment, which rules out the possibility that he shared the high /low division regarding culture that was endemic to Arnold’s approach.

As far as I know, there are two major trajectories of recent criticism focusing on the larger cultural contexts of James’s work. On the one hand, there are the explorations regarding the cultural constructions of gender, race and ethnicity, including the queer readings of his novels by, for example, Alfred Habegger, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick or Tessa Hadley. There is, on the other hand, ongoing research on the hermeneutics of James’s oeuvre that Ross Posnock, Beverly Haviland, and David Mc Whirter have been concentrating on. The Function of the Imagination takes the latter approach. Ágnes Zsófia Kovács’s book deserves special attention as an endeavor to explore the experimental narrative techniques throughout Henry James’s career in their relation to his epistemological and ethical explorations. It may also be worth noting that the binding of the book is an elegant creamy color with a carpet full of intricate figures on the cover, allowing us, in Jamesian parlance, to “judge the whole piece by the pattern.”