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Thread: James and the voice of American innocence

  1. #1
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    James and the voice of American innocence

    Bitterfly had earlier asked me some nicely framed questions about James and American innocence, and I think the issue is worth continued discussion under James as a specific author. Here is how we started the discussion, and as an avid Jamesian, there are many aspects to it:

    Originally Posted by Bitterfly
    Speaking about James, I was interested in what you said about the American voice being characterised by its innocence, Jozanny. If you read my post, would you care to explain? Do you mean there are many innocent narrators, or that there's a general wistfulness for a lost age of innocence? I would have said that innocence, its loss and its quest were themes rather than components of a voice, which is why I'm intrigued, actually. I imagined the American voice somewhat like Whitman's, but I'd be at a loss how to define it...


    My reply:

    Mmm. I am honored to be asked about this, Bitter, but I need to ponder the question. For a start though, I don't think Jamesian narration itself is innocent, as it is usually either third person limited/omniscient. But I think it can be argued that James catches our irritating American naivete near perfectly. Maggie is not only shocked that the Prince would sleep with Charlotte--she refuses to accept that an evil such as this would corrode the excellent freedoms she and her wealthy father enjoy, so she out-maneuvers both her worldly titled foreign husband, and her persumably ex-friend (Charlotte). What her triumph amounts to is open to question--yet it is clear she would not "look the other way" as some women might to keep their status intact. We could also take Bessie, in a shorter, less complex work, who rejects an English Lord because he cannot meet her *ideal* of what an English Lord should amount to. It is radical stuff, within James's sphere, when one really thinks about it.

    I hope we might continue to move the discussion forward!

  2. #2
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    You know I saw that question about innocence back in the other thread and was about to comment. There is no question that as a theme American innocence is in James and many other American writers. But can a voice have "innocence"? Is it the voice or the theme? I would love to see/hear what an voice of innocence sounds like.
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    liber vermicula Bitterfly's Avatar
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    My point too, in my first post to Jozanny. It would be lovely if it were a voice, actually... I don't have enough time to think about it now, but isn't the idiot in The Sound and the Fury a nice innocent voice, Virgil? Or the other one in As I lay Dying (sorry I don't remember their names)? I'm half-jesting, but why not...
    To come back to James, who is the subject of the topic (had forgotten! ), I'd have to think about it more. But shouldn't we first try to define what makes a voice innocent?

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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bitterfly View Post
    My point too, in my first post to Jozanny. It would be lovely if it were a voice, actually... I don't have enough time to think about it now, but isn't the idiot in The Sound and the Fury a nice innocent voice, Virgil? Or the other one in As I lay Dying (sorry I don't remember their names)? I'm half-jesting, but why not...
    To come back to James, who is the subject of the topic (had forgotten! ), I'd have to think about it more. But shouldn't we first try to define what makes a voice innocent?
    I haven't read As I lay Dying, so I can't answer that one. But Benjy in The Sound and the Fury is innocent. He is mentally retarded. I don't think that is connected to American innocence. I think you might make a good case for American innocence in that novel with the character of Quentin. But I guess it's possible that Benjy also represents innocence.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bitterfly View Post
    But shouldn't we first try to define what makes a voice innocent?
    I think, in James, *innocence* is sometimes a stand-in for obstinacy, as well as lack of guile; whereas if we compare Flaubert or Zola, who James saw as deficient--sometimes deficient rivals, innocence is more nuanced. Emma's father, Rouault is the only fundamentally decent character in Bovary, in the sense of *good*-- if we argue that goodness is equivalent to innocence, in some way. In Zola no one has any real moral decency, at least not from what I can tell--except for a minor married couple in Germinal who were hapless victims of the mining corporacy.

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    Lost in the Fog PabloQ's Avatar
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    The James novels that I recently finished reading -- Portrait, Wings, Ambassadors -- all take place in Europe. The narrative voice, which I agree with Jozanny is third person/omniscient, seems to interpret the naivity of the American as a flaw that makes them culturally and at times intellectually inferior to Europeans. At times, I felt it was almost snobby, but the complexity of the language and intricacy of the psychology throughout the novels is enough to disqualify the voice as innocent.

    I know To Kill a Mockingbird gets mixed reactions on the net, but I find Scout Finch's narrative to be the voice of innocence. The events in the novel are not earth aren't particularly earth shattering or newsworthy to modern readers, but Scout's view of them is pure and it's sweet and I'm not sure if we ever understand the effect these events have on her other than her telling the story from a vantage point years later. Two cents worth, probably over priced.
    No damn cat, no damn cradle - Newt Honniker

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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Pablo it's been a while since I read them, but I'm not sure I would say that those novels are third person/omniscient. I seem to recall third person limited view, and perhaps the person from whose perspective the scene follows varies within the novel, but I don't recall ominscient. James was very particular about point of view.
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    Virgil, you are mostly correct. James excelled at using one character as a sieve through which we get the story and see the other players. He did, however, in certain instances, use the omniscient narrator, and The Portrait of A Lady might arguably be one of them. I haven't visited with Isabel in a while, but I've read the damn novel so often it plays in my head like a musical score, and, while the story is mainly through Isabel's psyche, James sometimes perches above her in a modicum of objective distance, which is also somewhat the case in The Wings of The Dove, but not The Ambassadors. That novel belongs solely to Strether, however difficult it is for the reader to hang with the old boy and get through his impressions, and the smoke and mirrors he has to clear. I am personally a little diffident about the last, maybe a little cynical about Strether himself. Stransom, of Altar, I can see. He is a little daft, and dear, and I get the game. Stransom and Strether are often compared as James's older characters feeling both their oats and their mortality; indeed, Stransom kicks the bucket beautifully, if only the rest of us could be so lucky, but Strether--shockingly enough to say, Strether annoys me, and maybe through him James rankles me in this novel more than not, but since I've only read it twice, I will hold my fire but to add that, of his master works it so far least holds my affection.

    As to Pablo's contention:


    The narrative voice... seems to interpret the naivity of the American as a flaw that makes them culturally and at times intellectually inferior to Europeans. At times, I felt it was almost snobby, but the complexity of the language and intricacy of the psychology throughout the novels is enough to disqualify the voice as innocent.
    The first part is fair enough, but isn't always the case. James seems to enjoy British natives as simpletons: Lord Lambert, Owen Gereth.

    But as to the second, you cannot confuse linguistic intricacy with naivety Pablo.

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