Henry James & the Sense of the Past
an undergraduate seminar developed and taught by Jennifer Scappettone at the University of Chicago, Spring 2010
I delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past—in the nearer distances and the clearer mysteries, the marks and signs of a world we may reach over to as by making a long arm we grasp an object at the other end of our own table. The table is the one, the common expanse, and where we lean, so stretching, we find it firm and continuous. That, to my imagination, is the past fragrant of all, or of almost all, the poetry of the thing outlived and lost and gone, and yet in which the precious element of closeness, telling so of connexions but tasting so of differences, remains appreciable. —Henry James, preface to The Aspern Papers
This course will examine time-travel as it is effected, as well as staged, by the prose of Henry James, culminating in a study of his final, unfinished novel. Rather than merely attempting to situate his oeuvre historically, we will focus on the peculiar conception of history that the author’s notion of a “visitable past” (always conversant with the “accent of the…future”) affords. We will study the reciprocal interference between sensory and historical experience in James’s prose, which hankers after, yet never quite achieves a “consanguineousness” with history, in tandem with the commodification of past forms it dramatizes contemporaneously. How does James’s fiction reconjure and further mediate the inassimilable “aesthetic presence of the past” he detects in Europe? How does it revise historical fiction, or anticipate later 20th-century conceptions of historical experience? Relevant criticism and primary readings in realism, aestheticism, and historiography will supplement our readings of the bodies and prefaces of selected tales, essays, travel writings, and novels.
Note: when acquiring books outside of the Seminary Co-Op, please be sure that you are reading an authoritative, revised, “New York edition” of each work, containing James’s preface.
Books for purchase at Seminary Co-Op:
The American (1877; revised 1906)
The Aspern Papers (1888; revised 1908)
The Wings of the Dove (1902)
The Golden Bowl (1904)
Note: all other readings will be available through the Course Reserves link on Chalk, or posted to the Documents tab of Chalk. This includes The Sense of the Past (posthumous)—for which an electronic edition is fine, as others are expensive—and H.G. Wells, The Time Machine.