Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Turn of the Page: Henry James in the 1890s

On the 27th March, Dr. Hazel Hutchison (University of Aberdeen) presented the penultimate contribution to the Centre for American Studies’ 2013-2014 lecture series, entitled The Turn of the Page: Henry James in the 1890s.  In her examination of Henry James’ relationship with the precarious publishing market of the 1890s, Dr. Hutchison demonstrated the changing relations between the reader and the writer, the relationship between James and his publisher William Heinemann, and James’ struggles to amalgamate both commercial and refined tastes within his literature of this period.

She began by contextualising James’ work in the 1890s against the Elementary Education Act of 1870, where the first state-educated class of Victorians brought with them a mass market of readers.  Dr. Hutchison made the point that in the burgeoning literary market of the 1890s, the commercial power of the novel was beginning to fade compared to the critical success of short stories.  At the same time English Literature was becoming increasingly recognised as an academic discipline.  Both of these developments had ramifications for the major writers of the late-Victorian period, and Dr. Hutchison’s analysis of James explores his struggles to accommodate both popular and intellectual markets within his work.  His relationship with William Heinemann of Heinemann provided a significant period of surcease within the turbulence of the publishing market at the time, with Dr. Hutchison commenting that it was arguably the most stable professional relationship James had in the 1890s.  It was a period that additionally stood as the most productive period of James’ career.  With reference to a number of letters between James and Heinemann which Dr. Hutchison acquired within the Random House Archives, she argued that this writing period was heavily marked by commercial pressures.  She made the point that James’ recognized that his writings in this period were primarily for financial and not artistic gain.  His continued attempts to produce theatrical works were in part due to the vast financial opportunities the theatre held compared to the more saturated literary markets of the period.  As Dr. Hutchison noted, Heinemann’s publication of Hall Caine’s The Bondsman (1890), which found critical acclaim within theatre adaptations, would have spurred James on even more.  Her analysis of James’ letters demonstrated his growing interest in understanding the publishing and literary markets of the time.  This was reinforced in James’ employment of a literary agent, making him one of the first writers to do so.  His wish to tap into the popular and high-art markets of the time became exemplified in his publication of The Turn of the Screw.

James’ The Turn of the Screw first appeared in England in weekly editions of Heinemann’s Collier’s Weekly in 1898, and quickly become acclaimed by both the public and academics alike.  In James’ hotly-disputed horror story of a governess and her protection of the two children in her care, its critical acclaim exemplified his successful moulding of high-art and literary aesthetics with the more accessible, commercial demands of the popular literary market.  In a candid acknowledgement found in a letter from James to Heinemann, Dr. Hutchison’s argument was reinforced by his acknowledgement that the text was calculated to please popular interests whilst ensuring a generous amount of money in the process.  However, Dr. Hutchison argued that James’ publication was certainly not one that adhered completely to popular tastes.  She made the point that in fact it was James’ intention to inject a degree of high-art literary aesthetic into The Turn of the Screw, whilst courting popular tastes by publishing it within a magazine that could reach a wide spectrum of readers and ensuring that it possessed the accessibility and inexpensiveness of popular Victorian periodicals.  As the author remarked shortly after the text’s release, it was designed to catch those not easily caught, a remark that causes us to revise our understandings of the text’s inclusion within both popular and artistic markets and tastes.  James’ success with The Turn of the Screw was as Dr. Hutchison argued his mastering of the entertaining and the artful.  

The demand for shorter, more accessible fiction led publishers like Heinemann to insist to clients such as Hall Caines and his text The Bondsman (1890) that it be published in one volume rather than several.  Very soon after this the one-volume novel became the norm, which Dr. Hutchison argued exemplified the fragility of the publishing market at the time in adapting to the tastes of the popular market.  In addition, it illustrated the tensions between publishers and writers, in this case the tension between James and Heinemann.  Their relationship came under pressure when James employed James B. Pinker as his literary agent, a publishing middle-man that Heinemann absolutely despised and declined to have anything to do with.  In a particularly humorous segment of Dr. Hutchison’s lecture, she illustrated the difficulties of this tense relationship, with the example that after James corresponded with Pinker, and he in turn subsequently wrote to Heinemann, Heinemann refused to respond back, and would send his correspondence directly to James.  Although Heinemann resented the literary agent as a greedy and inessential intermediary between the author and the publisher, Dr. Hutchison reminded the audience that Heinemann was certainly not above playing games with his clients.  Having given James a mere £50 for The Turn of the Screw, she reminded us that Pinker’s own offers were significantly greater than Heinemann’s, a disparity that likely incensed the publisher furthermore.  Although James would later end Pinker’s services due to the infighting between himself and Heinemann, he subsequently would become disillusioned with the publishing company.  After numerous protests that Heinemann was not promoting his books as well as he could, James became all too aware of the contrast between his popularity back in the United States and in Britain.  

In Dr. Hutchison’s final remarks, she argued that James’ disillusionment with the British publishing market led him to concede that perhaps too much emphasis was put on the marketing of the contemporary text.  He extended Heinemann’s own criticism of the literary agent as a “middle man” to that of publishers as well, arguing that rather than having swathes of publishers, literary agents and other bodies of the market deliberate over what should be published, it is the public who should decide what is worth reading.  Dr. Hutchison’s lecture proved to be an engaging and illuminating discussion of Henry James’ 1890s literature, and one that skilfully demonstrated the numerous commercial, artistic and public pressures that faced authors at the time within a turbulent publishing market.

-          James Nixon
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre for American Studies 2013-14 seminar series at the University of Glasgow concludes with the Fourteenth Annual Gordon Lecture in American Studies on Wednesday 7th May.  In the final contribution to a fantastic seminar series, Professor David Blight of Yale University and Professor Richard Blackett of Vanderbilt University will participate in a forum on the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War on Wednesday 7th May.  We hope to see you there!

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