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Henry James, Impressionism, and the Public

By Daniel Hannah

 Proposing a new approach to Jamesian aesthetics, Daniel Hannah examines the complicated relationship between Henry James's impressionism and his handling of 'the public.' Hannah challenges solely phenomenological or pictorial accounts of literary impressionism, instead foregrounding James's treatment of the word 'impression' as a mediatory unit that both resists and accommodates invasive publicity. Thus even as he envisages a breakdown between public and private at the end of the nineteenth century, James registers that breakdown not only as a threat but also as an opportunity for aesthetic gain. Beginning with a reading of 'The Art of Fiction' as both a public-forming essay and an aesthetic manifesto, Hannah's study examines James's responses to painterly impressionism and to aestheticism, and offers original readings of What Maisie Knew, The Wings of the Dove, and The American Scene that treat James's articulation of impressionism in relation to the child, the future of the novel, and shifts in the American national imaginary. Hannah's study persuasively argues that throughout his career James returns to impressionability not only as a site of immense vulnerability in an age of rapid change but also as a crucible for reshaping, challenging, and adapting to the public sphere’s shifting forms.
'Focusing on the tendency in Impressionism to trouble distinctions between the public and the private, Daniel Hannah’s sophisticated and compelling book opens up broad new views of much that makes Henry James’s writing meaningful and much that has yet to be seen in the problem of Impressionism.'
--Jesse E. Matz, Kenyon College, USA
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