1. The Historical Genre: Critical and Practical Discourse

Henry James, The Future of the Novel

Henry James is often celebrated for elaborating the relation between the novel's form and authorial consciousness, but seldom for his equally strong sense of the intimate relation between the novel's form and history. In 1899, speaking of "The Future of the Novel" James invoked history as the guarantor of continual formal innovation:

There is nothing to prevent our taking for granted all sorts of happy symptoms and splendid promises--so long, of course, I mean, as we keep before us the general truth that the future of fiction is intimately bound up with the future of the society that produces and consumes it. [....] There are many judges, doubtless, who hold that experiments--queer and uncanny things at best--are not necessary to it, that its face has been, once for all, turned in one way, and that it has only to go straight before it. If that is what it is actually doing in England and America the main thing to say about its future would appear to be that this future will in truth more and more define itself as negligible. For all the while the immense variety of life will stretch away to right and to left, and all the while there may be, on such lines, perpetuation of its great mistake of failing of intelligence. That mistake will be, ever, for the admirable art, the only one really inexcusable, because of being a mistake about, as we may say, its own soul. The form of novel that is stupid on the general question of its freedom is the single form that may, a priori, be unhesitatingly pronounced wrong.[12]

Here, James is uncharacteristically forthright and emphatic. The novel's "own soul" follows the "queer and uncanny" formal innovations that keep pace with the "future of the society that produces and consumes it." Anything less, any assertion that the novel's "face has been, once and for all, turned in one direction," is "stupid." While the bulk of James' criticism most visibly explores abstract and purely formal dimensions of compositional unity, this exploration rests upon an assumption that the relation of form to history is implicit in the very act of writing. James explains as much in "The Art of Fiction":

It is as difficult to suppose a person intending to write a modern English as to suppose him writing an ancient English novel: that is a label which begs the question. One writes the novel, one paints the picture, of one's language and of one's time, and calling it modern English will not, alas! make the difficult task any easier. [ 13]

The "question" for James is whether a novel's "picture, of one's language and of one's time" is any good; if it is good, the novelist will have risen to the "difficult task" of the historical genre. A conviction of the novel's special, distinguishing relation to history informs James' theoretical speculations without occupying their visible center.

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