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A Superficial Reading of Henry James

Preoccupations with the Material World

Thomas J. Otten

“A Superficial Reading of Henry James is a smart, intellectually rigorous and searching study that engages the range and depth of contemporary American Studies scholarship.” —Gordon Hutner, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Otten brings a literary sensibility to his critical writing—but even more impressively, he writes with wonderful lucidity, fine-tuning his critical concepts in a way that gives them intellectual vitality. His book is more engaging to read than so many of the other recent books on James. Its style and approach are, in particular, a refreshing departure from cookie-cutter New Historical studies on James.” —Dorothy Hale, University of California, Berkeley

Do the surfaces matter? In this provocative book, A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the Material World, Thomas J. Otten demonstrates that surfaces matter profoundly. Taking seriously the accessories of Henry James’s fiction—the china and bric-a-brac, the antique cabinets and tapestries, the ribbons and hats—this book argues that James’s famous ambiguity is a material state, an indeterminate zone where the difference between essence and ornament disappears. Ranging between fictions as well-known as The Portrait of a Lady (whose heroine is celebrated for her psychological complexity) and ones as under-studied as “Rose-Agathe” (whose heroine is a hairdresser’s manikin), Otten suggests that the distinction between what counts as thematic depth and what counts as physical surface is, for James, impossible to maintain. Achieving a superficial reading of Henry James means demonstrating the persistence of the material within the novelist’s most conceptual formations of meaning—an argument with important consequences for literary theory, as Otten shows in his concluding chapters.

Eloquently written and guided by a perverse love for the superfluous detail, this book makes an important contribution to a fast-growing area of the humanities, one newly committed to the serious study of material culture, the concrete experiences of everyday life, and the history of the physical senses.

Thomas J. Otten teaches English at Boston University.

Jun 2006
Literary Criticism/American; American Literature/American Studies
264 pp. 6x9

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