Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/125

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107
His Latest Method

comment. Indeed, we may almost say the story itself has been thrown out with the rest. For in the later novels and tales of James there is not so much a story told as a situation revealed; revealed to the characters and so to us; and the process of gradual revelation, the calculated " release" of one item after another—that is the plot. It is as if we were present at the painting of a picture by a distinguished artist, as if we were invited to follow the successive strokes by which this or that detail of his conception was made to bloom upon the canvas; and when the last bit of oil had been applied, he should turn to us and say "Now you have heard Bordello's story told." Some of us would be satisfied with the excitement of having assisted at such a function, considering also the picture which had thus come into being. Others,—and it is human nature, no doubt,—would exclaim in vexed bewilderment "But 7 have heard no story told!"

The stories of James tend to be records of seeing rather than of doing. The characters are more like patients than agents; their business seems to be to register impressions; to receive illumination rather than to make up their minds and set about deeds. But this is a way of conceiving our human business by no means confined to these novels; is it not more or less characteristic of the whole period in which James wrote? One passes by insensible degrees from the world of Renan to that of Pater and Swinburne, and thence to that of Oscar Wilde and of writers yet living, in whom the cult of impressions has been carried to lengths yet more extreme.

Among all these names the most significant here seems to be that of Walter Pater, whose style and tone of writing—corresponding to his intellectual quality and bias more nearly anticipate the style of James than do those of any other writer, English or French. It does not matter that Pater's subject is the art of the past and James's the life of the present. No two writers were ever more concerned with mere "impressions," and impressions mean for them discriminations, intimate impressions, subtle and finely sympathetic interpretations. None ever found it necessary, in order to render the special quality of their impressions, to try them in so many different lights, to accompany their state-