Read A Casebook on Henry James's The Turn of The Screw by Gerald Willen Free Online
Book Title: A Casebook on Henry James's The Turn of The Screw|
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Reader ratings: 3.3
The author of the book: Gerald Willen
Edition: Thomas Y. Crowell
Date of issue: 1960
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I wrote all but the first sentence of the Goodreads description; since those reading an individual review in their updates don't always see the book descriptions, I'll reproduce that information here: "Text of the famous horror tale with analysis and controversy. It includes the texts of all of James' own references to the novella, in his Notebook and letters, as well as his treatment of it in the 1908 edition of The Aspern Papers (in which The Turn of the Screw was included). It also includes, in chronological order of publication (1924-1967), the full texts of 18 scholarly articles dealing with The Turn of the Screw, plus the transcript of a 1942 panel discussion of the story on the radio program Invitation to Learning. The editor intended it to be a sort of clearing-house where college students writing papers could access both all the relevant primary source material, and a sampling of the range of scholarly opinion on the story, including the most influential articles." This review assumes that most readers are familiar with the premise of the James novella (if not, my review of it is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... .
No information about the contributors (or the editor) and their qualifications is generally given, except what is incidentally shared in the articles themselves, and the only contributors I'd personally heard of before reading the book were Edmund Wilson, Allen Tate, and Katherine Anne Porter. However, all of them except Porter (and two others who were psychiatrists) were apparently academics teaching in the literary disciplines, and the articles are drawn from academic journals. Nine of the 18 articles included (as well as all of the panelists in the radio discussion transcribed here) support the revisionist view of the tale, which holds that the ghosts are hallucinations seen by a demented governess. This view was first propagated in an originally untitled article by Harold C. Goddard, written about 1920 or before and read to successive classes of his students, but never published in his lifetime. (Goddard's theory was colored by a childhood memory of a family servant who actually did hallucinate ghosts.) It was first put in print by Edna Kenton in 1924, and popularized by Edmund Wilson in his 1934 article "The Ambiguity of Henry James," who added to it Freudian interpretations: the hallucinations are all caused by the governess' "love" for the absentee master, the tower where Quint first appears is a phallic symbol, Flora's attempt to fit a mast to a toy boat is clearly a coitus symbol, etc., etc. (After other critics had subjected his theory to withering criticism, Wilson later conceded that James actually intended to depict the ghosts as real, but that what he "subconsciously" wrote really validates Wilson's original claims --which is probably one of the high water marks of critical hubris.) Even some supporters of the revisionist view were uncomfortable with the Freudian trappings, but others took that ball and ran with it, notably Oscar Cargill (who also recanted his view later), who argued that James' mentally disturbed sister Alice was the model for the governess, even though Alice is not known to have had hallucinations. One critic reads the last section as indicating that the governess violently murders Miles; another, on the other hand, identifies Miles with Douglas, and sees the governess' account as written to somehow confess her pedophilic infatuation for him. And we also have the theory, in one article, that Mrs. Grose is a villainess who encourages the governess' hallucinations and made up the story of Quint and Miss Jessel out of whole cloth. (The same writer conjectures that the account of the children's parentage is also a lie; on this supposition, they're really the out-of-wedlock offspring of the master and Mrs. Grose. And no, that article was NOT intended to be a parody of the lunatic excesses of revisionist criticism.)
Various ideological and methodological assumptions run through the bloc of revisionist material, often as obvious sub-texts and sometimes directly stated. There is the view, as expressed by editor Willen, that since there is in fact no such thing as ghosts, then no literary work which presents ghosts as "real," for the purposes of the story, can possibly have anything serious to say relative to the real world. (This, of course, completely ignores the possibility of using the supernatural in a symbolic or metaphoric fashion to make statements about real world philosophical issues, etc.) There is also a marked disdain for straightforward (or, in Kenton's estimation, "lazy") interpretations and for the ordinary readers who read in such fashion; any serious literary text, in this view, is to be seen as a deliberate con job by the writer to fool the Great Unwashed and revel in their stupidity, while presenting critics with a medium to show their superior brilliance by explaining the hidden --but very perceptible to them!-- "true" meaning. (Kenton and others, who explicitly attribute this intention to James, are more circumspect in their language, but it still drips with intellectual arrogance and assumed superiority.) And finally there is a more or less explicit (depending on the critic) postmodernism, which sees any literary text as essentially a blank slate onto which any subjective meaning the reader pleases can and should be projected, which licenses exactly the kinds of relentless leaping from conjecture to conjecture which we find on display here. Extreme hostility to the governess is also in evidence in this camp; she's usually seen by these people as the villainess, a "fiend," a "pathological liar," 'dangerous," "unhinged," and so forth. (Even John Lydenberg and Joseph J. Firebaugh, who accept the ghosts as real, join in that chorus.)
These articles can be extremely tedious and eye-glazing to read. Only about the first third of the Wilson article deals with this novella; the rest of it, by Willen's own statement, though included here in its entirety, actually deals with other James works. I felt justified in skipping the latter part, though I did read the relevant section in its entirety, as well as the Kenton article (and had read all of the Goddard article in a previous partial reading of the book) and several other revisionist articles. To disclose fully, however, I skimmed half of the Cargill article, and a few other revisionist selections. But I did skim carefully and thoroughly, enough to get the gist of the arguments and to represent them fairly. Normally, I wouldn't review a book I hadn't read word for word; but in this case, I believe I can review it fairly and give readers a worthwhile impression of the contents.
However, the remaining articles, which approach the story straightforwardly, are all fascinating and constructive contributions to deeper understanding of James' meaning and artistry. Robert Heilman's "The Turn of the Screw as Poem" has a particularly valuable close reading. (His "poem" reference doesn't mean it's in verse, but that it uses symbol and metaphor the way a poem would.) Nathan Bryllion Fagin's examination of the influence of Hawthorne (a writer James greatly liked) here is also noteworthy. But all seven of these articles (several of which have point by point refutations of the whole revisionist case) are well worth a read.
IMO, the editor succeeded in his intent of providing a valuable resource for students writing papers on this novella or its author. The primary materials are all here, and there is a full sampler of extant criticism (up to 1969) of the work --which among other things, amply demonstrates that the reaction of the critical community to the story has not been nearly as monolithically revisionist as I formerly assumed. And serious lay readers like myself can also learn things here. (Even the articles I didn't agree with can be seen as useful examples of how not to approach the reading of literature!) One important caveat, however: you should absolutely NOT read this book until you've read the story first yourself; for one thing, there are spoilers galore here!
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