The ‘Exquisite Melancholy of Everything Unuttered’: History and the Abuse of the Past

  • Peter Rawlings


In one of the earliest critical studies of Henry James, Rebecca West commented on an ‘odd lack of the historic sense’ in his work and an ‘estimate of modern life’ consequently ‘confused’ (27); but in offering this judgment, West mistook the sometimes indeterminable, and often oblique, nature of James’s sense of the past for its absence. T. S. Eliot was much more interested, on the other hand, in establishing the distinctiveness of a historical sense once removed that he saw as all-pervasive in James. Both Hawthorne and James ‘had that sense of the past which is peculiarly American, but in Hawthorne this sense exercised itself in a grip on the past itself; in James it is a sense of the sense’ (‘On Henry James’ 129).1 On its own idiosyncratic terms, James’s sense of history was acute, and his shifting reactions to the turbulence of the philosophies and methodologies of history in the nineteenth century arise from and give shape to his autobiographical ruminations and his fictional projection of senses of a sense of the past.2 For James, as for Trilling, ‘the refinement of our historical sense chiefly means that we keep it properly complicated’ (The Liberal Imagination 185).


Historical Consciousness Historical Discourse Creative Evolution Historic Sense American Scene 
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© Peter Rawlings 2005

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  • Peter Rawlings

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