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The Stream to His Consciousness

Henry James, left, with his famed psychologist brother William, whose theories of the material mind may have greatly influenced The Princess Casamassima.

ALBANY, N.Y. (March 24, 2017) – A writer as psychologically and stylistically complex as Henry James (1843 – 1916) offers a field day for literary criticism. But to stand out among the literary critics in analyzing James’s famed used of character consciousness — and to go boldly where none has gone before — is no minor achievement.

For this reason, Vesna Kuiken, visiting professor of English, was awarded this year’s Leon Edel Prize by The Henry James Review for best essay on Henry James, due to be published in the journal’s spring issue.

Kuiken’s essay “1884: The Princess Casamassima, Anarchy, and Henry James’s Materialist Poetics” focuses on one year in which James’s novelistic method developed due to a network of surprising influences: his friendship with the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, his brother William’s early works on psychology and emotion, and the Russian Mikhail Bakunin’s revolutionary anarchism.

The Princess Casamassima, the essay argues, shows that James found in the anarchic — that is to say the unorganized and accidental — nature of emotion the very condition of radical politics, embodied in the work’s protagonist Hyacinth, whose life course is transformed by occasions of atmosphere and sensations, beyond conscious thought.

Vesna Kuiken
Vesna Kuiken of the Department of English.

Kuiken is indebted, she said, “to a particular line of scholarship that views consciousness in James as extrinsic and interpersonal, as something that makes personal identity susceptible to the influences of its surroundings, or the environment. James is basically saying that we are the product of what is other than us, and this, of course, has dramatic consequences for the stability of our personal identity.”

Her essay’s contribution is to advance a deeper understanding of this phenomenon in James. “First, in contrast to the majority of scholars, who focus on how Henry was influenced by his brother William’s later essays on empiricism and religion, I demonstrate that Henry was in fact crucially influenced by William’s early essays on bodily emotion and corporeal psychology,” she said.

Secondly, drawing on Henry James’s correspondence with Ivan Turgenev in a more comprehensive way than others had previously, Kuiken attempts to show that James’s friendship with the Russian novelist — and Turgenev’s introduction of James to the philosophy of anarchist Bakunin — was just as crucial to James’s formulation of this method of disseminated, amorphous consciousness.

“Some scholars have explored this connection, but only superficially, mainly to show tangential thematic connections between the works of the two novelists — I go a step further,” she said.

Kuiken, a scholar of early and 19th century American literature, is in her second semester at UAlbany and has been extended to teach here for another year. It is a development that pleases her very much. She knew of the English department’s quality of faculty and diversity of research from her husband, Kir, an associate professor who has been on faculty since 2008. Her return probably pleases many students as well, since she received excellent evaluations for her first semester of teaching.

“What came as a wonderful surprise, once I stepped into the classroom last semester, was the quality of students,” said Kuiken. “By this I mean the palpable contributions they make in the form of comments, questions and interpretations to the difficult and thorny texts we read. I believe that the variety of their insights is largely the result of the diversity they bring to UAlbany, but also of the diversity they themselves are exposed to every day.

“Oftentimes these students make me rethink my own reading, and that, for me, is the most exciting part of teaching at UAlbany.”

Kuiken is currently working on a book, Composite Environments: Nature and the Politics of Remedy in Nineteenth-Century Americas, which examines the relationship between literature, ecological preoccupations, medical practices and biological arguments in pre-1900 Americas. Her scholarship has appeared in the collection of essays American Impersonal: Essays with Sharon Cameron (Bloomsbury, 2014) and in J19: Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists.

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