Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James

Author: Kovács, Ágnes Zsófia
The book investigates the ways in which Henry James uses the term ‘the imagination’ in three different discursive contexts: in his critical articles on novelists and literature, in his fictional production, and in his essays on American culture. The book differentiates the diverse meanings the term ‘the imagination’ has for James in different contexts and thereby places his novelistic project among those of American, French, English, and Russian writers of his age. The work offers a case study of the Jamesian ideas with some reference to his contemporary context.

In general, the Jamesian imagination proves to be a part of James’s contextual model of understanding. In his critical articles on other novelists, the imagination is mainly responsible for an active, profound transformation of impressions into a process of experience, and this quality of the imagination is referred to as moral. In the novels, the imagination retains its central role in the process of understanding, but understanding becomes a social affair of more than one person. The morality of the imagination in this social sense lies in the perceiver’s awareness of others’ versions of understanding and in making his choices as to which one he chooses to accept. In the essays on American culture, the implicit norm of the socially defined moral imagination leads James to pass harsh judgement on Americans he no longer understands. The term ‘the imagination’ is defined cognitively in the critical articles, but in the novels its function becomes a social one: for James the author, the imagination is not so much a faculty of personal experience and knowledge but one of social experience and of a communal production of knowledge. The moral aspect of the imagination becomes social in the novels, too, referring to the choices one makes in relations to others. In the essays on culture, this social ideal of imaginative understanding is applied through a discussion of American manners. The term ‘the imagination’ refers to the imagination of the author-narrator, the character, and the critic as well, and thereby expands to be an aspect of literary communication. In this way, the intellectual project James the critic outlined for himself as a novelist at the crossroads of American, French, and English traditions of the novel has evolved through the changes of his contextual model of understanding. For James the novelist and cultural critic, the project has become an imaginative processing of the moral aspects of social interactions.


“Interest in the work of Henry James has remained strong even in an age of multicultural criticism. However, recent readings of James have shown a tendency to disregard the one aspect of his work that is crucial for an understanding of it: the role of the imagination. The imagination is crucial for James, not only as a source of artistic creativity, but, even more so, as a faculty that gives shape to our knowledge about the world ... Dr. Agnes Kovács rightly insists that in James’ world the word ‘moral’ refers to the quality of the imagination and its ability to grasp the real. His novels therefore explore the profoundly social nature of the imagination and describe characters which run into problems because of a lack of moral imagination. As is demonstrated in the last part of this study, it was a suspicion that James finally had about America. In going from James’ early essays on French realism to his ‘late’ views on America, this study thus also successfully links aesthetic theory and cultural criticism. It provides a welcome and needed addition to our understanding and appreciation of the work of James.” – (from the Preface) Professor Winfried Fluck, Freie Universitaet

“ ... this book opens a fresh and original perspective on James’s theoretical and fictional work – a work that has been discussed and analyzed from a myriad of theoretical angles. Dr. Kovács nevertheless manages not only to add but to also enrich the already huge and still expanding field of James scholarship ... the book, in its close and detailed readings of the texts, thus illustrates the different aspects and angles of James’s ‘civilizing project’ – the various, yet complementary answers James’s work gives to the idea in which the quality (the ‘art’) of life or living is linked to the quality (the ‘life’) of his art.” – Dr. Heinz Ickstadt, Professor Emeritus, Universität Berlin

“This is a truly original and highly sensitive contribution to James studies. The study offers a careful examination of the key concept of ‘imagination’ in a non-Romantic sense across a wide range of Jamesian texts, and patiently develops a case for regarding this faculty not as a merely private capacity for James, but as an intensely social predisposition, which forms the basis for a particular understanding of the moral.” – Professor Dr. Gert Buelens, Ghent University

"The book is a much needed addition to our understanding of James's work as well as a very helpful tool for students and scholars interested in a profound study of James's writings from the perspective of the imagination." - European Association for American Studies

Table of Contents

Preface by Winfried Fluck

Part 1. The Case of James
1. The Role of the Moral Imagination in Henry James’s Essays on Literature

Part 2. Imagination and Experience in the Novels
2. Limits of the Imagination
3. The Challenges of the Imagination
4. The Moral Function of the Imagination

Part 3. Imagination and Cultural Criticism
5. Critical Imagination in Nonfiction
Conclusion: The Moral Imagination