|Roxana Oltean, Spaces of Utopia in the Writings of Henry James|
Roxana Oltean, Spaces of Utopia in the Writings of Henry James. Bucuresti: Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2005. pp. 219.
Roxana Oltean's Spaces of Utopia offers an innovative reading of James's transatlantic preoccupations through discourse informed by postcolonial and globalization studies. Focusing on the international theme of most of James's fictions, she attempts to link current debates on the relation of globalizing pressures and American national culture (as expressed by Thomas Peyser in Utopia and Cosmopolis: Globalization in the Era of American Literary Realism, 1998, among others) with James's cosmopolitan projects and instincts. James's interest in travel, which is often seen as an imperial conquest or assimilation, makes him particularly relevant to the contemporary critical exploration of American national identity, which, as John Carlos Rowe has argued, has been shaped by a conflict between a strong imperial desire and a deep anti-colonial disposition (Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism, 2000). Oltean draws heavily on Peyser's account of James's detachment from national cultures as a utopian enterprise in order to examine the "intellectual, moral, emotional, sensual, social, political," in James's words (Preface to vol. XIV of the New York Edition), reverberations of the utopian spaces evoked in his fiction. In this project she deals with the new image of James which has emerged from recent post-structuralist criticism.
In most of the works Oltean looks at (admittedly too few), she reads a conflation of or elimination of difference between Europe and America. In elegant prose she argues persuasively that Europe and America speak of sameness to the American traveller who tends to project his/her New World mentality to the Old World he/she encounters and explores. The space that emerges from this mingling of cultures and attitudes is one of hybridity, a third space, in Bhabha's sense, where purity is impossible. So Paris and New York, for example, are treated as heterotopias, sites of mixed places and themes, the difference between space of origin and that of destination becoming blurred--ambiguous utopias functioning both as elusive dreamlands and as prisons.
Despite these reservations concerning what I found to be a structural imbalance and omissions which are striking considering the strong claims of its conclusion, I did enjoy the application of Bhabha and Baudrillard to James's "imperial" literary projects in a book which, I think, could open the road for future more extensive investigations.
By Anna Despotopoulou
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