Henry James, American Cicerone: Literary Engagements with the Renaissance Revival
Meghan Freeman is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Manhattanville College, specializing in nineteenth-century British and American literature and culture. She holds a PhD in English from Cornell University and a BA in English from Williams College. Her research interests include the intersections between literature, the visual arts, and museum culture, Victorian tourism and travel literature, and transatlantic and transnational movements in the fine and decorative arts. She has published research on nineteenth-century literature and art culture, including essays on Charlotte Brontë, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and, most recently, Newcomb College Pottery.
Consumed with the violence of the Civil War, America came late as a country to the revival of interest in the Italian Renaissance so definitive to nineteenth-century articulations of modernity. This research project aims to provide a fresh revaluation of the transatlantic dimensions of what is largely conceptualized as a pan-European phenomenon by focalizing the topic of America’s intervention in the Renaissance revival through the lens of fiction, specifically the oeuvre of expatriate author Henry James. James’s literary depictions of Americans confronting what he called “the denser, richer, warmer European spectacle” have already been mined by scholars for their allusions to artists, such as Raphael and Titian, and to related Victorian writers, such as Ruskin and Pater. However, what has not, as yet, been sufficiently considered is how James’s fiction dramatizes a particularly American reception of and reaction to the Renaissance revival in Europe, one that is grounded in American utopianism but is also impacted by pervasive feelings of alienation and belatedness. Looking at works by James centrally concerned with Italian art culture, this project seeks to elucidate how he used the medium of contemporary fiction to synthesize and articulate the ideals of the Renaissance revival to a national audience, thus contributing to its interpellation in American culture while at the same time critiquing the Medicean aspirations of its Gilded Age collectors.