Michael Kearns on Henry James' Washington Square

Michael Kearns on Henry James' Washington Square

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Michael Kearns on Henry James' Washington Square: Much Ado About Nothing


It never fails to amaze me how someone can take a theory and expand on the idea so much that it takes twenty pages to defend his or her thesis.

Such as the case with Michael Kearns, an English professor at the University of Texas. In Kearns' journal article that appeared in College English, he cites a student's question regarding Chapter 10 of Washington Square: "Why does the narrator tell us that 'this is all that need be recorded of their conversation'? And why does he tell us that if Catherine's aunt had been present for this conversation, she 'would probably have admitted that it was as well it had not taken place beside the fountain in Washington Square'"? (Kearns 766)

Had this question been posed in our class discussion of Washington Square, it would be possible that we would discuss it for a short while and then move on. Not Mr. Kearns instead, he goes on for 19 pages about the questions that his student asked. Granted, there were some but only a few arguments about the questions that I thought Kearns presented well. However, most of the article was cumbersome to me, as the reader, and I questioned whether Kearns was just elaborating on nothing in hopes of being published in an academic journal.

Kearns writes that the question that his student posed was valuable for several reasons, among them being that "it demonstrated for the class an act of critical reading reading that goes beyond a novel's characters, plot, setting, symbols, motifs, and so forth to look at the rhetoric of intention embodied in all of the choices that comprise a novel" (Kearns 766). This is a very valid opinion that Kearns has. Somehow in academic readings, it seems that the important things gets left behind as we stress heavily on the listing that Kearns chose.

Another valid argument that Kearns had is that the student used naïve realism in her reading, and therefore showed ethical issues that are part of the human condition (Kearns 766). As a result, Kearns feels that this enhances the reading of the characters: "I assume that readers will accept the invitation to respond, not only ethically but also emotionally" (Kearns 769-770).

In conclusion, had Kearns left his argument to a simplistic means, I think that this article would have been fascinating to read.

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However, it was disappointing as it seemed that Kearns fell into the trap that many others have when it comes to journal articles. Their thesis seems to get lost in the language and the length that they lose their reader. While this may be true of me, I also feel that Kearns expressed some interesting aspects of reading that also lies beyond Washington Square.

Work Cited

Kearns, Michael. "Henry James, Principled Realism, and the Practice of Critical Reading." College English. V56n7. pp. 766-787. November 1994.
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