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Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture$
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Michele Mendelssohn

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780748623853

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748623853.001.0001

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‘A Nest of Almost Infant Blackmailers’: The End of Innocence in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and De Profundis

‘A Nest of Almost Infant Blackmailers’: The End of Innocence in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and De Profundis

(p.240) Chapter 6 ‘A Nest of Almost Infant Blackmailers’: The End of Innocence in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and De Profundis
Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture

Michèle Mendelssohn

Edinburgh University Press

In the early 1880s, Henry James made the transatlantic aesthete his own despite the figure's increasing association with Oscar Wilde. Though James privately dissociated himself from Wilde's artistic, sexual and identity politics, vestigial markers remain apparent in James's fiction. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Wilde situated his art theory in reaction to that of James and James McNeill Whistler, defining an oppositional aesthetic through a process of imaginative review-as-revision that aimed to mitigate Realism's vivisectionist tendencies. This chapter marks the demise of Aestheticism and the beginning of James's decadent turn. First, it analyses the language of puerility and animality that pervades James's and Wilde's interaction. It then charts the manner in which, post-1895, both authors recuperate this idiom to describe an innocent and erotic child of power that radically undermines Aestheticism's moral stance. ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and De Profundis replicate and interrogate the unmitigated state of moral crisis that resulted from Wilde's trial. In this final crisis, both narratives radically reassess Aestheticism's central tenets, particularly its uncoupling of the aesthetic and the moral.

Keywords:   Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Aestheticism, James McNeill Whistler, The Turn of the Screw, De Profundis, puerility, animality, moral crisis

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