“A Queer Way of Looking at Henry James: Charles Demuth’s Illustrations to The Turn of the Screw”

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Colloquium Report, by Monica Orlando 

Henry Adams, Professor of Art History, Case Western Reserve University

Friday, January 31, 2014

At the third colloquium of the semester, Professor Henry Adams from CWRU’s Department of Art History gave a presentation on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, focusing largely on artist Charles Demuth’s illustrations of James’s story.  Using dozens of images, including photographs and paintings, to supplement his talk, Prof. Adams discussed the placement of The Turn of the Screw in the trajectory of James’s career and some of the themes of James’s literary work and biography that help readers to interpret the story.  One of his claims that I found particularly interesting was that James uses a succession of young female characters (or rather, the same character in different guises)—little Effie in The Other House, Maisie in What Maisie Knew, and young women in The Other Cage and The Awkward Age—to reflect his own childhood experience and psychology.  This sort of observation of the blurring of gender distinctions contributed to the “queer” reading suggested in Adams’s title.

After an introduction to James and Turn of the Screw, Adams turned to Charles Demuth, who created a set of illustrations to James’s story that, with a strangeness and ambiguity well suited to James’s strange and ambiguous ghost story, also speaks to Demuth’s own life and identity (which also echo some aspects of James’s).  For instance, Adams pointed out similarities between characters in the illustrations and people from Demuth’s own life, such as the guardian’s likeness to Demuth’s self-portrait, and the governess’s likeness to a photograph of Demuth’s mother.  The placement and appearance of these characters often hints at the ambiguous sexual undertones also present in James’s text.  Ultimately, Adams’s argument was that Demuth’s interpretation of The Turn of the Screw irrevocably influenced literary understandings of James’s story, influencing critic Edmund Wilson and others of his time.  Following the colloquium, there was a brief but interesting question-and-answer session that raised issues such as the difference between Demuth’s illustrations as stories to be shown and James’s text as a story to be told, as well as the personal nature of Demuth’s illustration project, which was apparently conducted independently and after James’s death.  Prof. Adams’s presentation made some intriguing connections between literature and art that our work in English studies often doesn’t explicitly address.

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