‘“Master of Irony”: Henry James, Transatlantic bildung and the Critique of Aestheticism’. Symbiosis 12.2 (October 2008)

Author: Eastham, Andrew


Humanities-Ebooks ‘Reprint’, 2010. 26 pages, secure PDF. 294k. Permissions: printing allowed, copying disabled

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This essay was originally published in Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations, Volume 12.2 (October 2008), 167-190

Topics and Keywords


Andrew Eastham, Henry James, irony, literary aesthetics, bildung, The Portrait of a Lady, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Baudelaire




“The constitution of Henry James as ‘the Master’ has much to do with his particular achievement as a literary ironist. Irony determines literary authority as a model of detachment and control; a professionalized form of the aesthetic disinterest that was theoretically consolidated in Kantian and Romantic aesthetics. James’s career presents a geographic and cultural model for the acquisition of aesthetic detachment, where the American writer and traveller acquires the authority of irony by a process of transatlantic bildung. Becoming European, the acquisition of a cosmopolitan identity,1 is a process of refinement established through a particular kind of ironic performance which James himself epitomised. Yet in his fiction and criticism James himself was clearly troubled by the nature of irony, both in terms of personality and literary practice. From the early 1880’s these anxieties were increasingly focused around the culture of Aestheticism. When, in The Portrait of a Lady, James describes the demonic Aesthete, Gilbert Osmond, as a ‘master of irony’ (PL 566), the naming of the ironist expresses the keynote of a complex critique of the Aesthetic personality, which James would extend in characters as various as the vampiric Mark Ambient and the angelic Gabriel Nash….”

About the author

Andrew Eastham

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‘“Master of Irony”: Henry James, Transatlantic bildung and the Critique of Aestheticism’. Symbiosis 12.2 (October 2008)

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