I delivered this paper at the 2016 International Henry James Society Conference in June at Brandeis. Several folks asked for a transcript, but because the slides and written paper are inextricable (and thus difficult to parse without one another), I’ve embedded a screencast below. The written transcript follows, including clickable links to my sources.
Screencast: Slides with Audio
Text of the Talk: The (Meme) Master: James’s Afterlives in Viral Satire
This paper explores the many uses to which Henry James has been put by online satire and meme culture. With a nod to Michael Anesko’s recent analysis of many generations of appropriations of James’s “cultural capital” to the context of digital culture since 2000, I categorize Jamesian apparitions in online media to discover what about James is considered viral–—that is, what it is about his texts and his contemporary legacy that constitutes ideal material for memes.
Sadly but predictably, general-interest satire sites like The Onion reflect a vein of anti-intellectualism; a horoscope advises, at the middle of the screen, “Though you believe otherwise, it is not healthy to prefer the novels of Henry James to actual human contact.” And one of the Onion’s technology-hype pieces, “Stunning E3 Announcement Reveals New Video Game Consoles To Phase Out Graphics Entirely,” imagines that––look at the bottom of the screen––“the most highly anticipated graphics-free game of 2014 is undoubtedly Bethesda Studios’ text-based adaptation of Henry James’ 1881 novel The Portrait Of A Lady.” For Dave Eggers’s tongue-in-cheek digital literary magazine McSweeney’s, in one of their series of satirical sestinas, James can become just one in a list of canonical authors to flout. As you’ll see in the rest of my examples in addition to this one, James is useful as a shock tactic, giving an unexpected prelude to something crass, tacky, depraved, or just unspeakably blunt. Or more seriously, in the article “Dispatches from Adjunct Faculty at a Large State University,” a placeholder for whatever art does not simply feature “big actions, like, say, Bruce Willis running across broken glass in his bare feet.” But note how the focus here is on James’s ability to provide insight about human suffering. Empathizing with James rather than Michael Bay, Ridley Scott, or Eli Roth, is empathizing with lonely adjuncts who will always lose the girl, giving an oblique commentary on the changing nature of university employment.
My next category of James viral media includes student-created image macros. Image macros–—which you know as memes, the most important of which are the “lolcats”–—are captioned images using “text speak,” made to be easily remixable and shared. Their visual signature of unmitigated ugliness derives from the house style of the cult online imageboard and community, 4chan. For me it indicates a new aesthetic that rejects an airbrushed, corporate-branded smoothness in favor of a fast, barely formatted, cut-and-paste simplicity. Websites like Memegenerator have allowed any user to create such memes quite quickly. Student-produced Henry James memes made on this site include instances of the popular Y U NO Guy and the English Major Armadillo memes. Y U No Guy expresses frustration and anger at someone else’s behavior. This anonymous student’s instance of Y U No Guy seems particularly angry, as one of the few unofficial rules for one of these image macros is to keep the text minimal and clear of the image.
The English Major Armadillo, similarly angry. This particular Jamesian instance recreates familiar tensions between liberal arts majors and their peers in STEM disciplines. In fact, both the James Y U NO Guy and the English Major Armadillo police boundaries between “real” English majors and their apparently less-serious peers. For in these cases, taking James seriously becomes a token of one’s superior learnedness; the modern English major must, first, understand and enjoy James, and, second, know how to express this enjoyment humorously in viral form—suggesting that many James memes, far from merely iterating tired clichés or anti-intellectual jests, engage in practices of self-referentiality and symbolic play that are present in James texts themselves. Still more intriguingly, many of these techniques have been absorbed specifically when they were attending class or reading James texts.
The same intentionally shocking vulgarity of the McSweeney’s pieces are evident in these memes as well; I appreciate James, this visual rhetoric indicates, but I am also cool. Superficially, it might seem the distance between the winking vulgarity of these digital productions and James’s reputation for indirection and discretion indicates that liking James does not necessarily entail inheriting his putative conservatism and prudery; meming your love of James is akin to putting on a leather jacket before breaking out your sweet first American edition of The Portrait of a Lady at a café patio. But I think that these pieces recognize that there is not really any such distance. Linking James to sex, violence, and insouciance is a testament not of their rejection of James, but of their superior interpretation of his texts, of having been readers on whom nothing is lost, for they are sharp enough to read between the lines of indirection and discretion in his fiction.
Two categories of digital James satire in particular transcend clichés about his difficulty or abstraction: self-consciously literary sites, and feminist satire sites. The feminist sites often follow (though with viral culture’s light-heartedness) feminist critics who praise James’s portrayal of women: Bustle’s listicle, “10 of the Most Stylish Literary Heroines of the 20th Century,” first singles out Henry James as a fabulous literary dressmaker. This listicle praises Milly Theale’s nonconformist style in a roundup of literature’s top ten fashionistas. Note the same oppositional tone, as the author praises Milly for being more somber, more adult than her peers in her dress, just as the English majors of image macros protest their superior reading tastes. If digital fans of James like to simplify their reactions to his works, they do not always reject the moral, aesthetic, and intellectual hierarchies his texts delineate. Even when these sites find something lacking in James, they also posit that a solution can be generated from within Jamesian texts through the production of digital satire.
Of course, their solutions can look very different. Kate Beaton’s web comic, Hark! A Vagrant, in one her series based on Edward Gorey illustrations, literalizes the silences in What Masie Knew. The thickly scribbled bars over the dialogue reproduce the sense that it is the author who censors. Maisie’s expression assures us that she knows something sinister is going on, though the literal meaning has been shielded from her—yet it also leaves open the possibility that the censorship has occurred after-the-fact, after Maisie has known. If that is true, both the truth and Maisie’s full knowledge of it has been censored, obliterated from our gaze. Kate Beaton has ostensibly written, then scribbled out, the unexpurgated text, thereby placing readers of her comic into Maisie’s position. This equivocation, I would argue, amounts to a fairly sophisticated understanding of What Maisie Knew’s complex epistemology.
Taking the opposite approach of Hark! A Vagrant, The Paris Review “completes” The Ambassadors with NSFW deleted scenes. This twelve-part piece, a very much indeed Not Safe For Work piece, uncannily supplies all-too-persuasive pornographic interludes. The comments section is illuminating; respondents divide among those who are disgusted, those who are highly amused, and those who protest they are not prudes yet believe condemn it as a travesty of James’s style. The final comment on the screen—“how boring clever people are”—may be the most illuminating of all, but it is the latter group of stylistic detractors I of course find most interesting. For both Hark, A Vagrant and The Paris Review reproduce the same process the reader must go through: of interpolating a James novel’s implicit content. Perhaps, then, it is less the vulgarity of using four-letter words that truly offends readers of The Paris Review than the implication that we readers desire or require a translator, not being able to supply the subtext ourselves—–that in a post-Fifty Shades of Gray world, we tolerate no subtext, only text. James’s own alleged sexlessness becomes the reader’s own, and that is what is intolerable. Those who enjoy pornographic translations of The Ambassadors are not so much called out for their lechery as for their subpar reading comprehension and intolerance of high style.
Ultimately, then, it is not James’s lack of appeal in the digital age that is posited when McSweeney’s recommends adding an exclamation point to jazz up The Henry James Review. What is posited here is our own apparent seriousness–—but so is the implication that we are not completely irredeemable. We are not to be insulted when McSweeney’s winkingly demands that finishing-school graduates display Henry James and Emily Post equally on their shelves, seen in the middle of your screen. The joke is, in the last instance, on those who don’t get the allusion; on the people who reduce James to a signifier of gentility, equal to Emily Post in the literary tradition. Many of these satirists even express a desire to be “stuck in a James novel,” such as McSweeney’s well-read escort, who loves Dublin largely because the characters speak like James’s characters. An advisor to modern-day Daisy Millers, she recommends Dulbin when a young lady has money and wants to party. James allusions serve her as a talisman to ward off our judgments regarding her choice of profession; they prove that she is worthy of Conor with his four university degrees.
On the beloved feminist satire site The Toast, Arielle Zibrak also desires to be stuck in a James novel. This listicle breaks down characteristic James plots and characters, showing her skill and depth of reading to the degree by rendering his works shockingly simple. It is worth showing each in turn, as much of the pleasure in the piece comes from the frisson of sudden recognition. We are invited to select our Jamesian fate, identifying with them easily through Zibrak’s talent for boiling down the essence of a Jamesian plot. For some of the other viral texts we’ve looked at, the punch line is something like, “Gee, whiz, isn’t it hard to read Henry James?”, followed by a judgment either of those who understand James or those who do not. But this is virtuosic reading performance. Ambiguity, snobbery, materialism, and marital drama combine in each item of this listicle, adding up to what is a not terribly inaccurate summary of how, in James’s works, personal identities and desires are compromised yet clarified as individuals navigate particular social networks, leading to moments of profound personal crisis that are all-but invisible to those around them.
I argue that a deep need for Jamesian modes of representation is behind these digital afterlives. The glib tropes and affectionate caricatures are not simply the jockeyings for cultural capital; rather, all mask how these online satirists are as desperate for knowledge as Maggie Verver—–only they build humor by embedding the complexities and ambiguities of a James novel inside the obviousness and iterative complacencies of internet culture. By doing so, it seems that memes’ facile precocity is shallow, short-circuited, played for cheap laughs. But its showy knowingness matures, in many of the cases we have examined, into a pleasurable, though not simple, engagement in metadiscourse–—a kind of epistemological brinksmanship James would not find wholly alien.
Turning again to The Toast will help us tease out the gender politics that underlay the mocking, tongue-in-cheek approach that—to use Hegel’s dialectical terminology—negates James but preserves him at a higher level. Just as the Bustle’s fashion ranking of 20th century literature mentions Wharton, and just as the illustration for how to tell if you are in a James novel actually illustrates Gillian Anderson portraying Wharton’s Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, another article from The Toast emphasizes the inseparability of James and Wharton in the minds of educated, digitally minded young women in the early 21st century. This article mimes Edith Wharton as she critiques Starbucks but approves of the “phosphates I enjoyed in my motor travels with Henry James.” James here functions simply: as a celebrity sighting, as Wharton’s own canny “name-dropping”—but profoundly, looking forward to a time when TripAdvisor or Yelp reviews by The Toast readers will in hindsight prove an urbanity similar to Wharton’s. More directly, though, this name-dropping centers Wharton, decentering James precisely in taking him for granted as a given, but not discussed in and of himself. He is invoked as a marker of quality and then quickly left behind.
This often happens when scholars take to public writing in these digital venues. Anne Boyd Rioux, University of New Orleans professor and biographer of Constance Fenimore Woolson, has been leveraging The Toast’s popularity with educated young women by using viral satire as what we might call pedagogy in the classroom and, outside of it, call public outreach. On The Toast, she brings in readers fond of Jane Eyre and Little Women to unrecovered women’s classics of the bildungsroman genre. Anne, the bestseller that outsold The Portrait of a Lady by a factor of ten, is here recommended for being compared to James. In a similarly structured piece, Rioux debunks familiar James stories to educate her reader about Woolson. We might turn to Rioux’s scholarly blog, The Bluestocking Bulletin, or to her excellent new biography of Woolson, but this kind of public outreach is crucial for feminist recovery projects to go beyond the scholarly community.
Other pieces on The Toast are more baldly oppositional beyond Rioux’s patient corrections of historical gaps. James’s letters and opinions are quoted for optimal populist outrage, over and over saving women from James’s censure; one link roundup quotes his bon mot that Isabella Stewart Gardner “is not a woman, she is a locomotive—with a Pullman car attached.” Another article quotes his dismissal of the circle around African-American sculptor Edmonia Lewis as “the white marmorean flock.” These gems provide irresistible calls-to-action for women writers who are creating a highly entertaining body of popular scholarship. For a nineteeth-century female artist to have been dissed by James is the ultimate marker of unsung skill and sophistication. Likewise, for a contemporary satirist, to diss James is to chip away at the misogyny of viral internet culture.
The “outrage culture” that so many people think we live in is, in this context at least, productive. This impulse to scapegoat James is not entirely dissimilar to the suffragette who knifed John Singer Sargent’s portrait of James because he looked “Establishment.” But think of how akin to scholarship this work is—engaging with letters, notebooks, fiction, nonfiction; digging into the archives for neglected art and artists—and pay attention to the playful, often affectionate, rather than vicious tone, of such works. I find, for example, the more masculine takeoffs on James in McSweeney’s and The Onion to be far more condemnatory and cynical. But feminist satire, such as the image macros we have recently examined, relies on the same foundational literary values that drove us to become James scholars.
Nevertheless, The Toast is admittedly the same website that helpfully glosses the “Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels” according to whether they appeal to “jocks or nerds.” You’ll not be surprised to learn that number 26 (The Wings of the Dove) and number 27 (The Ambassadors) are for nerds rather than jocks. Number 32 (The Golden Bowl) is as yet unglossed, although I’m fairly sure we can guess where this process is going. It’s important to remember that “nerd” is an honorific on such sites. This is one moment when the oppositional politics of The Toast shifts to enfold James into its own flock, resembling the Y U NO Guy and English Major Armadillo memes. Where the rubber meets the road, literary types stick together even if James is on record to have been catty to female artists. So, while we might deplore the caricature that positions James as a remote, stuffy, and wayward god of American literature, the authors of such viral satire are always generous, always will admit that they adore his writing, but most importantly, this function of James to prompt feminist satire is so important. James becomes the ultimate gadfly—–but in being so reduced remains not just a major touchstone. And he’s a fun touchstone, both radiating and provoking a delicious, high-brow bitchiness that gratifies the highly literate lady after work. Unfortunately, The Toast is shuttering soon due to the impossibility of managing the finances of such a site in an era of declining ad revenues. But even if The Toast must close, other sites flaunt a similar relationship to James, and more image macros will continue to provide convenient templates for twenty-first century James fan communities to express themselves just as sites like The Onion and McSweeney’s will undoubtedly continue to feature Jamesian content.
During a conversation with John Carlos Rowe last April, he exhorted me by way of a stirring Strether-to-Little-Bilham speech that I can’t help but think he’s given a few times before. Its essential message was that my generation has the responsibility to keeping the torch burning, doing our best to keep people reading James, to keep him in print. When I first wrote this abstract, I imagined my job to be showing you how he is very much alive in the visual culture and rhetorical figures through which James circulates online. But now I wonder if I need to move outward, to interact with this public community interested in James. What they need from us is our critique of the master narrative of James, which takes at its core the scholarship of the last thirty years that has queered, postmodernized, and globalized James. Figuring out how to communicate this James to this generation of digital cultural producers: that is where I hope to go next.