Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion

I.11 Hudson

Rowland’s doubts--about the strength and validity of Roderick’s artistic ethos--are challenged by the observations he makes while in Roderick’s studio, which reflects Roderick’s uniquely American approach to art.

The space itself is inherently exhausting to Rowland. He first notices the paper peeling from the wall: “The young sculptor had presumably torn it away in great scraps, in moments of aesthetic exasperation." The objects scattered throughout the room collectively represent the sculptural process: “On a board in a corner was a heap of clay, and on the floor, against the wall, stood some dozen medallions, busts, and figures, in various stages of completion." Unlike a classical exhibit in which each item is placed to perfection before Rowland ever enters the room, Rowland is forced to play audience to Roderick’s performative process: “To exhibit [his sculptures], Roderick had to place them one by one on the end of a long packing-box, which served as a pedestal." Roderick’s display attests a desire to develop himself as an original American sculptor.

The bust of the “Defiant Negro” and his brother--as a fallen Union soldier--illustrate Roderick’s capacity to articulate popular sentiments that followed the Civil War and do well to articulate his own ruptured American identity. True to the industriousness that characterized Americanness in the second half of the nineteenth century, even Rowland reflects that the “effort was signally powerful and intelligent."

Yet, knowing Roderick’s works “were good," Rowland still assumes that, by seeing the “effort,” the artworks are bereft of any true “success.” Despite the evidence that Roderick need only continue putting forth effort to improve his skill, Rowland insists that Roderick must travel with him to Italy and study classical sculpture in order to succeed as a sculptor.

Roderick willingly obliges Rowland, for he sees in the wealthy older male a racialized privilege from which Roderick has thus far felt alienated. The artist's embodiment of ideal masculine whiteness—seeing himself reflected in his “Thirst” statuette and in opposition to the “Defiant Negro” bust—blinds him to the alienating nature of his agreement with Rowland. Unfortunately, Roderick will come to learn that production via alienated labor is not conducive to the artistic process.

Paradoxically, Roderick frets, from the beginning, over having to give his body and social identity over to others, such as his mother and Mr. Striker. The sculptures Rowland first observes in New England express Roderick’s complex inner self and foreshadow the forced relinquishment of his body. James’ implication that Roderick’s body may not be his own to control is evident when he shows Rowland the busts in his studio. Each piece embodies some form of objectification. 

The sculpted extensions of Roderick’s character early in the novel attest to James’s interest in the appropriation of bodies at the hands of the more powerful. He explores the boundaries of a new emergence in post-slavery Industrial America, where disenfranchised bodies were not so easily identified by race, class, or gender. The question of who had control over one’s body became more perplexing in the last quarter of the nineteenth-century. With the growing association of the inventor with his machine—such as Edison with his electric lightbulb, the relationship between patron and artist in the novel is a reflected parallel.

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