Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion

III.8 Hudson

During the dinner party, a debate unfolds between Gloriani and Roderick that parallels the opposition of Northern progressivism and antebellum classicism. Upon noticing that Gloriani intends to question Roderick about his artistic philosophy, “Rowland was rather regretful, for he know that theory was not his friend’s strong point and that it was never fair to take his measure from his language." Again, Rowland implies that Roderick is best when he embodies the somnambulist figure.

Gloriani first asks Roderick if he intends to continue sculpting Old Testament figures to which Roderick responds: “I don’t like the Jews; I don't like the pendulous noses. David, the body David, is rather an exception; you can think of him and treat him as a young Greek. . . . After that I shall skip to the New Testament. I mean to make a Christ.” Roderick goes on to explain how his interpretation of Jesus will be “the perfection of form . . . to symbolise the perfection of spirit.” Gloriani questions the relevancy of such work for Roderick as an American artist, stating: “There is no use trying to be a Greek . . . I am half Italian and half French, and, as a whole, a Yankee. . . . There may be a great deal of expression in a pendulous nose, my dear sir, especially if one has put it there!” Roderick rebukes his suggestion, saying “I care only for perfect beauty.” Gloriani charges him with wanting to “make over in cold blood those poor old exploded Apollos and Hebes."

Roderick disagrees, retorting: "I mean to make a magnificent statue of America!”--to which Gloriani responds: “You will find it rather hard, I’m afraid, to compress such subjects into classic forms.” Gloriani's Northern practicality underscores James’ concerns about the asymmetry of American culture and aesthetic principles. Roderick attempts to make up for this imbalance by delivering a lengthy monologue rife with Roderick’s evocation of Darwinist and nativist discourse: “We stand like a race with shrunken muscles, staring helplessly at the weights our forefathers easily lifted. But I don’t hesitate to proclaim it – I mean to lift them again! I mean to go in for big things; that is my notion of art. I mean to do things that will be simple and vast and infinite." The post-antebellum racial anxiety espoused by white elites runs its way through Roderick’s artistic overtures. As the son of a slaveowner, Roderick implies that his ancestors maintained a racial superiority that his generation fails to uphold. It is in this scene that James best illustrates Roderick’s exhausting challenge: to unite the cultural and aesthetic ideals of the leisure class with a fierce working-class industriousness—a combination that would both define and invigorate the collective social consciousness of white Americans.

Roderick's decline, in part, is a result of his tireless effort to straddle opposing working-class and leisure class ethics. His internalized whiteness and symptomatic racism blinds him to the objectification and indentureship that shadows his relationship with Rowland. 

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