Henry James and the Vulgar Secret


Spoiler note … oh, who cares, it’s about Henry James, so if you don’t already care, you won’t.  And if you do care and don’t already know, well, you don’t have to thank me.  I didn’t mean to steal your sole reason for existing.  Oh, wait, it wasn’t me.  It was Joshua Glenn.  And Henry Petroski before him.

Ever since the 1903 publication of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, critics and readers have puzzled over a literary mystery that has come to be known as the Woollett Question. What, everyone from E.M. Forster to David Lodge has wanted to know, is the “little nameless object” manufactured in Woollett, Mass.? The case went cold at some point in the 1960s, but earlier this week it was reopened … and cracked.

My thing about Henry James has more to do with Turn of the Screw, which is one of a few stories horror writers will lavish with praise for being one of the best stories ever written in which absolutely nothing happens.

Anyway, Glenn recounts for Slate.com the mystery of Henry James and the vulgar object, and suggests that Petroski has properly solved it.  Fascinating.  I picked up Petroski over on NPR, talking about his book.  It’s worth a listen.

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