Kathryn Wichelns: I think James is making a critique of contemporary
feminists finding empowerment in the roles given to women. The
telegraphist finds some secret power in being anonymous, being neither
writer nor critic but a window through which words are transmitted; she's
really nothing more than a finger which transmits the code. Feminism of
that time had this whole thing about woman being moral authority because of
her containment, being in the cage. But there's another position which
says finding power in that is being complicit in your own oppression. How
much of this is James' criticism of contemporary feminism?
Logan Esdale: There's a comment in the plot summary we gave you
telegraph office employees and telephone operators were almost all women .
Graham Foust: … and that as soon as they were married they
LE: The telegraph girl obviously represented a New Woman, one
make a good living and live on her own. She could fashion an independent
lifestyle and not need to marry.
GF: She might be able to live on her own financially, but socially
might feel she has to marry. In fact the whole story is based on the
telegraphist deferring her marriage in order to have a fantasy romantic
relationship with a wealthy man. This rich guy, Captain Everard, always
comes to her window to send telegrams to a woman with whom, in the mind of
the telegraphist, he is having an affair. In a way, she also defers
marriage to stay involved in the communications industry, to keep writing.
KW: That's interesting. I am thinking of her as a disembodied
that her anonymity is a separation from her physical womanhood. She
becomes a voice, an impulse. Do you think that separation from the body is
an early formation of the New Woman?
GF: I don't see it as a separation from the body, but as a separation
the intellect. She's supposed to be dumb. She is not an empty vessel
through which these messages are sent. Technically, she is not supposed to
be "reading" these messages, and yet every message she sends she is
supposed to check for errors.
LE: The government in Britain bought the telegraph service in
The government could read the messages. That's what I meant by an extension
of the domestic sphere. Nothing she did at work came home with her and yet
everything was in the home. Nothing left the home. That sense of
privacy-[the privacy of the home. But then was there no longer privacy in
the home?]. It is obviously a good question: what was James' position on
the Victorian New Woman?
Linda Russo: Isn't she a critic without a voice? She's not
a writer. He
seems to be playing with the fact that she is neither writer nor spectator.
She is a transmitter. If she sees everything, then she's a critic and
GF: It's questionable whether she sees everything or not because
telegraphs she gets are vague - there is a lot of room to interpret, she's
filling in a lot of blanks. This is the question: is she an artist or is
she a critic, because she is filling in a lot of blanks. All along she
thinks she's got it all figured out, that she's got these people pegged,
but in the end she figures out just how many blanks are left. The
important things to her are her correctness and that she thinks she's in on
it - and that maybe even the people she thinks are having the affair want
her to be in on it. This is how she gets through the day. But she ends up
being totally wrong. Then when it all falls apart, she goes and gets
married. She realizes that maybe she doesn't have this gift or this
faculty to determine what is really going on.
LE: There are three women in the novella: the telegraphist,
Mrs. Jordan who does flower arrangements for aristocrats, and Lady Bradeen,
the aristocrat. Both Mrs. Jordan and the telegraphist sell themselves in
some sense. There's not much agency in their positions at all. In fact,
what they do at the office is specifically compared to prostitution. This
may be a critique James is making of the hype that these are great jobs for
women, because they were being forced out as soon as they married. It
seems obvious that the telegraphist is not a critic or an artist. And I
guess one thing that happens when you think about her is that you question
every critic and artist-what are those roles?
GF: This novella also comes at a point in James' career where
he has just
had a horrendous failure - one of his plays just bombed both critically and
in the box office. So, there's a way to read the telegraphist as James
himself. The woman basically bombs. She ends up realizing she doesn't
know as much as she thinks she does, or that she is out of the loop, not
part of the circuit.
LE: I want to try to make something clear here: it is not that
trying to elevate the telegraphist into the role of either critic or
artist, but to say that both critics and artists in the late 19th century
were nothing more than telegraphists, office workers-just receiving
messages and sending them off. The roles of artist and critic were both
being called seriously into question. And I think . . . well, that's what
I do-messages come to me and I just tap them in. Or it can feel that way.
Nick Laudadio: There is a story about James and Edith Wharton
somewhere and needing directions - James leans out the window to ask
someone for directions and he asks in these sentences that are immensely
long and complicated and he gives way too much information. He's going on
and on and finally Edith Wharton just leans out and says, 'how do you get
to ______?' So there is this sense in James that he speaks in sentences.
Now that Berryman poem you have, the two lines 'I'd say my prayers out of
my mouth, as usual. Where are his notes I loved?' There is the same sense
of the way things come out of the mouth. Then in Logan's piece, the
telegraph form for the soldiers to fill out - there seems to be this kind
of acting out of life on the page. James seems to act out his whole life
on the page. Especially if we are to believe these stories that he
actually spoke in paragraphs. Being as much in the service of the page as
I am, I guess what I'm curious about is how much does the face of the page
play itself out in James? Does he concern himself with this?
GF: He does eventually when he goes to publish the New York edition
has a photographer do the front pieces to each volume. It is fitting that
this piece is in the same volume as What Maisie Knew. These two novellas
don't have to be in the same edition because the New York edition isn't
chronologically arranged and there are many more volumes of James that
could have been included. The fact that he puts In the Cage and What
Maisie Knew in the same volume seems significant. This doesn't concern the
face of the page - it's about the construction of the book. What Maisie
Knew is about this little girl whose parents are getting divorced - they
start having these affairs and there is a custody battle. Throughout the
story you're constantly getting the story in these bits and pieces. Like
the telegraphist, Maisie is trying to figure out what is actually going on
- and there are these huge mysterious gaps.
NL: What I'm getting at is that 19th-century publishing is not
with formal innovation - it's all about putting out book upon book; the
books came out in series. What I am seeing here is that the making of the
book in the 19th century is a lot like the soldier's telegraph form. The
question is whether or not you can put literature in this form, this format.
LE: There is a moment late in the story when the telegraphist
is asked to
reconstruct a telegraph message exactly and she does it. It's almost as if
in her mind she has a little book of these messages, a book of the forms
that these messages [get written on]. Graham and I spoke before this
evening about texture in James' prose. We compared it to painting.
Obviously when you are dealing with a novel you never see the entire thing
at once-it doesn't call to mind the look of a page. It's wall-to-wall.
What you do see is the texture, how the artist applied the paint.
GF: Whereas very often a poem fits on one page, so the reader
looking at a brush stroke, but looking at the entire text.
NL: What you say is true, but that sort of uniformity comes into
publishing of the novel with margins and chapter heads.
GF: The frontispiece to this volume is a telegraph office and
store in which it is located - telegraph offices were in grocery stores. In
the preface to The Golden Bowl James addresses the physical construction of
the New York edition and talks about the inclusion of photographs. At the
time there were a lot of illustrated novels being made, with pages
depicting scenes out of the novel. James was completely against this - he
didn't want the pictures to act as scenes out of his novels; he wanted them
to suggest, to have this kind of metonymic relationship, not to act as
illustrations. So "format" or "fit" takes on a kind of different meaning.
James worked very closely with the photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, to
make sure things were the way he wanted them. There are other strange
things about the New York edition - typographically, all the contractions
are separate, like don't is do n't. You get used to it, but when you first
see it the page looks like it was made by someone who couldn't type and
didn't have any correction fluid.
LE: This makes me think more about the fact that in a sense maybe
pretext for this story is a collection of telegraph forms.
GF: As a point of interest, James claimed to hate telegrams but
Tim Shaner: Speaking of forms, you asked if writing was sometimes
filling in of blanks. I think of writing less as a filling in and more as
a writing over. Everything has been said before, each generation has to
re-learn or re-route everything, so I'm wondering if we who are writing now
are filling in forms or if we are really more like writing over.
LE: There was a comment in the brochure for the "June In Buffalo"
conference about Morton Feldman trying to break the standard 20-25 minute
length for 20th-century music pieces. I guess what intrigues me about this
postcard form is that poems also seem to have a standard length.
GF: As do pop songs.
LE: Maybe the prose poem is more elastic, but, yes, even the best
songs are filled in. There's a pre-printed form.
Meghan Sweeney: I am thinking of the operator not as a vessel
something, but as being a transmitter, many things go through her. So as a
transmitter there is always a certain element of choice, like playing
telephone when you're a kid - you can choose to misread or misrepresent
what someone is saying and pass it on to someone else - and it becomes
something mutated even though you are technically not allowed to change it.
But you can just claim it was a mistake, that you didn't mean to do it.
I'm thinking of the DJ aspect of it - that you're not creating anything
new, but you're taking something that's already there, you're overlapping
things and you can choose to mutate them in a certain way. It seems that
there's a certain power in just being able to handle these messages, leave
things in or take things out.
LE: This is one of the reasons we got interested in the telegraphist.
doesn't just transmit messages.
GF: You touch on a sore point in the story. The telegraphist
devoted to these people so you get the feeling that she wouldn't change
anything in their messages. Yet these people who consistently go to her
window are also devoted to her in the sense that they trust her. They
think she's a good employee. Then towards the end of the story there is a
mistake made and you never really know who has made the mistake. What ends
up happening is that they end up trusting her. For a brief moment she ends
up being the most powerful person in the story. When she calls the
incident up from memory, they all take her word for it.
LR: It seems like what she wants to innovate on is her life.
She wants to
step into the lady's place and marry the captain.
LE: She thinks she has the margin of the universe to innovate.
at length in a number of places that these telegraph messages give her an
GF: She doesn't want to marry the captain. It would be too
easy and would
make a bad story if it were that simple. Her relationship with this
captain, this rich guy, is very subtle and complex. She probably does want
to sleep with him, but the issue is not just that she wants to have a
better husband. She wants to do something. She is finally not that
interested in marriage at all.
LR: Well then that's the innovation - it's not a replacement.
LE: The story is in part about the aesthetics of courtship.
The end of
the story is who you marry, who you end up with. When we talk about
innovation, we're talking about a number of things.
LR: Keeping the story open.
GF: Or keeping it going.
LE: I'm just trying to add to what you're saying about her relationship
with the captain and whether or not that gives her room to
innovate-innovate here being a word to describe what she's doing while she
is engaged to another man. She is engaged to a grocer. So if that is
innovation-to think about other men while you are in the period of
engagement . . .
GF: But not other men as replacement.
LR: It's just in her imagination. Innovation is the enactment.
she is trying to innovate on her life but all she can do is imagine within
the text of this situation at her job.
GF: And that's where the issue of class gets driven in.
relationship even possible between the telegraphist and the captain would
be a working relationship. You know, from the captain's perspective it
would be: I send telegrams, you know how to run the machine.
LE: Something does develop between them on a personal level.
Tim Shaner: What is her relationship to reading the messages?
Is she just
GF: She is able to read them but she is supposed to pretend that
TS: So the innovation might be that she is reading.
I guess I'm just
thinking of Stein's notion of repetition - how something repeated in a
different context is a different thing and by interrupting the
transmission, by reading it, you change it somehow. That is a kind of
GF: James includes a few example telegrams. Not in telegram
form but just
within the text.
LE: And we just assume it's complete text.
GF: Remember, the sender is paying per letter, so the text of
includes as little as possible. So in order to read these telegrams you
have to read into them. At the beginning of the story the telegraphist is
not even sure if these people are using their real names - people send
telegrams for other people, there are people having affairs - she has to
literally piece these stories together.
LE: I guess if what you knew about the telegraph business came
this story, you might think that the telegraph service is "bad" for the
morals of the country. People could arrange affairs perfectly. Anyone
could have an affair with anyone else.
GF: There's a novel from 1886 about telegraph romance called Wired Love.
LE: (to Tim) Maybe your question is something I hadn't thought
crucial moment is later in the text when Lady Bradeen is sending a telegram
to an address where she has sent one before, but she gets it wrong and the
telegraphist corrects her. So the telegraphist's role in this instance is
to ensure that repetition is not innovation, that things stay the same,
that she can check that they do stay the same. She will proofread her
Jana Vourgourakis: Earlier you were suggesting that the artist
were just telegraphists - I am wondering if innovation demands agency.
LE: We are hoping to give you enough of a sketch of this story
telegraphist to let you decide where agency is.
Kristen Gallagher: It's a bizarre kind of agency. It's an
intimacy with all these other people's texts. As you said in your paper,
maybe in some way talking of others is talking of yourself. For me, the
telegraphist's role resonated more with the role of an editor, or an
editorial assistant. The editor gets a lot of signal, a lot of
transmission from the literary world. Editing can be tremendously
intimate. You get to know all these people, and all their writing; you do
also get to give feedback. Editing can be a way of being in the literary
world without declaring yourself a writer. You get to keep that a secret
or save it up for when you've got something really good. Through editing
you can still be out there talking to everyone and closely interacting with
their texts. I was also thinking of Beckett's "Not-I" - this sense of a
subject being immersed in a constant flux of sensory input, some of that
input putting pressure to take on an identity, but that thing which lives
amidst the flux constantly denies declaring itself.
KW: So, by not declaring an identity within the structure, you
have a form
of agency. Within the structure of a telegraph, or the structure of the
engagement, there's a lot of room for innovation. This is a means of
finding opportunity, in the same way that James, within the structure of
the novella (the separating of the do from the n't, a more British usage)
leaves room for ambiguity and that plays with the possibility of different
GF: It's interesting that you bring up the structure of the novella,
because that's kind of ambiguous. It's like a 100 pages, more or less.
When referring to it in writing do I put it in quotes or is it italicized?
The text itself is completely ambiguous. It was never published in a
journal; it was published as a book.
KW: So it's in between, and maybe more powerful because it can't
LE: Yet it slipped through the cracks obviously. Nobody
LR: It's kind of problematic to think that agency is merely the
carry out a responsibility. I see what Kristen just said as carrying out a
negative agency, a denial of agency.
KG: I was thinking I guess of secret agency.
LR: That's the imagination. It's all in the mind.
KG: But you can make very real things happen as a secret agent.
LE: I guess the question I have is-what agency do we have as writers
KG: Sometimes I feel like I have more agency in my editing than
I do in my
GF: I feel the drive to write. I feel called to write.
I don't feel that
to edit. I never say, "boy I gotta edit this. I'm not editing enough."
KG: Well, what I'm talking about is putting together something
out into the world, a magazine or chapbook series you get to choose and
organize, you have a lucidity of vision for how to put together what you
see and hear happening around you. Whereas when I'm writing I feel a
little out of control sometimes. Then as an editor I also engage with
people's work, whereas there are a number of people out there writing who
are more familiar with names of magazines than they are with the work of
the writers in them.
GF: Or the listserves they belong to, or refuse to belong to.
LE: Your question is the one we really bashed around. Graham
keep the ending a secret I guess. What the telegraphist thinks she knows
is radically called into question. She is wrong about everything.
GF: It's not even that she's wrong about everything, it's that
know everything. Also what's called into question is her role within the
affair - what she finds out at the end is that she has no agency, in no way
is she a part of their affair except by transmitting messages.
LE: But then she is the perfect critic and artist because she
for us. We can write about it too. If she knew everything or got it all
right, then there would be nothing left to say.
KG: So the question is: what is it that you are doing if
you are a worker
LE: Your question is very relevant, given what I was saying about
obsolescence of the critic and the artist as roles that you could play by
the end of the 19th century. An editor is a worker-writer. I get that
sense now that we are also worker-writers.
LR: I'm not sure I'd use the editor as an analogy because the
selects. I'm thinking of Hettie and LeRoi Jones. Hettie is called an
editor but really she just typed everything.
MS: If a transmitter selects, then it has to be done surreptitiously.
There's danger involved with that.
LE: James never married and we can think of the telegraphist as
for him-you know, at what moment is your career over and you just become an
editor or a typist. For James that moment is marriage, although he
explores this idea in his novels-that marriage doesn't end your career.
But in this story, especially for telegraph girls, marriage is when it
GF: …and there is nothing her fiancé wants more in this
story than for
that to happen. One of the interesting things in this story is how she
deals with her fiancé. She is pretty explicit about how she feels about
this captain, she tells him the truth. They go on this vacation and she
tells her husband-to-be that she is basically sticking around the telegraph
office because of this other man. And it's really bizarre - the fiancé is
not all that upset by it.
LE: He asks, "where do I fit in?" and she says, "you don't
fit in at
GF: And he laughs! He is really adamant that they are going
married, but she is very clear that she is not going to yet. You also
realize elsewhere that her relationship to the captain is really tense.
Every time they get together there are all these neurons firing and there's
total confusion but her fiancé who she is not all that crazy about -
they're like the Smothers Brothers - they are always joking around and
giving each other shit. Compared to other stories of this era, even other
James stories, this is a really strange romance.
LE: Well, what you say about romance . . . I have a reading which
really doesn't go along with-that she misreads Captain Everard-that Everard
is gay so he doesn't desire her or Lady Bradeen, and that these telegrams
mask his affairs with men. It's not a story that is written, so it's not
told. So you get to guess it.
KG: One of the titles you gave me for advertising tonight's talk
influence of anxiety" - I feel like we addressed the other title you gave,
"the immense intimacy" - but in terms of contemporary writing, what were
you thinking specifically about anxiety? It seems appropriate as you talk
about the gaps and uncertainties in the novella, because anxiety is about
suspense and not knowing.
GF: Well, I get anxious about people not knowing whether they
a poem or a piece of criticism. I know that's sort of all the rage, or
part of the rage here at Buffalo, but it's not something I feel very
comfortable with. Maybe that's why I chose the song I played at the
beginning. This is the closest pop music will ever get to Wallace Stevens
- a great poem that talks about the writing of a poem. I don't know that
it's criticism, but I have a resistance to this school of "how to write a
research paper without really trying" - that makes me anxious. I like the
strict division between essay and poem. That is one of the things I set
out to do here, write an essay about a poem pointing out the difference
between essays and poems. The other thing I wanted to address is that I
think poems arise out of anxiety over the fragmentation of the self or that
the self is finally not what writes the poem.
KG: I'm thinking about anxiety and suspense, being uncertain of
So I want to know - does what you just described make you anxious because
you don't know what it means to mix the genres like that, or that you don't
know what it means for poetry or for criticism as genres when things like
GF: It makes me anxious because it seems kind of dumb or misguided.
would someone want to enter into the field of criticism and then not write
it. Obviously there are ways it can be done radically and well. We're at
a place where several people have done it radically and well, Leslie
Fiedler, Susan Howe... In Susan's work the line between poetry and
criticism is unclear, but successfully unclear.
TS: Does the discomfort come from the difficulty of pulling something
that off? We are given the opportunity to experiment here and attempt
fusions of different styles and genres. Do you feel like people here see
it done successfully and then try to use it as an easy way out?
GF: It may be that. It's probably also for me the anxiety
that I will
never be able to pull it off.
Brian Lampkin: Your anxiety that there is a stranger in the house
looks a lot like you?
GF: That is the poetic anxiety, and that's the anxiety in The
- which is essentially an autobiographical poem which says "this is not me,
this is not the poet." Berryman is always pushing that away and yet is
writing poems that you can link with his biography while still saying:
these are poems, first and foremost these are poems. There is anxiety when
those two things mix. Poems aren't real life, they are real objects, and
they deal with realities. I tend to think reality is very violent - and
the violence of reality is the future of reality, which is the fact that
you are not going to be around forever. To me that philosophical,
existential anxiety is what the best poems deal with. In contemporary
poetry there is still so much poetry that's about the person, and I think
that's just boring and that's where I disagree with Wilde when he says if
you talk about yourself you're always interesting. I have an anxiety about
The Dream Songs. I find them completely fascinating but it's an
autobiographical poem and I tend to really resist autobiographical poems.
LE: Though Wilde's self is not really his Self.
GF: Yeah, who knows what Wilde is really talking about there.
TS: I was told that Berryman's method for writing The Dream Songs
he would wake up in the morning and immediately write whatever was in his
head, and then he would take the sheets of paper and place them under
glass. Then when he got up next he would read them but he couldn't touch
them. So there is a question about whose writing it is, or about writing
that is so close to sleep.
GF: He thought of them as a form too. Once The Dream Songs
he couldn't stop writing them. He couldn't stop assuming this persona of
Henry. It's a mode, a form. It would make me anxious if I couldn't stop
writing a certain kind of poem.
LE: We speculated for a moment [once] about where Berryman got
because he wrote a lot on James. Coincidence?
GF: He also talked a lot about how the character of Henry, the
comes from a conversation he had with his first wife about what they
thought were the ugliest names. That ends up being the persona of his most
major work - the ugliest name, the thing he would not want to be named.
Roberto Tejada: I want to ask Logan if he would read those final
from his piece. They were very suggestive.
LE: The first question was about blankness and it trailed off.
It's not a
question so much, but about Stein's mouthy statement that critics suck
because they're always late.
GF: Which mirrors Shelley's mouthy comment that poets suck because
always late. That inspiration is three quarters dead by the time you put
pen to paper.
LE: The last two questions are about difference and immense intimacy.
think the best writing does produce both difference and intimacy. I guess
you could say that the writer starts to feel an immense intimacy, which is
a paradox-something is getting bigger and bigger and you're getting closer
and closer to it. That's how you feel when you're writing and that's how
the reader can feel reading it, hopefully.
GF: It's probably how you feel when you're dying too.
LE: Exactly, what kind of writing does that to you? We'd
say poetry I
RT: Well is it only poetry? I'm thinking of prose writers
writes like a poet, Merleau-Ponty also, and they both come up with terms
that are perhaps about this kind of thing. The afterlife in Benjamin is
about that pause you have to take before you can look back and give
resonance to the first utterance. And I love this last quote from the
final section of In the Cage - that it was impossible not to see yet
impossible to look. And that's kind of the second visibility - that in
both production and what comes after it there has to be that second
visibility or that afterthought, the second guess.
GF: But the initial poetic impulse for me has always been that
I find it
impossible not to look but impossible to see. It's reversed. You're using
the same words so the critic and artist are united but when you flip them
around you separate them. There's always a work of art there, it's always
mediated and separate but tied together.
LE: Reading a poem which is filling in the blanks would not produce
RT: Well, there could be an accident and it could produce something.
LE: Like what-a typo?
GF: Kathleen Fraser has a great essay on this.
RT: The fantasy is that our computer might break down and we'd
most amazing 19th-century novel. So there is room for that.
GF: And poor Elvis Costello having to sing next to George Jones.
NL: He's bound to sound bad.