The protagonist of one of Henry James’s short stories has a horror of pronouns. ‘The Jolly Corner’ (1908) is not only the story of a New Yorker returned to his city of birth after a significant period of absence — in Spencer Brydon’s case 33 years. Nor is it only the story of Spencer’s inheritance of a house on a corner as well as another building ‘two bristling blocks west-ward.’1 The latter is ‘already in course of reconstruction as a tall mass of flats’, while the house on the corner remains in limbo, left empty ‘under a simple arrangement with a good woman’ living nearby who comes for ‘a daily hour to open windows and dust and sweep’ (465, 468). Gaunt in comparison to its neighbours yet with the ‘style of an age of ampler allowances’ inside, it is this house that Spencer takes to nocturnally reconnoitring, and it is also there that the real story of the story emerges (469). In ‘The Jolly Corner’, Spencer Brydon becomes preoccupied by the thought of who he would have been had he remained in New York City instead of moving to Europe. The thought that he might have started ‘some new variety of awful architectural hare and run it till it burrowed in a gold mine’ sounds in his head with a ‘small silver ring’ while the rest of his mind murmurs with ‘disguised’ and ‘muffled vibrations’ (467). Spencer might even have invented the skyscraper had he stayed put, his friend Alice tells him.
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- Palgrave Macmillan UK