Beginning from the premise (discussed in the Introduction) that modernist description turns away from the form of a visualizing prose of things, this chapter takes seriously Henry James’s pervasive attention to things “in the air” in his late works. Arguing that the atmosphere of an interaction becomes a key object of James's attention, it challenges the prevailing critical opinion that he “underdescribes” by asking not only what kind of perception is blocked by his vague descriptions but also what kind of perception is enabled by them. Illuminated through a contrast with his contemporary and fellow enthusiast of atmosphere, Joseph Conrad, the chapter shows that in the Jamesian world the air is a key medium for communicating social facts and norms, capable of exerting influence and producing effects on the world while remaining ontologically elusive and unlocalizable. Moreover, the metaphorics of atmospheric and spatial inhabiting casts new light on James’s well-known architectural images, which he uses to describe the affective qualities of social relations. By bringing this elusive dimension of social experience within the descriptive scope of the novel, James exhibits a continuity with the social hermeneutic project of realist fiction, albeit keyed to a different aspect of the real.
Keywords: Henry James, Joseph Conrad, atmosphere, description, Georg Simmel, social relations, architecture, ether