Henry James’s “Obscure Hurt” - Chronic Pain as Figurative Being


Chancellor Day Hall NCDH 202, 3644 rue Peel, Montreal, QC, H3A 1W9, CA

The Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism welcome to you a Disability and Human Right Initiative talk with Michael Snediker (University of Houston),  a well-known poet and a scholar of American literature and disability theory.


When it comes to Henry James’s ordeal of chronic pain, critics have either minimized it or treated it as an open secret in chiastic relation to the privative subject of his sexuality. No matter the interpretive tack, these efforts have been uniformly drawn to what James’s 1914 autobiography, Notes of a Son and Brother, indelibly, infamously denominates an “obscure hurt” sustained by an adolescent James in the already over-determined days leading up to the Civil War.

The estimable challenge of recovering the terms of this formulation from the further obscurity of James’s later, mystifying account of it has led critics to understand the former as a synecdochal black box of sorts for those elements in James’s life least responsive to conventional scrutiny. James and his autobiographical record of the event continue accordingly to be treated as though they were not only unable, but also practically unwilling to yield some more legible kernel of meaning, giving way instead - if at all - to only a further sense of the inaccessible.

Inappreciable as the difference may seem, these pages redirect our attention away from the historical injury that Notes of a Son and Brother putatively chronicles to the lush complexities, all those decades later, of the latter’s late style. In doing so, it follows James’s own lead in softening the hard line conventionally drawn between actual and textual phenomenality, tracing those moments in James’s writing where the impactful convergence of these otherwise incommensurable phenomenal fields shares a repertoire, an aesthetic principle, with the queerness of chronic pain as a distinctly figurative event.

About the speaker

Michael D. Snediker teaches courses in early American Literature, Transcendentalism, Henry James, Modernism, Poetics, Queer Theory, Disability Theory, and Aesthetics.

He is the author of Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and other Felicitous Persuasions (U.Minnesota Press, 2009), which was nominated for the MLA First Book Prize, the Alan Bray Prize, and Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss Prize. His second critical book, a reading of disability theory and aesthetics across the very long American 19th century, is titled Contingent Figure: Aesthetic Duress from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (under contract, U. Minnesota Press).

He's also a published poet who has been a resident at both the James Merrill House (Stonington, CT) and Yaddo (Saratoga Springs, NY). His most recent book of poems, the Apartment of Tragic Appliances, was published in 2013 by Punctum Books. His next book of poetry, The New York Editions, is a translation of Henry James's novels into lyric poems.