Henry James (1843-1916) presents the curious case of a writer who has been avoided because of his critical reputation, the mirage which mistily shows distorted images of the writer, now hugely imposing, now pettily trivial, but always solemnly forbidding. There are two critical schools, the Europhiles and the Europhobes, and if the latter are foolish, the former have done much more harm. The "phobes," first on the ground, dismissed him because, eventually settling in England, he located most of his books in Europe and usually wrote about the leisure class. Literary nationalists accused him of a lack of patriotism, writing about effete nobs when he should have been hymning the praises of virile American heroes and heroines. I'm exaggerating (but not by much), and you can see what a silly argument it is, but it scared away readers, who thought of him as a literary old maid, simpering and gossiping over the teacups in Lady Whoozis's drawing room. The "philes," who have dominated the field since the 1920s, are uncritical admirers, worshipers at the shrine, who tend to regard all other American writers as clumsy bumpkins. They even refer to him as "the Master." They especially admire his late writing, when his scrupulous distinctions and subtle shading were pushed to syntactical extremes that baffle readers. James' cultists make readers who don't appreciate this sort of thing feel like ignorant louts, driving them away. What I purpose to do is to present the man without the mirage, a writer like any other, who has virtues and faults which we can appraise without intimidation.
From 1865 when his first story was published until his death in 1916, James wrote over 100 stories, 10 novellas, 20 novels, several books of travel and criticism, and a couple of memoirs, but I shall concentrate on four of his novellas because I think it was in that form, more consequential than a story, more condensed than a novel, that he did his best work. He seemed to need the economy of the form to maintain his focus; lack of that mars some of his novels.
In Daisy Miller (1879), his first big success, he created a heroine who would be regarded for a generation as the type of American young womanhood: outspoken, charming, fresh, daring, willful, and innocent. She is seen through the eyes of Winterbourne, an American who has lived long in Europe and is attracted to her but puzzled by her indiscretions. For most of the story he thinks she's innocent, but finally he loses faith: "She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect." Daisy comes down with Roman fever and dies, but not before sending him a message showing her innocence and that she cares for him. When Winterbourne understands her message, he recognizes the truth of a remark spoken early in the story that he has "lived too long in foreign parts"; by looking at Daisy through European eyes he has misjudged her, and lost her. At the end, Winterbourne is still in Europe, which tells us of his futility, the real point of the story. This is a reiterated theme in James, the confrontation between Americans and Europeans, with their different values and attitudes.
Such a summary tells us nothing of how the story is created, and that's what is most interesting. Conrad called him a "historian of fine consciences," and as one critic put it, "with shadings and niceties he delineates complex situations of moral choice." His writing is always subtle, never blatant. Here's an example. Randolph, Daisy's brash nine-year old brother, is talking to Winterbourne:
"My father ain't in Europe; my father's in a better place than Europe." Winterbourne imagined for a moment that this was the manner in which the child had been taught to intimate that Mr. Miller had been removed to the sphere of celestial rewards. But Randolph immediately added, "My father's in Schenectady. He's got a big business. My father's rich, you bet!"
The second sentence is clearly ironic, but it is Winterbourne's irony, and it tells us that he's a sophisticated young man who's enjoying Randolph as something of a joke; it also a hint that he condescends to the Millers, which turns out to be the crux of the story. James knows that we show ourselves in our slightest as well as our largest acts, and he builds a story by accumulating these moments of insight, to which we must be sensitive. In nearly all his fiction there is a character through whose eyes we see everything, but we must never confuse such a character with the author -- he, too, must be tested and evaluated. The beauty of the story is the creation of the characters, so that by the end we understand them all, and the pleasure we have in that understanding is that we have gleaned it ourselves from seeing them in action and hearing them speak; James has not told us about them in some didactic fashion.
Washington Square (1881) is a darker story because the characters are not only somber, but they have a great moral weight; this story is not of a romance aborted at its inception, but of a moral triumph where love itself has been crushed. The fascination of the story is the development of the four main characters whose personalities grow from their remarks and gestures until each stands out boldly against the quietly genteel New York of the antebellum years. His greatest feat is the portrait of the heroine, at the beginning a rather dull, charmless young woman who finally becomes, by the pressure of the other characters, the moral center of the story. Here she is at the beginning:
A dull plain girl she was called by rigorous critics -- a quiet, lady-like girl, by those of the more imaginative sort, but by neither class was she very elaborately discussed.
Many years later, after her lover has proven to be the mercenary scoundrel her father prophesied, he asks her to promise not to marry the lover after he, the father, dies:
All her feelings were merged in the sense that he was trying to treat her as he had treated her years before. She had suffered from it then; and now all her experience, all her acquired tranquility and rigidity protested. She had been so humble in her youth that she could now afford to have a little pride, and there was something in this request, in her father's thinking himself so free to make it, that seemed an injury to her dignity. Poor Catherine's dignity was not aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far.
"I can't promise," she simply repeated.
"You are very obstinate," said the doctor.
"I don't think you understand."
"Please explain, then."
"I can't explain," said Catherine "and I can't promise."
"Upon my word," her father explained, "I had no idea how obstinate you are!"
She knew herself that she was obstinate, and it gave her a certain joy. She was now a middle-aged woman.
In the last scene the lover turns up again, trying to worm his way into her good graces, and Catherine handles him with firmness, her honesty a striking contrast to his slick speciousness. We realize that she has, in character, triumphed over all the others.
The Aspern Papers (1888) is narrated by a collector on the trail of a long-dead author's letters to one of his mistresses, and the story is about his nefarious pursuit while playing the part of a lodger in the old lady's house in Venice. Cultivating her niece, he plans to use her to get the papers, but in the end, when he realizes she'll give them to her only if he marries her, he is defeated. The niece, portrayed as rather dim and unworldly in his eyes, becomes the moral center while the narrator is finally seen as a scheming fool. Our interest lies in his scheming, his self-justifications, and his self-deception, which are all funny and finally sad.
The Turn of the Screw (1895) is probably his most well-known work, a ghost story (a favored genre) raised to a terrific pitch of gravity. A young woman is hired as governess to a boy and girl living with servants at a country estate. Before long, she realizes that the place is haunted by the ghosts of a former governess and valet who, when alive, evidently (but vaguely) involved the children in dubious acts. Now they are trying to get in touch with the children again, and the governess, the only person on the spot who sees the ghosts and understands what they want, is duty bound to defeat the ghosts and save the children. Unfortunately, but inevitably (given the situation) she gets caught up in the hysteria as events work to a climax. The creation and development of the situation, told from the governess's point of view is a masterpiece.
These novellas are an excellent introduction to James. From them the interested reader may go on to other works.
The conventional notion (the cultists's view) is that James's work steadily progressed until its glorious fulfillment in his last novels (The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl). My view is that he was a very uneven writer whose work varied in quality all over the lot at any time, with an excellent book preceding a mediocre one to be succeeded by another good one. For instance, his second novel, Roderick Hudson (1876) is poor, but the next year he published the first rate The American. In 1878, however, he published The Europeans which is laughable because, except in Washington Square, he had trouble placing Americans in their native scene. The New Englanders here are absurd. But the next year he published Daisy Miller. The decade of the 1880s, I think, saw him at the height of his powers. He published three excellent books (Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Aspern Papers) and one very good one The Bostonians. After that, although he can still turn out fine work (The Turn of the Screw, The Spoils of Poynton) his books drastically deteriorate until they become, for anyone but a cultist, unreadable. Studying for this essay, I read What Maisie Knew (1897) twice, and I have no idea what it's about, nor do I think James knew -- or cared.
Because by then he took himself too seriously. Art became sacred, he was its High Priest, and his works from about the mid-1890s are intensely subtle and precious invocations of it as his style becomes ever more devious and obscure. In his absorption with the finest points of form, of technique, he lost interest in the story. In fact, the stories became more and more melodramatic and the characters more and more bizarre. But that's the writer's first job, to tell a story, because writers are successors to bards, the tellers of tales, and that's why we read in the first place. Art must entertain. One of the purposes of this series is to broaden and deepen your concept of entertainment. But there is a limit, and Henry James proves it.
Works recommended: In addition to the novellas discussed, you should try The Pupil, An International Episode, and The Siege of London. There are a number of his stories out in collections, and since most of his stories are very good, you can't go wrong in trying the collections. Novels: The American: ingenuous American meets sophisticated Europeans. The Portrait of a Lady, his finest novel, badly flawed at the end because we cannot believe in the heroine's marriage and subsequent fate. The Bostonians: satire on feminism and dessicated Transcendentalism in Boston. Structurally sprawling. The Spoils of Poynton: a seemingly absurd contretemps that becomes a moving story about the heroine's loss and possession. *
"It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution." --Oscar Wilde