Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses one or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work.
Henry James – born April 15, 1843, in New York City
Henry James has inspired a vast whirlpool of competing biographies, spiraling endlessly around his fiction, a vortex that never stops drawing us towards its center. Still, the only biographical fact anyone really needs to know about James is that he was an American who, from childhood on, spent much of his time abroad. This gave him the international theme he pursued most bluntly at the start of his career, when he was first defining his public image. His sometimes glib and sometimes shrewd comparisons of Old World and New World manners provided the essential foundation for early works like Roderick Hudson, The American, and The Europeans.
After the popular success of Daisy Miller in 1878, however, James started casting beyond the international theme, not so much rejecting it as blending it with his other interests. Washington Square, from 1880, marks the end of the first phase of his career. It’s a neat, satisfying book, and the way the father destroys his daughter’s happiness is like a tidy Hollywood version of some of the Jamesian themes to come. Even readers who hate everything else by James tend to like Washington Square: in its restrained pathos and civilized humor, it’s as polished and pleasurable as “The Rich Boy” or A Room with a View. Yet James hungered for more challenging work, which he gave himself as soon as possible.
1 – The Portrait of a Lady
The Portrait of a Lady, published in 1881, is the first large-scale James masterpiece. Isabel Archer, smart and independent, refuses to accept any of the marriages available to her as a young American woman abroad. She rejects both the magnetic Caspar Goodwood, who unsettles her as much as he attracts her, and the wealthy Lord Warburton, who would offer her a solid place in British society. She then unexpectedly inherits a fortune from her aunt’s estranged husband. As seen by her admiring cousin Ralph Touchett, who helped arrange the inheritance, Isabel occupies a unique position. She is strong enough to pursue her own desires, and she now has the practical means to do whatever she wants.
With all these advantages, however, Isabel chooses a relationship that imprisons and degrades her. She marries Gilbert Osmond, the financially straitened American expatriate and art collector. The novel’s most celebrated chapter details her long, subtle meditation on how she has misunderstood him, and how he has misunderstood her:
He had thought at first he could change her, and she had done her best to be what he would like. But she was, after all, herself… The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his -- attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park… He didn’t wish her to be stupid. On the contrary, it was because she was clever that she had pleased him. But he expected her intelligence to operate altogether in his favour…
Yet after this chapter, in which Isabel appears to fathom the full extent of the marriage’s failure, her education continues. Gradually she understands that her husband plans to feed on her forever. Osmond and his secret mistress, Madame Merle, have had a child together, Pansy, whose calm obedience represents the ideal of womanhood that Osmond has hoped to impose on Isabel. Osmond wants to marry Pansy off to Lord Warburton, the rich aristocrat Isabel rejected earlier. For Osmond, Pansy is an incubator for his prestige. In his world, Isabel starts to realize, women are the host-subjects for his spiritual and practical parasitism, and are meant to be implanted with his ambitions, for his purposes. Once those purposes have been served, the hosts are then meant to be used up, as Madame Merle has been used up diverting Isabel’s fortune for Osmond’s benefit. By the end of Portrait, Isabel has entered the nightmare world of the mature James, where much of society is a trap, designed to trick us into collaborating in our own destruction.
Daringly, James leaves Isabel suspended at the novel’s end. She can’t quite tell if she is about to start over, or if she is already, like Madame Merle, reduced to a specter of her original promise -- to the ghostliness that defines so many James characters. I like to think Isabel will draw herself up with all her old energy and passion. Yet James, demonstrating the complexity that will increasingly inhabit all his writing, declines to let us assume that her renewal, while certainly possible, is in any way inevitable.
2 – The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima
The Bostonians, the next James novel, deals directly with feminism as a political movement, but it’s not a feminist work in the more straightforward and inviting sense that Portrait is. Like The Princess Casamassima -- which serves in many ways as a companion piece -- The Bostonians refuses to take sides in the highly charged debates that it explores. At the same time, The Bostonians is the only James novel to have a closeted homosexual as its central figure: a role James spent his entire life performing. The satire that James lavishes on Olive Chancellor is revealed as one of his sly viewpoint ploys, a misdirection that in the end heightens our perception of how deeply Olive has been betrayed. One of the surprises of The Bostonians is the stinging emotional impact of the climax, when Olive loses the young woman she loves, Verena Tarrant, to the confident Southern chauvinist Basil Ransom.
The entire novel is about the war between Olive and Basil to take possession of Verena, and it’s hard to say which of the two competitors James favors. He’s far less concerned with advocating either of their philosophies than with dissecting how their personal ideologies play out in their attempts to control Verena. Olive wants to win Verena over with feminist theory, the history of female oppression, and the idealistic crusade for women’s rights. Basil wants to win her over with his belief in male dominance and heterosexuality, his conviction that it’s unhealthy for her to avoid what most of his world recognizes as real life. Basil prevails, of course, yet the novel’s famous conclusion clarifies that his triumph is a disaster not only for Olive but for Verena as well:
“Ah, now I am glad!” said Verena, when they reached the street. But though she was glad, he presently discovered that, beneath her hood, she was in tears. It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.
Basil admires Verena largely as proof of his victory over Olive’s feminism. He cares less for her than he does for using her to destroy his rival.
And while Olive is humiliatingly defeated in the great love of her life, the novel gives her the dignity of her tragic awareness: for James, it’s almost always better to suffer and know the worst than to be ignorant and secure. He also offers us the full measure of Olive’s spirit in the face of her loss. She displays her Bostonian grit and goes forward with the speech that Verena was supposed to make -- one that Olive, an awkward orator, has earlier been terrified to deliver and is incapable of performing well. Extravagantly neurotic and self-absorbed, Olive isn’t conventionally likeable, but her devotion to her own vision is so strong that it attains a grandeur James forces us to admire. She’s one of the great characters in American literature, and if we don’t automatically think of her that way it’s because she’s still too strange and too original, even today, when her sexuality is possibly the least controversial of her many passionate qualities.
The Princess Casamassima was published the same year as The Bostonians, in 1886. It shows James taking on another intensely topical situation: terrorists plotting a political assassination as part of their pursuit of a socialist revolution.
The main character, Hyacinth Robinson, is a smart, sensitive young bookbinder, caught between his resentment of the upper classes and his desire to join them. He’s the opposite of Olive and Basil, both of whom are energized and imprisoned by the extreme rigidity of their beliefs. Hyacinth can’t reach for one opinion without setting a contradictory opinion in motion. If Olive and Basil risk being turned into monsters by their fanaticism, Hyacinth’s vacillations risk turning him into waste, into water spilled on the streets. Wandering through London, he suffers from his consciousness that everything in the city is passing him by:
In such hours the great, roaring, indifferent world of London seemed to him a huge organisation for mocking at his poverty, at his inanition; and then its vulgarest ornaments, the windows of third-rate jewelers, the young man in a white tie and a crush-hat who dandled by, on his way to a dinner party, in a hansom that nearly ran over one -- these familiar phenomena became symbolic, insolent, defiant, took upon themselves to make him smart with the sense that he was out of it.
Hyacinth becomes involved with Christina Light, the princess of the title, a rich woman who plays at being a revolutionary. He secretly values Christina in a way she doesn’t necessarily want to be valued, as a representative of wealth and privilege. Similarly, she values him in a way he doesn’t necessarily want to be valued, as a representative of the workers. He can only interest her to the extent he helps her feel authentic in opposing the existing social order, yet as he pushes deeper into the revolutionary movement, his admiration grows for all the upper-class privileges he’s supposed to despise.
Many readers find Hyacinth an uncomfortable character to think about, probably because his contradictions reproduce so many of the contradictions of intelligent, liberal readers in our own time. Go to the bookstores and cafés in Berlin or London or New York and you’ll find versions of Hyacinth everywhere, complaining about the inequities of the current social and political system yet seeking to turn those inequities to their advantage whenever possible. If we don’t recognize ourselves in Hyacinth -- if we can’t see that James has probed some of our characteristic mixtures of self-righteousness and self-advancement -- then we’re being much softer on ourselves than we should be. The Princess Casamassima fails to flatter us: it gives us no way to escape asking tough questions about the distance between what we say we want and what we actually desire. We owe it to ourselves to follow James into the maze of Hyacinth’s emotions and ideas, since it’s largely our maze as well.
3 – Different Directions: From The Aspern Papers to The Sacred Fount
The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima were both disasters for James: they took too long to write for the economic return they provided, and he entered an extended period of retrenchment. He sent out feelers in many directions, searching for a route that might rescue him from his precarious monetary perch. If little of his fiction from this period belongs to his finest work, much of it demonstrates a surprisingly broad range of style and subject.
The Aspern Papers anticipates the modern genre of novels about literary biographers attempting to possess the lives of the authors who elude them. The Reverberator, from 1888, is a breezy send-up of gossip journalism, while The Tragic Muse, though equally light-hearted, is a much longer book, a 600-page romp through politics, painting, and the theatrical career of Miriam Rooth. Miriam is a vivid creation, and The Tragic Muse is one of the most forthrightly entertaining James novels. Still, it failed to regain the wider following he had won with Portrait and Daisy Miller. I imagine that dedicated James readers -- a small but influential minority -- were disappointed with its relative superficiality, while the audience that might have enjoyed it couldn’t be bothered to seek it out.
After the failure of The Tragic Muse, James tried to make his fortune as a playwright. The opening night of Guy Domville, when the author was jeered off the stage, has become a crucial part of the James legend. Although biographers disagree about the extent to which this disaster injured his confidence, he now rededicated himself to fiction, and the books he began to produce demonstrated a much bolder level of experimentation.
At first he contented himself with short novels and novellas. The Spoils of Poynton is the mesmerizing tale of a widow who uses the valuables of her home as a weapon in her campaign against her son’s fiancée. What Maisie Knew traces a divorced mother and father as they slowly corrupt their young daughter. And the rich psychological ambiguities of The Turn of the Screw can stand alongside stories like “Bartleby” and “The Blue Hotel” in the distinctive American tradition of the uncanny.
Even the two novels from these years that don’t come off destroy themselves by riding a particular artistic method to its radical end. The Awkward Age resembles The Confidence-Man in the way it sows deliberate confusion about character and motive by telling the story largely in dialogue: for both James and Melville, the final effect is more tedious than illuminating. Similarly, The Sacred Fount takes a nice conceit -- a man spins elaborate fantasies about the people around him during a weekend party -- and then runs the idea into the ground, exhausting our patience with it.
4 – Glory Days: The Three Late Masterpieces
We’ve never had anything in American letters quite like the three late masterpieces that James published from 1902 to 1904: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. They create a singular paradise, soothing yet exciting. While seldom overtly sexual, they’re elegantly erotic, charged with sinuous thought and languorous, endlessly entwining lines of dialogue and observation.
It’s not a paradise that can be entered without effort. The novels are genuinely hard to get through a first time, and only reveal their most entrancing depths on repeated readings. I sympathize with readers who give up after a few chapters. Who can blame them? Yet the rewards for continuing to the end are substantial. Only Proust and Murasaki are as reliable lifelong companions as these three novels are, and in English only Shakespeare as inevitably draws us back with the certainty that we’ll discover more on each return.
James wrote The Ambassadors first, and it sets the methods and standards for the rest. Everyone knows the theme of The Ambassadors: Lambert Strether’s exhortation to “live all you can.” But one of the differences between late James and most writing is that nearly every page contains impressions that echo through the entire novel. Far from having a single key or revelation, The Ambassadors is made up of a sustained succession of comments and deliberations that make us rethink much of what comes before and after them.
A look at the “live all you can” passage suggests how this works. Lambert Strether is a middle-aged American sent to Europe by the widowed mother of Chad Newsome, a young man reputedly leading a somewhat dishonorable life in Paris. Strether goes off to tell Chad his mother’s concerns. Once in France, however, Strether finds that he likes what Chad’s supposed dissipation has made of him. Strether also finds Europe invigorating personally, and begins to question his failure to take advantage of his own past experiences.
During a visit to the artist Gloriani, Strether sits apart with Chad’s young friend little Bilham. Strether mentions that he wants merely to observe the people at Gloriani’s place because it’s “simply too late” for him to develop any more intimate contact with them. “Better late than never!” little Bilham replies, and Strether says, “Better early than late!” Strether then sets out along a typically intricate series of thoughts:
For a re-reader of the novel, these sentences arrest us at least as much as any of the book’s better-known lines do. The image of the waters gathering in the reservoir and then spreading at another’s touch, and the overwhelming “long, slow rush” of their release, are intimately connected to everything we learn about Strether. We feel the significance of the touch in all the pressure the story has built up to this point and in all the complicated liberation we experience for the rest of the novel. Yet before we can properly absorb the impact of Strether’s thoughts -- and this is why the book is so difficult on a first try -- we must traverse his next statement to little Bilham, which is equally steeped in significance:
This note, indeed, the next thing, overflowed for Strether, into a quiet stream of demonstration that, as soon as he had let himself go, he felt as the real relief. It had consciously gathered to a head, but the reservoir had filled sooner than he knew, and his companion’s touch was to make the waters spread. There were some things that had to come in time if they were to come at all. If they didn’t come in time they were lost forever. It was the general sense of them that overwhelmed him with its long, slow rush.
“It’s not too late for you, on any side, and you don’t strike me as in danger of missing the train; besides which people can be in general pretty well trusted, of course -- with the clock of their freedom ticking as loud as it seems to do here -- to keep an eye on the fleeting hour. All the same, don’t forget that you’re young -- blessedly young; be glad of it, on the contrary, and live up to it. Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that, what have you had?”
Again, everything here carries us back and forth through the novel as a whole. Strether’s big essay-exam statements are part of this, but no more so than the specific notes of the train and the clock, which reverberate with all the other cadences of time and travel in the book. James says much that is clear, but his greatness resides in what’s suggested. His generalities contain cunning details in them -- Strether’s view of his life as a tin mold, for instance -- and these specifics operate as trick doors, opening into secret chambers of meaning, hidden tombs in the pyramid of the novel’s structure.
As impressive as The Ambassadors is, though, it’s the simplest of the three novels, and the least accomplished. It introduces a new sophistication in the Jamesian mania for cultivating our perceptions of other people, yet our view of the characters is a bit hampered by Strether’s distance from them, even if that distance is crucial to the novel’s effect.
In The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, we enter more completely into the characters’ relationships, and the relationships themselves are more fulfilling to contemplate. Both novels play variations on the storyline from The Portrait of a Lady. The Wings of the Dove returns to the Isabel/Osmond/Merle triangle. Kate Croy guides the man she would like to marry, Merton Densher, into attempting to win over the rich Milly Theale. Milly, a young American woman, is dying. Kate thinks Merton might make Milly his wife, so he could then inherit Milly’s fortune upon her death. The results of this plan are tragic: they transform Merton and Kate into the most acutely haunted individuals James ever imagined. Unexpectedly, The Wings of the Dove turns out to be another ghost story, a profound vision of how the living can remain under the spell of the dead.
The Golden Bowl upgrades the Portrait situation from a triangle to a square: two interlocking marriages. Once again James gives us a pair of quasi-fortune-hunters, the appealing Prince Amerigo and his ex-mistress Charlotte. Amerigo marries Maggie, who is, like Isabel Archer and Milly Theale, a rich young American in Europe. Eventually, Charlotte becomes involved with Adam, Maggie’s father, a business tycoon. Once Charlotte weds Adam, she has frequent close contact with Amerigo. Fascinatingly, and with elaborate consequences, Charlotte and Amerigo come to feel excluded by Maggie and Adam, whose interest in each other as father and daughter seems far stronger than their interest in their spouses.
As with The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove, the bare spine of the plot can hardly prepare readers for the humor and complexity of what James has rendered. Yet it’s worth noting that these novels are, in addition to everything else, inquiries into the workings of power -- power in the very different forms of privilege and exclusion, youth and age, desire and indifference, compassion and cruelty, knowledge and ignorance. In late James, the scrutiny of our intimate relationships is, far from claustrophobic or apolitical, a revelation of many of the largest and best-concealed motions of the world.
5 – Afterglow: The New York Edition and the Short Stories
With the four years he spent preparing the New York Edition of his selected works, James arrived at his final major achievement. The set’s original twenty-four volumes came out between 1907 and 1909, and brought together most of his novels, with the earlier ones revised in the style of the late masterpieces.
Just as importantly, the volumes gathered up a large portion of his short stories and novellas. Collectively, these tales travel over as wide a range as the longer fiction does, and often generate great psychological force in their concentrated pages. For many readers, the best of James is to be found in stories like “The Jolly Corner,” “The Real Thing,” “The Figure in the Carpet,” and “The Beast in the Jungle.”
The New York Edition also gave James the chance to write the eighteen prefaces that are among his most influential contributions to the craft of fiction. It’s hard to think of a major modern American novelist who hasn’t, either by emulation or rejection, taken up the prefaces’ obsession with viewpoint and characterization, the authorial search for the most telling perspective on each fictional situation.
James was in his mid-sixties when the prefaces started appearing in print, yet nothing in them is inconsistent with the credo he first declared as a young novelist. It was a conviction that helped steer him throughout his quietly heroic career, and it remains one of the strongest statements anyone has made on the importance of art’s ability to “swell the volume of consciousness” towards our struggles and experiences:
Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally, unhappy. But the world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again for ever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it. We can welcome experience as it comes, and give it what it demands, in exchange for something which it is idle to pause to call much or little so long as it contributes to swell the volume of consciousness. In this there is mingled pain and delight, but over the mysterious mixture there hovers a visible rule, that bids us learn to will and seek to understand.