Henry James; Novels from Interim Period Are Less Well Known, Very English

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

Henry James; Novels from Interim Period Are Less Well Known, Very English


Byline: Merle Rubin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

There's no disputing that Henry James is one of our great American writers, unless, of course, you have a quarrel with the idea of greatness itself or you take issue with the convention of classifying as "American" a writer so enamored of and immersed in English literature and culture.

But although it would be misleading to pretend there are no real differences between English and American literature (could an English writer have given us "Song of Myself" or "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"? Could an American have written "Pride and Prejudice" or "Barchester Towers"?), there are any number of cases that testify to the confluence and mutual influencing of these two closely entangled streams.English and American writers have long intrigued and affected one another. Think of D.H. Lawrence's fascination with Walt Whitman, or Martin Amis' esteem for Saul Bellow. Anthologists have puzzled over how to classify the American-born T.S. Eliot, who like Henry James, went to live in England and became a British citizen. And what of W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Thom Gunn, Englishmen all, who became Americans?

And then, of course, there's Henry James, who famously lamented his native country's lack of castles, but who also gave us some of the most searching, sympathetic, and brilliant portraits of that superb new addition to the human race, the independent-minded, free-spirited, noble-hearted American Girl.

James is a particularly pertinent example of this fruitful process of hybridization, because so much of his work examines what happens at the border regions, where denizens of Old World and New World meet. This theme is already in place in his first important short story "A Passionate Pilgrim" (1871), and it continues to resound in "The American" (1877), "The Europeans" (1878), "Daisy Miller" (1879), and what is arguably his best - and certainly his most readable - novel: "The Portrait of a Lady" (1881).

It is also true that the master's late, exquisitely subtle and profound works - "The Wings of the Dove" (1902), "The Ambassadors" (1903) and "The Golden Bowl" (1904) - draw some of their preternatural power from James' ability to portray the nuances of relationships among American and European characters.

Over the course of his life (1843-1916), James wrote a vast amount of fiction (not to mention essays, travel writing, letters, and a notoriously unsuccessful stage play), a good deal of which has been finding its way into volume upon volume of the admirable Library of America series. This latest addition gives us four novels dating from the years 1896-1899, the period following James's notoriously unsuccessful attempt to establish himself as a playwright for the London theater.

Unlike many of his earlier novels - and also unlike the three late masterpieces that would crown his career - the four novels from these interim years all feature exclusively English characters, as if to demonstrate the success of his immersion in the social and cultural milieu of his adopted country.

The oddest of the four, certainly, is "The Other House" (1896), which is based on material that James had originally intended to use as a play. And indeed, even as a novel, it remains a strikingly stagy work, setting up a rather improbable situation (a seriously ill woman makes her husband promise never to remarry and he feels honor-bound to adhere to his promise after she dies), then delivering a deliberately shocking development in the form of a vile and violent crime.

The characters, as always, are portrayed in great detail, and are much given to launching into lengthy analyses of themselves and one another. Yet when one of them commits the shocking crime, it is never made quite clear what pushed the wrongdoer so far over the edge - or, at any rate, the reasons given are not convincing. Nor do we know what we are expected to make of the other characters' strangely muted reactions. …

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