The James Cult

October 24th, 2012

Writing in the October issue of The New Criterion, Joseph Epstein reviews a new biography of Henry James, Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. Explaining the appeal of the American author, Epstein writes:

I am a member of a cult. Jamesians we call ourselves, less frequently Jacobites, and we are dedicated to the propagation and sanctification of the works of Henry James (1843–1916), a writer who is, to put it gently, not everybody’s notion of a rollicking good time. Many are the criticisms against James, none of them entirely invalid. Some claim that in his fiction he chewed much more than he bit off; others argue that a great deal of what is at the heart of meritorious fiction—the struggle for survival, the drama of ambition, physical love—is absent from his. Those of us in the cult allow all this, though we view it as quite beside the point. Our condition is put best by James himself in “The Next Time,” a story about an author named Ray Limbert who struggled to produce bestsellers but, unable to turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear, could only create masterpieces. In that story, James wrote:

We are a numerous band, partakers of the same repose, who sit together in the shade of the tree, by the plash of the fountain, with the glare of the desert all around us and no great vice that I know of but the habit perhaps of estimating people a little too much by what they think of a certain style.

That certain style, the Jamesian style, is at the crux of the cult. Either one gets it or one doesn’t, and many people, even highly cultivated and well-read people, do not. It is a style in which each heavily nuanced sentence can sometimes seem a veritable barcarole. At other times the Jamesian sentence resembles a hawk, circling, circling, circling before plunging downward to strike off a penetrating observation or startling aperçu. As subordinate clause piles upon subordinate clause—especially in his late style when James took to dictating his prose to a typist—one occasionally forgets that the sentence under investigation has a subject and predicate. And yet, James’s style, for all its rococo circumlocution, did exactly what he wanted it to do, which was to capture consciousness in all its complexity.

Within this elaborate syntax, there is Jamesian irony to consider. Irony is the art of obliquity, of saying one thing yet meaning another, richer, often comical thing. Entire stories of James’s were written in ironic mode. Only James could have described a minor character, in his novel The Europeans, as “inconvenienced with intelligence.” The narrator of “The Next Time,” a critic, remarks of his contribution to a magazine that “I supply the most delicious irony,” to which his publisher replies, “that’s not in the least a public want. No one can make out what you’re talking about and no one would care if he could.” But when it comes to Henry James, we cultists do care, care awfully. A nineteenth-century critic in The Nation remarked of James’s style that “the reader feels irresistibly flattered at the homage paid to his perceptive powers.” This homage is part of what attracted us to the cult in the first place.

Michael Gorra, a professor of English at Smith College, a fellow Jamesian cultist, has found a new and interesting approach to writing about Henry James.

In the preface to his Portrait of a Novel, Gorra declares that he has written “the tale not of a life but of a work.” The work is The Portrait of a Lady, and Gorra’s book shows how

Henry James created Isabel Archer’s portrait, and to what end: tells not only what happens in the book itself but also the story of how James came to write it and what happened to him while he was doing so; of the book’s relation to the major fiction of the decades around it, and of how it was published and received and then, many years later, revised.

The Portrait of a Lady is an excellent choice for this exercise. The novel was published in 1881, then reworked in 1906 by James for the New York Edition of his collected fiction. The Portrait of a Lady is from James’s so-called middle period; after it he wrote The Bostonians (1886) and The Princess Casamassima (1886). The novel was commercially successful, selling some five thousand copies; the two novels following it were harshly reviewed and sold poorly, plunging James into the doldrums. More important, as Gorra skillfully demonstrates, in The Portrait of a Lady Henry James greatly advanced his art, becoming the great novelist of consciousness that he remains in our time. By novelist of consciousness, Gorra means not only that “he learned to stage consciousness itself” but he was able to compose his novels so that “psychological reasons may stand as subjects in themselves, that the life within has a drama of its own . . .”

The rest of Epstein’s review can be read here

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