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Our Henry James

By John Carlos Rowe

As we anticipate the public release this year of Scot McGehee’s and David Siegel’s film, What Maisie Knew, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on 7 September 2012, I wonder once again what drives popular fascination with Henry James’s fiction in our postmodern condition? Of course, I love Henry James and have spent much of my scholarly career reading, teaching, and writing about his works, but I also understand that they are aesthetically and intellectually difficult, lack “action” if not plot, deal with the wealthy classes, and depend on subtle psychological ambiguities many readers miss completely. “What?! Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond had an adulterous affair in The Portrait of a Lady? Isabel Archer’s step-daughter, Pansy, is really Madame Merle’s daughter? When did that happen? I missed it!” Or better yet, “Prince Amerigo was in love with Charlotte Stant, his wife’s best friend, before Charlotte married Maggie’s father and became Amerigo’s mother-in-law? And now you’re telling me Amerigo couldn’t control himself and had an adulterous affair with Charlotte after he married Maggie?”

Portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent, 1913.
So it goes for the distracted reader of Henry James these days. Did your smartphone vibrate in your pocket? Your friend tweet you from Starbuck’s? Telemarketer catch you unawares with a new mortgage offer? You missed it, the whole shebang, the significant event that turns everything else around in Henry James. Bellegardes break off their daughter Claire’s engagement to the rich American, Christopher Newman, in The American? Alert the media! Bellegardes are cold-blooded murderers! Cold shoulder in Mrs. Walker’s salon in Rome? Daisy Miller is dead! Wink, a nod, and a sleepover in Venice between Kate Croy and Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove; their best friend, Milly Theale, is history! Bad lecture by Verena Tarrant in The Bostonians? That Southern gentleman, Basil Ransom, arrives on his white horse to carry her away to southern hell.

Much as we dislike how scandal appears in Henry James, perhaps it is just such secrecy we also love. James anticipates our contemporary world in which celebrity depends not only on glossy appearances but vile depths, riddled with scandal. How happily distressed we are to learn that that fabulously rich, young, beautiful, generous Milly Theale is in fact being cheated on and by her two best friends. What schadenfreude we experience when the radical chic Princess Casamassima must bear responsibility for young, pathetic Hyacinth killing himself, rather than assassinating the Duke. As the one-percenters grow ever more distant from us in earning and political power, how satisfying it is to witness their destructive urges, whether it is Michael Jackson’s drug-riddled nights or Adam Verver’s cheating wife. Yes, James appeals to us the ways contemporary soaps and telenovelas draw us, not so differently from those romance writers of James’s own period, “the mad tribe of scribbling women” his mentor Hawthorne and James himself so envied.

At the same time, James lures us with big ideas, metaphysical thoughts in the heads of well-dressed men and women, who can recognize a vintage Lafite and have read Milton and Schopenhauer. James has “cultivation” far beyond what Donald Trump can imagine, Michael Jordan score, and it may well be this seventh sense of his characters for which we yearn nostalgically. Lord Mark can show Bronzino’s Lucrezia Panciatichi to the young Milly Theale in the gallery of his ancestral estate, and she can respond promptly and complexly: “She’s dead, dead, dead!” Bronzino’s Italian Renaissance mannerist style is indeed cold and angular, and the poor Lucrezia must have been trapped by her Catholic, aristocratic, patriarchal circumstances. Above all, Milly rejects Lord Mark’s subtle pass at her. All in four words. However terrible the scandals they must someday face, whatever the desperation James’s characters must endure, they are the original multi-taskers in the complex meanings that revolve in every sentence.

Our teachers tell us that we keep reading Shakespeare because he is the master of the English language, penning more memorable lines than even the couplet-loving Alexander Pope. We think we should love Henry James for his prose style, but how many lines do we actually remember? “Then, there we are!” or “his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped” or “The house of fiction has not one window, but a million”?  No, it is not the lines by James we remember, not his notable style, early or middle or late; it is James’s cultivation, an aesthetic sensibility that no inherited title, no accumulated wealth, no diligent study can ever quite afford us. “We work in the dark, we give what we can, the rest is the madness of art.” Happy Birthday, Henry, you old survivor, my dear friend.

John Carlos Rowe is USC Associates’ Professor of the Humanities at the University of Southern California and the author or editor of eighteen books. He has published four books on Henry James: Henry Adams and Henry James: The Emergence of a Modern Consciousness (1976); The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James (1984); The Other Henry James (1998); and co-edited with Eric Haralson, A Historical Guide to Henry James (Oxford University Press, 2012). He is completing a new book on Henry James entitled “Our Henry James.”

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Recent Comments

  1. Paula Cappa

    I’ve been rereading some of Henry James. Today is his birth date, April 15, isn’t it? When I “had” to read him in high school, I admit it wasn’t enjoyable; I have come to appreciate him more since my reading mind has matured. In fact, I’m featuring his short story, Sir Edmund Orme, on my blog post this week to mark his birth date. Next month, May, is National Short Story Month which I hope will get more attention than it has in the past. I find that reading short stories of classic authors is a good prime to find an author I like and then choose a novel. I do agree with you that James’ lack of plot action creates a more disciplined reading experience, and these days the modern reader is heavily drawn to action. If you were to give one piece of advice on how to read a Henry James’ novel, what would that be?

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