Henry James: Contribution as American Novelist

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      Henry James (1843–1916), whose work in some respects has been comparable to that of Howells, was a writer of so distinct an individuality that he has been the subject of much criticism and no little amiable controversy. James, educated in the university towns of Europe, and resident most of his life abroad, he developed into an international novelist, chiefly interested in the various shades of the contrasting cultures in the Old World and the New. Of his subject matter one story is about as good an example as another, for James was remarkably consistent. The backgrounds are almost always intercontinental or transatlantic. The characters belong to the leisure class. The episodes, where they exist, are adventures of the mind.

Of his subject matter one story is about as good an example as another, for James was remarkably consistent. The backgrounds are almost always intercontinental or transatlantic. The characters belong to the leisure class. The episodes, where they exist, are adventures of the mind.
Henry James

      Henry James was born in New York City to a wealthy, American family, an grandson of an Irish immigrant who has massed a large fortune. His father Henry James Sr (1811-1882) acquired reputation as a moral and social philosopher. He developed his own kind of liberal Christianity and ideas or social reform in books like Christianity the logic of Creation (1857). He encouraged intellectual experiments in sons and gave them freedom to develop their own systems of morality and discipline. The results were positive. His eldest son William James (1842-1910) became great American philosopher, developing his ideas about psychology and religion.

      With Twain, James is generally branded as the great American novelist of the second half of the 19th century. James is noted for his “international theme” - that is, the complex relationships between naive Americans and cosmopolitan Europeans. What his biographer Leon Edel calls James’s first, or “international” phase encompassed such works as Transatlantic Sketches travel pieces (1875), The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1879), and a masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady (1881).

      The Portrait of a Lady is the most popular of James’s novels - It is about Isobel Archer of Albany, New York, a penniless orphan, becomes the protegee of her wealthy aunt, kya New York inherits the property of her aunt Mrs. Lydia Touchett, goes to England to stay with her uncle, and a son Ralph, a patient. Ralph persuades his father to put will in her name. When Mr. Touchett dies she becomes rich and goes to the Continent with Mrs. Touchett and her friend, Madame Merle. In Florence, Merle introduces her to one Mr. Gilbert Osmond, a middle-aged rich widower with a daughter named pansy. After getting married to him she comes to know that he is a selfish and sterile. Pansy is Merle’s daughter. She is at Ralph’s side when he dies. Casper Goodwood, her jilted lover attempts again to win her hand but she rejects and returns to her Pansy in Italy.

      In the next more interesting realistic novel The American, Christopher Newman a naive, intelligent and idealistic self-made millionaire industrialist, goes to Europe seeking a match for him but gets engaged with Clare de Cintre, a widow, a daughter of the Bellegardes, the rich family - When her family rejects him because he lacks an aristocratic background, he has a chance to demonstrate his moral superiority. At the end, Clare becomes a Carmelite nun.

      James second period was experimental. He exploited new subject matters - feminism and social reform in The Bostonians (1886) and political intrigue in The Princess Casamassima (1885). He also attempted to write for the theater failed embarrassingly when his play Guy Domicilf (1895) was bored on the first night. In his third, or major, Phase James returned to international subjects but treated them with increasing sophistication and psychological penetration. The complex and almost mythic The Wings of the dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) which James folt was his best novel and The Golden Bowl (1904) date from this, major period begins. The Washington Square (1880), The Bostonians (1886) The Princess Cassamassima (1886), The Aspen Papers (1888) followed.

      In The Golden Bowl Adam Verver, a American, millionaire, living with his daughter Maggie and amassing a art collection. Maggie is of marriageable age, and her friend Fanny Assingham finds her an Italian prince, Amerigo. The beautiful Charlotte Stant comes to London to stay with Fanny, who knows that Charlotte and Amerigo had once been in love but could not marry since they were both penniless. Charlotte has not trouble persuading Amerigo to accompany her when she goes shopping in search of a wedding gift for Maggie. At an antique dealer’s shop she wants to give Amerigo a gift also, a gilded crystal bowl. The presence of a flaw in the bowl brings it within the range of her purse. Amerigo, however, is disturbed that the bowl is flawed and declines the gift. A year later, following the birth of a child to Maggie and Amerigo, Adam Verner, now a grand father but not yet, proposes to and marries Charlotte. Charlotte and Amerigo have not forgotten their original feelings for each other, and they meet in a secret place. For her father’s birthday Maggie buys a gilded crystal bowl. She has not noticed that it is flawed but the dealer feels compelled to point out and calls on her. He recognizes the photographs of Amerigo and Charlotte and tells Maggie that the pair had visited his shop and rejected the bowl during the days of her engagement to Amerigo. Maggie sends for Fanny and makes clear that she knows the whole truth about Charlotte and Amerigo. She smashes the golden bowl just as he enters the room. Amerigo stops seeing Charlotte. Adam gives no hint to her that he knows of her liaison. Maggie conducts herself with
unruffled serenity. Charlotte, wondering at her lover’s withdrawal cannot provoke Maggie of any kind of exchange. Adam finally resolves the situation by deciding to return to America with Charlotte.

      The Spoils of Poynton (1897), What Maisie Knew (1897), The Awkward Age (1899) The Sacred Fount (1901) were the novels of the last period. For example, in The Ambassador, the idealistic aging Lambert Streator uncovers a secret love affair and, in doing so, discovers a new complexity to his inner life. His rigid, upright, morality is humanized and enlarged as he discovers a capacity to accept those who have sinned. If the main theme of Twain’s work is appearance and reality, James’s constant concern is perception. In James, only self-awareness and clear perception of others yields wisdom and self-sacrificing love. As James develops, his novels become more psychological and less concerned with external events. In James later novels, the most important events are all psychological-usually moments of intense illumination that show characters their previous blindness. James the novelist was also serious critic of fiction and theorist as he expresses his view of novel as art form in is seminal essay, “The Art of Fiction”.

      In the earlier stories, such as “The American” (1877), plot is more eventful and definitive and style is more lucid than in the later ones. In these James seemed to be so fascinated with his intricate discriminations of feeling that he confined himself largely to psychological analysis in a style which became increasingly obscured by subtle indirections. Thus “The Awkward Age” (1899) is a narrative in ten short “books” centering about the marriage and non-marriage of two London girls. Aggie, who has been brought up in the fashion of Richard Feverel translated into feminine terms, is married off to a wealthy and decent man twice her age, and after a short experience turns out to be altogether unfitted for his degree of sophistication. Nanda, wise from the beginning, fails to win the most attractive man of the lot, and in the end is adopted and carried off to the country by a charming old Victorian gentleman. Nothing objective happens. The tale is told in ten long conversations, each entitled for one of the chief characters and occupying most of one of the books. All the characters talk with circuitous elusiveness, and all employ the same idiom, with the single exception of Aggie in her first two appearances, when she is supposed to be hopelessly ingenuous. In his attitude toward these people James put himself in a somewhat equivocal position. With their general social and spiritual insufficiency he had no patience. They represent the world of “Vanity Fair” and “The Newcomes” done down to date. But at the time he betrayed a lurking admiration for them, their ways, and their attitude toward life. Like the rest of his stories, “The Awkward Age” has little to do with the world of affairs in any group aspect. It is like a piece of Swiss carving on ivory. It has the same marvelous minuteness of detail, the same inutility, the same remote and attenuated relationship to any deep emotional experience or vigorous human endeavor. Unless one is devoted to the gospel of art for art’s sake, one cannot appreciate the good of this sort of endeavor. In his narrowly limited field Mr. James is a master. For more than forty years and in more than thirty volumes he did the thing that he elected to without compromise in behalf of popularity. Yet admire him as much as they may, most readers turn from him with relief to the literature of activity and of the normal, healthy human beings who are seldom to be encountered in the pages of Henry James.

      Before mentioning in detail the types of American realistic novel which have followed on the work of Mr. Howells, something should be said about the very considerable output of romantic fiction of which he has been strangely intolerant; for it is strange that a man of his gentle generosity should be so insistent on the wrongness of an artistic point of view which is complementary to his own, though different from it. Distinctions between romance and realism often lead into a dangerous “no man’s land,” and discussions of the term are harder to close than to begin. However, Sir Walter Raleigh’s contention that the essence of romance lies in remoteness and the glamour of unfamiliarity—though not inclusive of all romance—will serve as an index for grouping here.

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