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. Born in New York of literary parentage, 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

      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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