Posted by: zhiv | November 24, 2008

Henry James: Getting to (and through) The Bostonians

I’m trying to remember the sequence that led me to start reading The Bostonians.  I think there might have been something as I was reading Howells and Silas Lapham, and I vaguely remember looking at something recently about Henry James Sr.  It could have been in Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which I sometimes forget is up pretty high on my TBR list, and I dipped into it once before.  I don’t think that I really knew about The Bostonians (TB), except as a title, and I knew that it had been a movie a while ago, which I never saw.  But since I’m interested (not to say studying) in literary Boston and Annie Fields, the existence and subject of TB came as a pleasant surprise.  I’m off to a decent start in reading it, but it might take awhile and I’m looking around for a topic.  I’m happy enough with my Chekhov post, which is an example of writing about how little I know about something, sort of rubbing around the growth and gaps of my education and learning.  And I mentioned there my third-rate American Literature credentials, which I seem to be filling in slowly and with some pleasure at this later stage.  So I’m going to take the opportunity to do another, lesser literary doofus post, and write about bluffing my way through Henry James.  Part of this is a means for understanding how TB could have been a blind spot.  And I hope to conclude by writing about my initial impressions of the book and its story and subject.

I guess I would have to say that I was introduced to Henry James in a somewhat unfortunate manner, looking back, as a third stage of AmLit.  The first stage is the early stuff, a Puritan and revolutionary blob.  As I’ve mentioned before, somehow I was on solid ground with the “core,” the second stage, Irving and Cooper to Melville and Whitman and everything in between.  It seems to have stopped at the Civil War, with Leaves of Grass at the end.  I remember a note about looking at the activities of the leading literary figures during the Civil War, and how they were pretty disengaged, although I’m learning more recently about some who did participate, OWHolmes Jr. (The Metaphysical Club) and TW Higginson.  I know a lot more about the Civil War and abolition than I did back in the day.  At any rate, this hazy AmLit course (shapes within it slowly emerging–who was the professor?) that I don’t really remember might well have wrapped up with Henry James and The Portrait of a Lady (TPoaL).  TPoaL seemed like a great entry-level James book at the time, engaging and suggestive of how he moved narrative technique forward and of his status as a bridge between the American Renaissance (AmRen) novelists (Hawthorne and Melville, more specifically) and modernism.  Putting pressure on this sequence, and seeing how realism receives short shrift in it, I remember now that Sister Carrie was the book that finished the course (pretty hefty batch of books in this class, if you start with Irving and finish with Dreiser.)  With TPoalL as a guiding star, James represents the International Novel, a new level of sophistication for AmLit after the hard-earned AmRen accomplishment, and then there’s that famous stream of consciousness beside the fire thing, if I’ve got it right.

It put James firmly on my literary radar fro my self-guided second phase reading, which included more Hawthorne (stories and tales, 7 Gables) and Melville (The Confidence Man, Bartleby, Billy Budd, Pierre–if I was going back in I would read one of the earlier South Seas books).  And I remember sitting down and reading The American in a single afternoon and early evening.

Interruption:  Saturday, on another topic (African-American Literature and History), I went through a process that I dubbed “scouring,” which is going through my odd library in its sundry locations (itself a good topic) and gathering up all of the books on a single author or topic.  I’ve mentioned that I did this a couple of years ago on the Russians, and I sort of looked around, without doing a proper scour, after writing my Carlyle post a while ago.  Henry james–and his brother William and the family–would benefit from a good scouring and a shelf of their own.  And I know, for instance, that I don’t even have a copy of one of my favorite James family books, which is Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James, which I read and loved right when it first came out (you know how I love a good biography.)  A quick glance uncovers an especially handy item:  “Plots and Characters in the Fiction of Henry James (P&C),” by Robert L. Gale.  This is obviously helpful–what the hell happens in TPoaL again?  and if I had ever managed to finish one of the later “big 4” novels, it would be useful–I know I waded into the Ambassadors but didn’t get very far, and I might have glanced at The Golden Bowl.  P&C has a good chronology, and it’s a bit depressing to see how little James I have actually read, although it isn’t really a surprise.  And if I remember, James’ work itself has three stages, early (eg The American), middle (TPoaL, TB), and late (Big 4).  I checked off the most obvious easy boxes:  The Turn of the Screw (TTotS) and Daisy Miller, and also The Aspern Papers and The Figure in the Carpet–your basic “portable Henry James” all-stars, and Washington Square, maybe The Beast in the Jungle, but don’t remember it–and that’s about it, aside from an essay or two, perhaps, from The Art of the Novel, which is a collection of prefaces, right?  When I look at this, I think two things–okay, maybe three, the last of which is that I love this nifty P&C book:  it’s perfect for the rambling vague mass of James, and it’s perfect for what I’m doing right now.  The first thing is that it’s a strong possibility that I approached James in what has been established as my characteristic manner:  started with an important entry level book, read a couple more things to get a feel for the style and approach, and then I started reading about James, the man and the writer and his times and places.  Since James wasn’t one of my special favories, I don’t think I took this very far, but I was definitely aware of Leon Edel and his big biography.  And I acquired some James books here and there for my lapsed scholar’s/literary parent/midlife book blogger library, as a good scouring would reveal.

The second thing is that I’m not that into Henry James.  As with so many things, it might have been different if I hadn’t bailed out as an academic in 1987.  Back in the day I had a healthy appetite for complexity and prolix philosophizing about morals and manners, for Proust and James and long hard rides in the literary saddle.  Now, not so much, but I’m not putting Proust in the same category as James.  I think I could be talked into reading Proust again pretty easily, or maybe just finishing–I might have fallen a mere 200 or 300 pages short.  But I ain’t reading one of those long James novels, no way.  I can handle The Bostonians–at least I hope so–because it’s a middle phase work that’s tethered rather securely to a setting, time, and topic that’s interesting to me right now.  And it serves the occasion to pursue these reflections.  I’d happily keep digging into who James is and what he was up to, and I’d like to read essays and criticism and perhaps those prefaces, and who knows what the scouring might turn up.  I’m much more interested in William James, who is a central figure in The Metaphysical Club, and he also plays a definitive role in another book on my bedside shelf, a rugged volume titled “Manhood at Harvard,” which I believe relates tangentially to the “muscular scholarship ethic” of Leslie Stephen, who was buddies with the Harvard guys (and Henry James, to a degree). 

And I think that reading TPoaL, along with The American and Daisy Miller, and trying to get a handle on the “International Novel” was a bit of a red herring, as we like to say in Show Business.  As always, it’s the same old whiney complaint and excuse, that I wasn’t an Americanist, that I only did the first tier in a class and the rest on my own, and now I think that that course was fairly wide and thin as well.  C’est la vie.  What I missed, what I would do or teach differently, is post-Civil War realism, Howells following Fields following Lowell at the Atlantic, and everything I’m looking at now.  If the course had been split into two parts, Howells would have been there–he’s that guy–and Jewett and Wharton and Cather would have made it too.  As good an entry-book as I’ve always assumed TPoaL was, and besides the style breakthrough it also serves as a very good Gilded Age intro, red herring does seem to apply, but I’m wondering if part of the problem (such as it is) is that I missed the high school survey.  Writing about all this (memory aid), the course is coming back to me, along with the old school Berkeley professor who taught it, Richard Bridgman, one of my absolute favorites, who was one of the two or three people I worked with most closely.  There were other courses and work that I did with him that are more memorable, but now as it comes back in bits and pieces I realize that these are his observations, that I took his AmLit course.  He had just finished a book on Gertrude Stein and was writing one about “Dark Thoreau,” or perhaps it was the other way around.  I realize that I read Huck Finn in this course.  I’d guess that 95% of people who end up as English PhDs read Huck Finn in high school, or even before, but I wasn’t one of them because I didn’t start reading books until I got to college.  My daughter (GD) has borne the burden of all of the literary waste that is slowly emerging in this blog, although my son is starting to take on some of the weight now that GD has gone off to college.  GD read tons of stuff in high school, and she actually spent a fair amount of time on The Turn of the Screw.  So a quick jaunt up the stairs yields three editions:  the Bantam Classic “TTotS and Other Short Fiction,” which also contains Washington Square, Daisy Miller, The Beast of the Jungle, and The Jolly Corner (what did I tell you); the Norton Critical Edition; and most interestingly, a “Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism” edition, edited by Peter G. Beidler.  This is a very cool thing–perhaps even cooler than the P&C–, as it has sections on Reader Response, Psycholanalytic, Feminist, Marxist, and Deconstructionist criticism, with introductions, bibliographies, and specific fairly big-time essays (e.g. Wayne C. Booth and Shoshana Felman, etc.)  GD found this volume very intriguing, though I’m not sure how far she got with it.  It seems like a great teaching tool, the type of thing old Pops here is happy to have lying around in the library.  It doesn’t solve my dilemma–the distraction from realism–but it’s cool, and the larger point is that she’s already read a different sort of entry text and has a firmer foundation than my own later first tier.  And all I can say is that nobody at my house was giving me a book like this when I was in high school, and it might as well have been written in Chinese for all of the sense I would have been able to make of it at the time. 

Enough already–a few initial thoughts on The Bostonians.  It’s not a superior entryway book, because it’s pretty clear that it’s just not as good as TPoaL.  The characters and their dilemma, while interesting and even compelling, seems less universal (going backwards there on everything I just said, I know).  TB takes on post-Civil War North vs. South in Boston, creating a surviving, highly sophisticated and gentlemanly son of the South in Basil Ransom, and it also specifically addresses “the woman question,” whatever that might be.  It has a “gentle satire” of Elizabeth Peabody in her later years in the character of Miss Birdseye.  I generally don’t read introductions until after I’ve read the book, but I do skip around through them sometimes to get my bearings, and I did see that this portraiture, which Henry James denied, caused his brother William to condemn the book, and there’s something about the novel generally being ill-starred.  Will find out about all of that when I’m done.  It’s interesting to note already, however, how it lacks so much of the texture and detail of everyday life that’s found in Howells.

And in its central triangle, with Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransom battling over young Verena Tarrrant, it takes the risk of considering not just feminism, but the “Boston Marriage.”  I’ll have to see where this goes, but despite my challenges with James’ style, “discovering” this book and getting into it is one of those literary journeys that unfolds rather wonderfully.  And of course I have to wonder if there’s not just the Elizabeth Peabody-Miss Birdseye connection, but if Olive Chancellor, with her wealth and search for a cause and her Charles Street home with a parlour that reaches back to a view of the river, doesn’t have a strong portion of Annie Fields in her.  And that would link the gifted, beautiful young speaker Verena, with her natural eloquence about women, to Sarah Orne Jewett.  This may be a reach–don’t tell me, because I want to finish the book first.  It’s also worth mentioning how James, Howells, and Annie fields all survived into the 20th century together, but I can flesh that out later too.


  1. It’s so interesting to look back at our college courses and see what we were taught and what we weren’t — what our instructors’ biases were. I have enjoyed James a lot and have read a decent number of his books, although The Ambassadors defeated me (I did okay with Wings of the Dove though). I can definitely understand your lack of interest in reading one of his late novels — I don’t think I’m going to rule them out for myself, but I do look at them with some apprehension and uncertainty.

  2. I can’t get through the later works, try as I might. He just becomes too verbose, too pompous, perhaps. Portrait of a Lady still remains as a ‘great’ along with Middlemarch – a sense of the author writing at their best, evoking their time and stretching the boundaries so that the light streams in.

  3. And I meant to add that I have not read ‘The Bostonians’ but your great post has put it firmly on that growing pile of books I must read. I was somewhat put off James when I delved into his letters with H.G. Wells recently: he just came over as too precious by half. Still, I should not be interested in the man so much as in his work…..I love his short stories.

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