Henry James, Refined Realist
Lesson 5: Henry James, Refined Realist
By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:
Our class activities this week include the following:
Think Fast: Choose an incident you observed this morning and describe it as if you were Henry James.
Presentation: “Henry James’s Refined Realism” (Professor Canada)
Realism: Although they were both realists, Mark Twain and Henry James produced very different brands of fiction. Discuss the ways in which Henry James achieves a picture of reality through his fiction. If you are familiar with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or any other realistic fiction from the postbellum era, contrast The Wings of the Dove with this fiction.
America and Europe: James, an expatriate himself, is known for his extensive treatment of Americans in Europe, as well as his general interest in the viewpoints that come with a person’s national background. Discuss how Kate Croy and other characters in The Wings of the Dove reflect the belief systems or behaviors of the nations from which they come.
Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, presentations, and cooperative learning.
Think Again: We saw in our study of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that the literary scholar Jane Tompkins valued the “cultural work” that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel performed. What “work” does The Wings of the Dove perform? Is this work worthwhile? Does James succeed in his purpose? As always, support your claim with evidence from the novel.
Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences. During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.
Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.
Names and Terms
Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:
Make sure you are familiar with the following key date:
1902: James publishes The Wings of the Dove
You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:
The Henry James Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites features numerous links to e-texts and other online materials.
Online Literary Criticism Collection: Henry James, Jr. (1843-1916) features links to articles about the author.
We turn from our study of a overt, emotional novel in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to a much subtler, more intellectual novel, Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. By the way, we will have some special guests on Monday: a film crew from Premier TV. I understand that some footage of our class may appear on E-Entertainment. Let’s dazzle the world with our lively discussion of Henry James!
Henry James, 1843-1916
Far less known than Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, and other writers of the nineteenth century, Henry James nevertheless may be the greatest American novelist. Over a career that spanned more than four decades, James published more novels than any of these writers. Many of these works—including The American (1877), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and The Ambassadors (1903)—are considered masterpieces of the genre. He also wrote two of the greatest American novelettes—Daisy Miller (1879) and The Turn of the Screw (1898)—as well as numerous important short stories, including “The Real Thing” and “The Beast in the Jungle.” Finally, James was one of the foremost authorities on the novel and wrote considerable literary criticism, including an essay called “The Art of Fiction,” a critical study of Hawthorne, and numerous reviews. Dubbed “the Master,” James is known for a highly refined prose style, which he used to capture the complex psychologies of his characters. Exploring the workings of these characters’ minds was the major focus of James’s fiction, which might be characterized as “psychological realism.” An American who moved to England in the middle of his career, James is also known for exploring the ways in which individuals’ outlooks and behaviors are shaped by their national cultures.
Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, James belonged to a prominent New England family. His father, Henry James, Sr., was a wealthy man who counted Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle among his acquaintances. His elder brother, William James, would become the leading American philosopher of the nineteenth century, as well as one of the first modern psychologists. Born in New York City in 1843, Henry James, Jr., had the opportunity to travel extensively as a child. Indeed, between 1855 and 1858, he lived in Europe with his family. He returned to America in 1858 and lived in Newport, Connecticut for the next four years, exempted from service in the Civil War because of a back injury. After a brief stint at Harvard Law School, he published the first work under his own name in The Atlantic Monthly in 1865. In 1870 he was traveling again—this time meeting, among others, Charles Dickens and Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pen name George Eliot. In 1871, he published his first novel, Watch and Ward. In 1875, still in his early thirties, he moved to Europe, first settling in France, where he met Gustav Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, and other important French writers. Over this early part of his life, James had become one of the most cosmopolitan American writers of his time or any other time, having spent time in England, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, often interacting with leading writers, taking in art at the Louvre, and continually observing life around him.
Although he studied art in Europe, his calling was in the field of literature. Over the next six years, he published more than a dozen books, including the novels The American and The Portrait of a Lady, the novelette Daisy Miller, a critical volume on Nathaniel Hawthorne, and collections of short stories. In 1881, he returned briefly to America and then, in 1882, moved permanently to Europe. Over the next 15 years, he published additional novels—notably The Bostonians (1886) and The Princess Casamassima (1886)—the novelette The Turn of the Screw, and more short stories, some of them collected in The Real Thing and Other Tales (1893). He also tried his hand at drama, although he enjoyed far less success in this area. In the early years of the twentieth century, he published a number of notoriously difficult novels: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). Between 1907 and 1909, James edited The New York Edition of his works and made major changes in many of his stories. After the death of his brother in 1910, he published two autobiographical books, A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914). Because of his problems with World War I, he became a British subject in 1915. During the same year, he suffered from two strokes. He died of edema the following year.
The Wings of the Dove
Just as it marked a turning point in American history, the Civil War (1861-1865) separated two literary periods. Although a number of writers, notably Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, lived through the war and published important works long after its end, American literature underwent a significant change during this time. By 1870, major figures such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau had died, and romanticism and Transcendentalism had largely given way to a different literary movement, which came to be known as realism. Rebelling against what they perceived as the excesses of earlier writers, the realists sought to write believable stories about everyday people. Not coincidentally, many of these realists were journalists who observed life firsthand and knew how different it could be—especially among the middle and lower classes—from the illusions somewhat common in literature. William Dean Howells, one of the leaders of the movement in the United States, captured the essence of the realistic movement in his novel The Rise of Silas Lapham, in which a character comments that “the novelists would be best to us if they painted life as it is.” Howells, like fellow realists Mark Twain and Stephen Crane, particularly railed against fantastic romances that glorified war. The realists were also more deliberate than many of their predecessors in creating a sense of verisimilitude, often using detailed descriptions and dialect to bring their scenes and characters to life. In one particular brand of realism, known as regionalism or local color, writers focused on some exotic region of the United States—New Orleans and other Southern locales were particularly popular, as was the West—and recreated this region for magazine readers in the Northeast. The novel, already strongly associated with realistic depictions of everyday life, was a popular genre during the postbellum era. Some of the most noteworthy realistic novels of the period include Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1883), Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899).
Like Howells, James wrote important criticism regarding the realistic movement. Along with his classic essay “The Art of Fiction,” he wrote numerous reviews and other essays in which he commented on realism and the novel. He was also one of the leading writers of realism, although on the surface his work looks very different from novels by Twain and even Howells, with whom he was closely allied. Novels such as The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors show little or no dialect and generally ignore the lower classes. In one crucial respect, however, James was a master realist. Rather than focus on the externals of reality, James explored the internals. Specifically, he returned again and again to the complexities of human psychology. In his biography of the author, Leon Edel wrote that James “believed that each human consciousness carries its own ‘reality’ and that this is what art captures and preserves” (166). If Twain’s chief enemy was romance, James’s was the “type”—a simplistic version of a human personality common in literature and journalism, both then and now. Like James himself, the characters he explored were often Americans who had come to Europe. The “international theme,” as James phrased it, can be found in Daisy Miller, Roderick Hudson, The American, and other works. One of the most interesting features of many of James’s characters is their tendency to live vicariously through—or even prey on—other, usually young and beautiful characters. The author would not have had to look far for a model for these characters. Of his time in Europe as a young man, Henry Seidel Canby wrote that James “gave his time utterly to observing, almost forgetting, it would seem his own personality, his own personal life, though intensely aware of his critical opinions” (104).
In his attempt to capture the complexities of his characters, James often employed an elaborate and highly refined style, especially in his later fiction. It is this style that has drawn the strongest reaction from readers—or non-readers. Indeed, it has been the butt of jokes, such as those describing a woman who can read Henry James “in the original” and a woman who knows “several languages—French, New Thought, and Henry James.” H.G. Wells quipped that James’s fiction reminded him of a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea. After reading The Golden Bowl, even James’s own brother, a leading American intellectual in his own right, wrote in a letter: “Why won’t you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing the dialogue, psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in style.” Later, after reading The American Scene, William wrote to his brother: “Say it out, for God’s sake and have done with it.” Given the opportunity, many later readers might issue the same plea.
Coming near the end of his career, The Wings of the Dove shows this refined, perplexing style, as well as some of the other common features of James’s work. Here, for example, are psychological studies, the Americans in Europe, and the detached observer in pursuit of vicarious life. One of the author’s most complex novels, it demands the kind of careful study that many readers may not be willing to perform. In his preface to his next novel, The Ambassadors, James wrote that readers should take it five pages at a time. The Wings of the Dove calls for a similar approach.
Canby, Henry Seidel. Turn West, Turn East. Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press, 1951.
Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.
In this lesson, we saw one of the last great novelists of the nineteenth century. In our next lesson, we turn to a twentieth-century novelist, the North Carolinian Thomas Wolfe.
Roderick, a brief success in art, is a failure in life
James “seemed to think one could not enjoy both” passion and art (Edel HJL 167)
Strether admires Miss Barace’s amused detachment: “She seemed, with little cries and protests and quick recognitions, movements like the darts of some fine high-feathered free-pecking bird, to stand before life as before some full shop-window” (205)
Strether defends Marie de Vionnet not as moral, but as “wonderful”—that is, an object to be admired: “She has struck me from the first as wonderful. I’ve been thinking too moreover that, after all, she would probably have represented even for yourself something rather new and rather good” (419)
characters misunderstand each other; Strether says of Sarah Pocock, “I must see her,” and Chad thinks he means Mrs. Newsome (431)
Maria: “And does that make you want her any more?”