The great American novel

Michael Gorra’s groundbreaking look at Henry James’ ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ revitalizes the art of literary criticism.

10/02/2012 3:48 PM

08/08/2014 10:12 AM

“Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece” by Michael Gorra (Liveright Publishing /W.W. Norton & Co., 416 pages, $29.95)

He lived more than half his life as an expatriate in Europe. A year before he died in 1916, he permanently sealed his exile, becoming a British citizen. He hailed from one of the most original, creative families in 19th-century America, pursuing their father’s eccentric educational experiments on the far side of the Atlantic. His older brother, William, helped pioneer the only truly American branch of philosophy, pragmatism. And his namesake father carved out an unorthodox, Unitarian-tinged pulpit for his crackpot proclamations.

The younger son, a writer, outlived virtually all his mentors and peers – George Eliot, Ivan Turgenev, Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert. At the turn of the century, he took the unprecedented liberty of revising his breakthrough novel of 1881, waiting 25 years until he and the text had sufficiently matured.

Remarkably, in doing so, he fashioned what is arguably The Great American Novel, long before Hemingway or Faulkner, Fitzgerald or Steinbeck cut their eye teeth on the genre.

Throughout his rich, fecund life abroad – London, Florence, Venice, Paris, Rome – he remained utterly alone, a perpetual outsider, even as he flitted from one social engagement to another.

He uncovered the fluid, amorphous flow of everyday mental life, long before his brother categorized it in his philosophical works as “stream of consciousness.”

He died in England, despairing of isolation, unloved and insecure, locked away with his prodigious volumes of creative prose, even as the books mocked him in silence, even as their pages disintegrated into dust.

Yet nearly a century later, his masterpiece – and first literary success – still sells 25,000 copies a year.

He is Henry James. His novel: “The Portrait of a Lady,” which has received its finest imaginative treatment from Michael Gorra, professor of English at Smith College.

Indeed, Gorra has accomplished what few non-novelists manage: writing an entertaining and highly personal account of an artist’s struggles with his greatest creation, charting the rhythms, people and places of James’ working life.

Gorra brilliantly reshapes the story of James’ consummate story, showing how the novel first sprang into existence, lay fallow for a quarter century, then revolutionized the world of English-language fiction that followed.

To call Gorra’s work a detective story; or a diary of literary tourism, as he visits James’ temporary European homes in Italy, England and France; or even an intimate biography of a writer’s secret development – all this only hints at the grand spectacle and suspense Gorra builds as he reveals the self-proclaimed Master at work, refashioning his legacy, rewriting his literary will, bequeathing to generations of writers the great gift of the primacy of character over plot.

“Portrait of a Novel” thus ranks alongside Mario Vargas Llosa’s examination of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” as an inventive watershed in literary criticism.

The outlines of James’ novel may be familiar. He tells the story of Isabel Archer, an American orphan who travels to Europe, fending off suitors, and discovering her identity: newborn in the dark, dusty corridors of the Old World.

At the center of the novel roams Isabel’s self-consciousness: the “formidable instrument” of her mind.

Her station in life – an innocent abroad who unexpectedly receives a fortune while still young – exemplifies the lessons James learned from Turgenev: “The business of writing lay not in making his characters ‘do’ anything, but rather in discovering a situation that would allow them to reveal themselves.”

Before James, most 19th-century novels relied heavily on plot, heading toward a clear, moral resolution.

James’ breakthrough, according to Gorra, was to dare to disrupt this dependence on chronology. Three years go missing from “The Portrait of a Lady,” three crucial years in which Isabel marries the scheming Gilbert Osmond, a chimera of willfulness and snobbery.

James recovers those lost years in what Gorra calls “a revolution in fiction.” Sitting by a fireplace, Isabel remembers all that has happened to her. She interiorizes the twists and turns of her life story, forming them as images, as visual language.

Thus, in Chapter 42 of the novel, Gorra writes, we see the full depth of James’ genius: No writer in English before him had offered so full an account of the inner life. “[He changed] our very sense of what counts as an event in fiction. Sitting still counts; thinking, doing nothing, not moving. Emotions count, and the activity of perception as well . . . .”

Thus, the novel’s great ellipses in time and awareness led James down the path of indirection; secrecy became the heart of his art. Readers, however, were not pleased with the result. They felt deprived of a satisfactory ending, forced to collaborate on Isabel’s fate.

So 25 years later, an old man in Rye, England, James revised the novel, still alone, still “the amiable bachelor” (his euphemism for his celibate homosexuality).

Yet now he was free to write the luxurious prose that spills from “The Golden Bowl” and his later novels. He no longer fretted about pleasing his readers, or his publishers in England and America. Only the Muse mattered, only the enduring, impersonal majesty of his art: the fiery collision of naive Americans with the unforgiving ruins of Europe.

It is the same story, born anew in each phrasing: “The whole of anything is never told; you can only take what groups together,” he says.

But is that enough? This answer, too, remains secret: “Nothing is my last word about anything.”

Even so, Gorra’s exquisite commentary on James’s ageless masterpiece may be as close as we get to a last word on the Master and his lonely obedience to his Muse. It is a word worth savoring.

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