Henry James Is Bigger Than That

By Jessa CrispinDecember 1, 2012

Henry James Is Bigger Than That

Portrait of a Novel by Michael Gorra

"PEOPLE ARE MADE BY PLACES," so said the great traveler Graham Greene. It doesn't take much twisting around to recognize that the inverse is also true, that people are unmade by places. Finding themselves in a new land, they realize that what they were accepting as the universal default is merely a local eccentricity, that the habits and routines they invested time and energy maintaining have little value when displaced. That their normal settings need to be discarded, because they have become a hindrance.

Once that process of unmaking begins, it never quite completes. Left in the middle ground somewhere, no longer a product of your origins yet unable to be newly made in the shape of your new home, either, you end up — for lack of a better word, and there really should be a better word — an expat. And not even repatriating will ever make you the same again.


The problem with writing about Henry James is that everything has already been written. That is one reason more people are writing about Henry James the person these days — Henry James the homosexual, Henry James the virgin, Henry James the pederast, Henry James the impotent — than Henry James the writer. What could possibly be left to say about Henry James the writer? It has all been laid out, his novels, his theatre work, his stories, his essays have all been picked apart. He is The Master. He possessed genius unparalleled in his time. The end.

Every time I think I am having an original thought about Henry James it turns out I am mistaken. Those precise, twisted father-daughter relationships in Washington Square and The Golden Bowl, that is ... oh really? 2,512 results on Questia already? Well, how about that section in The Tragic Muse when ... okay, well fine. I guess I'll just fuck off then.

So I do not envy Michael Gorra's task of trying to find a new way to write about Henry James and his beloved Portrait. His biography of that work, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, tries to avoid many of the pitfalls of biography, and Henry James's biography in particular. For the most part, he leaves James's willy out of the conversation, and that is a relief. And he is aware enough to largely avoid the biographer's weakness for trying to find real life counterparts for every fictional character, or echoes of imaginative incidents in the writer's personal experiences. He wisely admits the limitations of such an approach, writing, "Searching for some putative original allows us to see what was in fact created; the difference between the fictional page and the gravel of documentary truth can stand as a guide to artistic practice." When Gorra does go looking for the gravel of documentary truth, he is looking mostly at the cities and places that housed James and his creativity as he worked on his book.

Where he loses me is in his attempt to universalize his own reading experience, his pained reluctance to dip into the first person singular. He fills in the blank of the readers' emotional responses, telling us how the reader responds to each movement, each character, each exhalation. Here, "the reader" is anxious. Here the reader longs for Isabel to do x. Here the reader is doodling dogs wearing sunglasses in the margins of her book, as if we weren't all coming to Portrait of a Lady as entirely different people, bringing our bodies and experiences and little plastic brains to make contact with the novel. Surely that is part of James's particular genius, that he isn't leading the reader to one desired response after another. Reading Portrait of a Lady a 16-year-old virgin, one who knows deep down that passion is worth sacrificing everything for, is going to want different things, and find different things, than a brokenhearted 50-year-old man working his way through a divorce.


Gorra may try to keep things tidy by avoiding the dreaded "I" in the text, but it all tumbles out eventually. The "American" in the subtitle is the first clue, and it reveals a rather peculiar pattern. Gorra — and so therefore, "The Reader" — is fixated on the Americanness of James and of Isabel Archer, and he talks about the book again and again as if it were a thesis on American qualities. Once you notice it, suddenly the eye catches and hangs on every instance of the word "American" in the book. On one page alone, flipped to randomly, we have the word "American" printed seven times: "nothing more American," "the most American thing," "one kind of American identity," etc. It's a curious little hang up.

To call Portrait and James "American" is to limit both. Other than a short section near the beginning of the book, all of the action, as it were, of Portrait of a Lady is set entirely in Europe, and the final act of the novel could be read, and Gorra does read it, as Isabel's rejection of American idealism. By the time James got around to Portrait, he was in his late 30s and had been in Europe for years — on and off at first, and then permanently settled. His Americanness, what there may have been of it, was already unmade by British society, by Parisian conversation, by the Venetian views. And while he loved the subject of the clash between Americanness and Europeanness, he was never really part of one extreme or the other. His childhood was spent being dragged from one side of the Atlantic to the other, as his family made their home in New York, London, Paris, Boston, Switzerland, and back again. William James famously commented that, as a result of the never-ending rootlessness, his brother was made a citizen of no nation other than the James nation. Even Gorra references this quotation.

His hang up is curious for another reason as well: It's a very 19th-century reading of a 19th-century text. And had Portrait stayed in the 19thcentury, where America was this way and Europe was that way, it might be a bold reading of the book. But Isabel Archer has moved into the 21st century, and she has transitioned easily. She has flung off her corset and her hat and picked up a taste for Rome's fashion week. At the same time, Rome has picked up a taste for American freedoms, while the illusion of limitless American freedoms have dissolved slowly and painfully over the last decades. A modern reader finding joy and companionship in James's work is less likely to be thinking of 19th century cultural dynamics.

So why does Gorra insist on James’s Americanness? We can speculate that it has something to do with Gorra's own Americanness. He lives and teaches in Massachusetts, for God’s sake. There is something to be said for our inbred desire to root for the home team. But the home team stopped being made up of the hometown boys a long time ago, and Gorra is so good at placing James in his other various environments, it's a mystery why he continues to comment on James's American nature. He makes a point of labeling every American friend James meets along the way, speculating that his friendship with Henry Adams had something to do with James "enjoying having some American confidants" rather than simply enjoying his company, digressing into James's readings of other American writers, and seeing Isabel as some sort of embodiment of American characteristics. This is one way to read the book, but not the only way. We can hypothesize that Gorra's own Americanness drives him. He lives and teaches in Massachusetts for godsake. Perhaps it's something else, though, some tic in Gorra's nature, rather than an inherent nationalism. A fascination with its opposite, perhaps. Given the tendency in Portrait of a Novel towards exact coordinates, Gorra tromps all over Venice, looking for the exact window a woman spurned by James threw herself out of. He travels to Rome to identify the exact villa that served as Isabel's marital prison. I kind of wished he would just sit down and eat a plate of spaghetti carbonara and let it go a little.

Gorra's book, while studious and occasionally brilliant and insightful, aches for more Gorra. For an "I," for an anecdote or two. For subjectivity and prejudice. The last two are there, but I’d like him to admit to it. They are not shameful traits. Certainly my subjectivity — as an expat, as someone who read Portrait of a Lady differently than Gorra did, was prejudicing my judgment of his book. And for a long time, critics and readers have tortured themselves over James's is-he-or-isn't-he American status. Some critics have said he wasted his career studying outdated, stuffy British sitting rooms, while he should have been building a series of masterpieces about the real material of the age: the birth of a modern America. When James officially expatriated and became a British citizen near the end of his life, there was outrage in America. It was interpreted as a gesture of betrayal, as if somehow this personal act had changed the content or the value of the literary output that had come before. As if the last remnants of his Americanness finally came unmade.


As I watched the documentary Revealing Mr. Maugham, I was struck by the number of commentators who were insisting on W. Somerset Maugham's Britishness. His father was British, but he was born in France and raised there until his father died when Maugham was 10. He didn't really speak English until he was shipped off to live with an unfamiliar British family. As soon as he had the money, he returned to France, and remained until his death. Many of his "British" years were actually spent in flight to Russia, to Spain, back to France, to the South Seas. In his novels, the Britishness that appears appears as something that has to be unmade for his characters to survive. But you know, British.

What do we get by claiming a writer for our country, other than someone to put on a postage stamp after they are dead? Maybe a little tourism, or that mysterious "local pride." I went to Trieste a few months back, and that was the fourth city I had been that claimed James Joyce as a native son: Dublin, Zurich, Paris, and now Trieste. There was a set of stairs named after him. A statue. A bust in the garden. Little comment was made on the other cities and their claim to the man. In Trieste he conceived Ulysses, so that makes their claim legitimate. Paris puffs itself up and says, yes, well, Ulysses was actually finished and published here, plus that Finnegans Wake book, although it's not like we've read that one. Ah, says Zurich. But he died here, so we have his ghost. Ireland's claim is that they totally oppressed him and turned him into the pervert he so lovably was, and without that, there would be no James Joyce for the other cities to squabble over.

James is claimed by England and America, although like Maugham, like Joyce, his true origins cannot be pinned so fixedly to a place on a map. When every atom of Henry James's body has already been studied and classified and labeled, it means that perhaps the most worthwhile thing we can do is to put him back together again. Give him a larger landscape on which to walk, rather than trying to fix him to one spot or another. After all, Isabel Archer has a larger story to tell than what happens when America meets Europe. And so does James.


LARB Contributor

Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of the literary magazines Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. Her first book, The Dead Ladies Project, will be released by the University of Chicago in the Fall of 2015.


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