Often referred to as “The Master,” James is one of the United States’ most influential fiction writers. He took realism to new levels—describing psychological states as intricately as other realists described the physical world—and serves as an essential link between nineteenth-century realism and twentieth-century modernism.
James’s life of privilege gave him every opportunity to develop his intellect and his talent as a writer. Not only was he privileged to have the financial wherewithal to study in Europe as a young man, but he was also privileged to grow up with a remarkably intelligent brother (William, who would go on to become America’s first notable psychologist and one of its most important philosophers) and sister (Alice, whose posthumously published diary reveals a sharp and incisive observer of the human condition).
Henry James (left) and his brother, psychologist William James. Ca. 1899–1901.
William James was as influential as an intellectual as his brother Henry was as a novelist. In his lifelong career at Harvard University, he helped to develop the then-new discipline of psychology and wrote extensively on philosophy, religion, and human culture.
An elderly gentleman walks past Rye House where the American writer Henry James once lived. Also home to author E. F. Benson, the house is now in the keeping of the National Trust and is open to the public a few hours each week. East Sussex, England, UK.
James became a British subject in 1915, the year before he died, after having lived there for over 50 years. Many of James’s novels and stories deal with the relationship between Americans and Europeans, a relationship that he was uniquely poised to appreciate as an American expatriate.
In the cluster on realism and naturalism, the excerpt from James’s “The Art of Fiction” gives us a sense that James sided with William Dean Howells, in a general way, with regard to keeping faith with truth and representing life as we (or some of us, anyway) actually experience it. In that famous essay, he writes, “The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life.” But unlike Howells, who asserts a reality that is referential and shared, James places greater emphasis on the inner reality, on “life” as mediated through the mind. He insists on “the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern” and also contends that “Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue.” The phrase “chamber of consciousness” is particularly evocative: What does it suggest? In this same statement, James describes experience as a passive, receptive act—paying attention to things—rather than as an active one. Does that differ from what your students think of as “experience”? Does this differ from how other turn-of-the-century writers and figures—such as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Roosevelt—might define “experience”? What does it tell us about James that he defined “experience” in this way?
In Daisy Miller we have the lineaments of a familiar story: a tale of young love, misunderstanding, death, remorse, all in evocative and (for that time) exotic European settings. James is drawing on tropes from the sentimental tradition and working to make them his own. You might want to historicize the story briefly before plunging into the text: After the Civil War, Americans with money and leisure began to pour into the Europe that they had read about in histories, art books, and romantic poems. Steamships, a railroad network, and an apparently durable peace (after the upheavals of 1848 in France, Italy, and elsewhere) made the Old World seem accessible and safe. Disease, however, was still a serious threat in those decades before Pasteur’s discoveries took hold and before any sort of effective treatment evolved for malaria or other destructive ailments that thrived in warm climates. The “little Protestant cemetery” in Rome—which appears in this slide—and also the one in Florence contain many graves of British and American travelers who never imagined they would be staying so long.
Protestant cemetery, Rome, Latium, Italy. John Keats's Grave
James is often mentioned as one of the pioneers of cosmopolitan fiction, narratives about people who live and think in international ways, escaping from the supposed parochialism of national identity. Does this story offer any cautions about that frame of mind, about the possible dangers of forgetting where one comes from and forgetting the prevailing values and temperament of one’s own place?
The opening paragraph of the story—part of which is reproduced on this slide—introduces the cosmopolitan character of the setting: It is a European locale that takes on an American flavor. Where else does the story “feel” cosmopolitan? Where else do we see European and American ideas, characters, and manners coming together? And when they do come together, does it create a site of conflict? Of hybridity? How would you characterize it?
Read with your students the final paragraphs of the story, as reprinted on this and the following slide. What do you think of this as an ending for a story about star-crossed love and the death of a lovely and promising young woman? How is James varying the conventions here, with regard to what the “leading man” is supposed to learn from an experience like this?
The names of some of the characters in this story are suggestive–Winterbourne, Daisy, Costello. What shading do those names give to the tale? Do they enhance the realism in some ways? Do they turn the story into a fable? Do they belong in a work of realistic fiction?
The Green Parasol by John Singer Sargent.
Sargent was one of James’s good friends. Like James, he was an American expatriate who lived in Europe and chronicled the life of the upper class in his realistic portraits. This particular painting of young women lounging about in the sun evokes a similar mood to that of stories like Daisy Miller.
What is your final view of this narrator? Is he a dedicated artist? An opportunistic hack? In his pursuit of a kind of truth, has he become irretrievably aesthetic? Reread the passages reproduced on this and the following slide. What’s strange about these passages? What are the cues here about the real situation of the Monarchs that our narrator doesn’t see or prefers not to see?
In addition to discussing your students’ perception of the narrator in these passages, discuss what remains unsaid in Mrs. Monarch’s italicized statement that she “thought we might be more like some characters.” What is she referring to? Why doesn’t she say it outright? What is the effect that James produces of having her merely hint at what she means? Such statements raise the question of how “real” the Monarchs are outside the realm of the studio. Is there something inherently artificial about their actual life?
Marcher says to May, “What saves us, you know, is that we answer so completely to so usual an appearance: that of the man and woman whose friendship has become such a daily habit—or almost—as to be at last indispensable.” What is packed into this sentence, indicating what Marcher sees about himself and life, and what he doesn’t see?
May Bartram keeps her silence until the very end of her life, thereby dooming not only Marcher’s hopes for happiness but her own as well. (The text reproduced on this slide is May’s final, halting admission to Marcher of all that she’d been holding inside for so long.) Why does she do that? Is this plausible? Have we lost this ability to wait so stoically for others to perceive—or did we ever have it? James’s characters are often astoundingly mum about big secrets, waiting, to the point of immolation, for others to figure them out. Why does he bring us into the company of such people, keenly watching and waiting for one another to catch on?
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