Literary scholars find it hard to envision a cultural world without Henry James, the great American novelist whose novel The Portrait of a Lady enjoys a lasting mystique more than 130 years later. Now, Smith professor Michael Gorra has written a new book exploring why James’ work and his enigmatic life are still so intriguing.
/ Published November 10, 2012
Despite the vast volumes that have been produced examining the complicated life and times of the writer Henry James, few scholars have tried to tell the story of The Portrait of a Lady, first published in 1881, and to examine why such a work of fiction stands today as one of the greatest American novels ever written.
Now, in his newest book, Smith English professor and literary critic Michael Gorra does just that, combining elements of biography, travelogue and criticism to re-create a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of a writer’s mental life as well as the rhythms of James’ working life as an expatriate living in Europe more than a century ago.
With the recently published Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, Gorra has put his scholarly grounding in literary criticism into service for the purpose of storytelling. In so doing, he exerts close scrutiny and a selective imagination to create a personal accounting of James’ struggles with Portrait of a Lady and its evolution, which took place in two editions, 25 years apart.
And what would Henry James think of Gorra’s enterprise?
“James was a great one for maintaining his privacy,” says Gorra, “and I certainly attempted to read his work with great care. Still, James probably would have viewed any book that looked too closely at a writer’s life as an invasion of privacy. It’s perhaps one reason he is so interesting to me.”
When we first meet Henry James in Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, it is 1906 and James is restless, lonely, and famous. He is 63 years old, a New York–born writer who has chosen to live most of his adult life in Europe and is now dwelling in an 18th-century brick house in the small Sussex town of Rye, England. He is in his office fussing over new revisions to The Portrait of a Lady’s first 1881 edition.
James was not “the same man as the one who in the spring of 1880 began to write that novel in a Florence hotel room,” Gorra notes. “The writer of 1906 has become known as the Master, a name used even in his own lifetime by a few of his younger disciples....He carries such imaginative weight that it can be difficult to recover a clear image of his earlier self.
“The New York edition, completed in 1906, was purely driven by James’ own sense of language development. He thought he had gotten better, and he revised and rewrote the character of Isabel to make her more fully expressed,” says Gorra, who has taught at Smith since 1985 and whose books include After Empire, The Bells in Their Silence, and, as editor, the Norton Critical Edition of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
In retelling the story of how these two editions of The Portrait of a Lady came to be, Gorra uses a narrative structure that allows him “to look backward and forward” on James’ life while offering what he calls a “Janus-faced lens on the history of the novel itself.”
At the same time, he explores the many angles of an “extraordinary man,” who, as a writer, refused to conform to traditional methods of writing for his time and set a new trend in storytelling.
“I have always been fascinated by Henry James,” says Gorra who first read The Portrait of a Lady as an undergraduate at Amherst College in 1977. “Once I started teaching the works of James, my interest shifted from a focus primarily on the history and development of the novelistic form to an interest in James’ literary technique, his biography and his international themes including that of being an American living abroad.”
In the writing of Portrait of a Novel, Gorra comes to know and regard James with affectionate respect. “There is so much I admire about James. His mind was very broad and humane. He made his share of mistakes, but there was always in him an attempt to be kind, wise, generous,” he says. “I like his urbanity, I like the way he thought about his novels as literary form. I like his sense of humor. I like his travel essays and the ways in which he described being an American abroad.”
Gorra also appreciates James’ complex imagination and intellectual acuity, his exacting prose, and his handling of such delicate subjects as sexual politics with The Portrait of a Lady’s main character Isabel Archer.
Hardwick Court is the English country house on the Thames that James re-created as the genteel family estate where the story of The Portrait of a Lady opens. In James’ time, Hardwick Court belonged to member of Parliament Charles Rose; today, the estate remains in the Rose family.
As James created her, Isabel Archer from Albany, New York, was the ideal of a penniless but spirited young woman who arrives in London seeking her destiny and hoping to find in Old World Europe new freedom and opportunities for self-reinvention and an Emersonian self-reliance.
According to Gorra, Isabel—who James imagines as “very conscious of being an American in Europe”—is the true American innocent abroad, who eventually comes to know great suffering, disillusionment and the harsh realities of being caught up in the idealizations of others.
“Isabel is the voice of American exceptionalism,” he says, “a woman who sings of herself, and only herself; who believes her possessions are arbitrary, a limit imposed on her freedom, and who cannot accept the idea of merging that self in some other identity, in a moat or a name, or a cotton mill.”
Scholars like Gorra find it hard to envision a cultural world without James, especially after delving into The Portrait of a Lady and visiting that world as imagined by James, lingering over an eloquent passage, pondering a protagonist’s psychology or contemplating the heroine’s fate.
Even after a dozen readings of the novel, Gorra, who is the Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith, says he is still inspired and moved by James’ work.
Especially moving is the final deathbed scene between Isabel and her cousin Ralph Touchette in which they reveal wisdoms, tenderness, he says, “and finally they also speak about love.”
Gorra writes that the two characters “seem, in confessing all, to float for a second beyond their bodies, unbounded by a sense of self and with their minds moving at the end as one. It is as if their souls stood naked to one another, a flash so powerful—so rare, so brief—that it makes all the suffering needed to produce it seem worthwhile.
“I cannot read this scene without tears.”