A Morality Play Where the Moral Keeps Changing: Notes on the Library of America’s At the Fights

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In William Faulkner’s masterpiece Absalom, Absalom!, landowner Thomas Sutpen’s idea of a rousing good time is to stage fights between his slaves. It’s his way of reminding himself of his own station in life, his triumph over his white trash past, to watch the lower orders go after each other tooth and nail, “fighting not like white men fight, with rules and weapons, but like negroes fight to hurt one another quick and bad.” Occasionally, he even likes to participate, “as a grand finale or perhaps as a matter of sheer deadly forethought toward the retention of supremacy, domination, he would enter the ring with one of the negroes himself.”

Money, power, race, and violence – they’ve all been a part of boxing from the beginning and they’re on full display in At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from the Library of America. I could tell you how good this book is, and point out that the editors do a great job of piecing together a 20th Century history of the sport as told by a variety of first-class journalists (A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Leonard Gardner, Budd Schulberg) and a number of lesser-knowns who are just as good. That, however, is not what most impressed me about the book.

What impressed me is that it’s hard to love the sport without being, also, deeply aware of what a bestial exhibition it is. It’s uncivilized, dirty, corrupt, and ought to be against the law; it’s also deeply satisfying on a purely primal level. It’s a racket that refuses to be rehabilitated, and a volatile, exhilarating vice.

There are any number of ways of looking at it, many of them contradictory. Here are a few.

It’s about white power

Jack London – Yukon adventurer, Socialist stalwart, all-time champion of the underdog – had it in for a cocky heavyweight champion named Jack Johnson. In Reno, Nevada in 1910 he watched the perpetually grinning Johnson square off against James L. Jeffries, the man London pegged for the Great White Hope to reclaim the championship.

“Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Johnson’s face,” he had written previously. “Jeff, it’s up to you. The White Man must be rescued.”

In Reno, London joined the audience in chanting, “Don’t let the Negro knock him out, don’t let the Negro knock him out.”

The Negro knocked him out, still smiling. London doesn’t begrudge Johnson the win, but he still yearned for a white hero. “And where now is the champion who will make Johnson extend himself, remove that smile and silence that golden repartee?”

It’s about good versus evil

The Great White Hope was Max Schmeling. He was Hitler’s man in the ring. When he knocked out the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, in 1934, German newspapers took it as proof of master race ideology.

When Louis met Schmeling again four years later, the stakes were high: it was American democracy versus the Third Reich, which was not without its sympathizers down South. Richard Wright, covering the story for New Masses, reports of rumblings that “allowing a Negro to defeat a white man in public… tended to create in Negroes too much pride and made them ‘intractable.’”

Schmeling’s comeuppance was swift and terrible, ending two minutes into the first round. Columnist Bob Considine couldn’t type the story fast enough: “Listen to this, buddy, for it comes from a guy whose palms are still wet, whose throat is still dry, and whose jaw is still agape from the utter shock of watching Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling.”

In Harlem, according to Wright, there was dancing in the streets, where Schmeling was burned in effigy and thousands yelled “Heil Louis!” The editors of the present volume suspect this was a people’s uprising of Wright’s fervid Communist imagination, but it’s the kind of legend one can only hope is true.

It’s about blackness

It is 1962, and two fighters represent opposite sides of the black experience in America. In one corner is the very handsome Floyd Patterson, devoted father, successful businessman, and heavyweight champion of the world. In the other stands his challenger: Sonny Liston, a proud thug with a criminal record, a gambler, and an all-time bad example. The American Dream versus Your Worst Fucking Nightmare.

Everyone from the NAACP to Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Kennedy wants Patterson to win. So does James Baldwin; it’s the choice between “the disciplined sweetness of Floyd, or the outspoken intransigence of Liston.”

Intransigence wins in the first round, destroying Patterson’s burgeoning career as a role model. Liston’s reign at the top is short. Two years later, he faces a brash upstart named Cassius Clay, who is nine years younger. He goes in the favorite; the hoodlum turned cop, as Murray Kempton puts it, “the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line.” The sassy Negro wins in six rounds, and celebrates by renaming himself Muhammad Ali. A rematch a year later is famously humiliating: Liston is knocked out in round one, and Ali dances with joy.

Within a decade, Liston is dead, found with a needle in his arm, foul play suspected. Joe Flaherty in the Village Voice writes the epitaph: “He was a blatant mother in a fucker’s game… As Ali murdered the myth of the sixties, so Liston was the pallbearer of the fifties’ liberalism. He embodied what they didn’t want to recognize – that our streets spawn a sea of Sonnys.”

A Sea of Sonnys, Part I
I remember once, two boys and myself, we robbed a guy. Threw him down. I could hold the guy because I was strong, and the sneaky fella would grab the money. And then we’d run until we couldn’t hear the guy screaming anymore. And then we’d walk home as if we’d just earned some money on a job, counting it. We didn’t even know we were criminals.
– George Foreman
A Sea of Sonnys, Part II
…[Mike] Tyson seems to have styled himself at least partly on the model of Charles (Sonny) Liston, the ‘baddest of the bad’ black heavyweights. Liston had numerous arrests to his credit and served time in prison (for assaulting a policeman); he had the air, not entirely contrived, of a sociopath; he was always friendly with racketeers, and died of a drug overdose that may in fact have been murder… Like Liston, Tyson has grown to take a cynical pleasure in publicly condoned sadism…
– Joyce Carol Oates
It thrives on exploitation

Primo Carnera, a big dumb circus freak (6’7”, 268 lbs.), arrives in this country from Italy and quickly falls into the hands of the mob. Although Carnera barely knows how to box, he rises to the top through a series of fixed fights, with the prize money split up by the fixers. When the fights get to the top level, Carnera is gradually destroyed by a series of boxers – Tommy Loughran, Max Baer, Joe Louis, Leroy Haynes – who actually know what they’re doing. “His last days in the United States were spent alone in a hospital,” writes Paul Gallico. “One leg was paralyzed, the result of beatings taken around the head. None of the carrion birds who had picked him clean ever came back to see him or help him.”

It’s about violence
I wanted to hit him one more time in the nose so that bone could go up his brain.
– Mike Tyson, regarding Jesse Ferguson.
De La Hoya opened a gash above [Julio Cesar] Chavez’s left eye a minute into the fight. It was like a razor cut, a red thread. But De La Hoya attacked the wound until it was the size of a baby’s mouth. Then, in the fourth and final round, came a left hand thrown from an acute angle, something between a hook and an uppercut, a punch that seemed to explode Chavez’s nose, making shrapnel of cartilage and tissue and blood.

“Oh, that felt good,” says De La Hoya, now dreamy with delight. He’s never had a sip of liquor, but blood, even the recollection of blood, gets him high. “I wish he had two noses,” he says.
– Mark Kriegel
It’s not about violence
They said I lacked the killer instinct… I found no joy in knocking people unconscious or battering their faces. The lust for battle and massacre was missing. I had a notion that the killer instinct was really founded in fear, that the killer of the ring raged with ruthless brutality because deep down he was afraid.
– Gene Tunney
It’s more about muscle than skill

In 1921, Jack Dempsey, the “Manassas Mauler,” who sat out World War I, faced Georges Carpentier, a valiant Frenchman who had served with distinction. By popular accord, Carpentier was a better man and a better boxer; the crowd greets him, writes Irvin S. Cobb, with “an ovation as never before an alien fighter received on American soil.” Ringside experts like George Bernard Shaw point out Carpentier’s extraordinary skill. It doesn’t matter. Carpentier’s blows, writes H.L. Mencken, “had the effect upon the iron champion of petting with a hot water bag.” When Carpentier falls and staggers to his feet for the last time, Cobb writes: “It is the rule of the ring that not even a somnambulist may be spared the finishing stroke.”

It’s more about skill than muscle

When another valiant soldier of the Great War, Gene Tunney, took on Dempsey, it looked like another massacre in the making. Tunney let it be known that he liked reading Shakespeare, which made Dempsey think he was a pansy. Actually, it was Tunney who saw through Dempsey. He had studied him, and knew that for all his hitting power he didn’t have a great defense. True to form, once they got in the ring, Dempsey left himself exposed. Hamlet knocked him out.

It’s unhealthy

What we call punch drunk doctors call “dementia pugilistica.” A report from the Journal of the American Medical Association, according to a 1986 article by Bill Barich, surveys 18 boxers, most of them pros, who have not retired for medical or psychological reasons, and had no known drug or alcohol problems. A majority “suffered from a variety of complaints, such as disorientation, confusion, temporary amnesia, and Parkinsonian disturbance.” Also, “brain damage seemed to be a widespread condition among fighters… Worse still, the condition was degenerative, and symptoms often did not materialize for years.”

It’s fatal

Duk Koo Kim (1959-1982), a Korean boxer of renowned aggression, took on Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. In the 13th round, Mancini knocks out Kim, who quickly suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies. Kim’s mother commits suicide. So does referee Richard Green, wracked with guilt over not stopping the fight sooner.

It leads to sobering reflection
In no other sport this side of dueling is it an objective to inflict pain, or even physical harm, on one’s opponent.
– George Kimball
…[B]oxing is the ultimate sport where you have your unconscious opponent dead if you win, and next month maybe derided as a broken-down pug yourself. It’s combat, not diffused into a team sport such as football where the officiating is more solicitous and the pain is blurred, or gentrified like tennis or golf. It is conflict with no drinks together afterward.
– Edward Hoagland
The paradox of boxing is that it so excessively rewards men for inflicting injury upon one another that, outside the ring, with less “art” would be punishable as aggravated assault, or manslaughter.
– Joyce Carol Oates
It’s a job
What are we to do with these men who know how to do nothing but fight? I suppose we can continue to lock them in our jails and in our ghettos, out of sight and untouched by our regard. That, in the end, is precisely what those who wish to ban boxing really want to do: not to safeguard the lives of the men who must do this work but simply to sweep one excessively distasteful and inexplicable sin of bourgeois culture under the rug.
– Gerald Early
It’s money
With blood still streaming down his face and onto his chest, [Marvin] Hagler leaped into the air at least $5.7 million richer.
– Pat Putnam
It turns writers into pugilists of prose
Across that embattled short space Foreman threw punches in barrages of four and six and eight and nine, heavy maniacal slamming punches, heavy as the boom of oaken doors, bombs to the body, bolts to the head, punching until he could not breathe, backing off to breathe again and come in again, bomb again, blast again, drive and steam and slam the torso in front of him, wreck him in the arms, break through those arms, get to his ribs, dig him out, dig him out, put the dynamite in the earth, lift him, punch him, punch him up to heaven, take him out, stagger him — great earthmover he must have sobbed to himself, kill this mad and bouncing goat.
– Norman Mailer on the Ali-Foreman Fight
It makes them reach for odd literary references
His fighting style is as formless as the prose of Gertrude Stein.
– Heywood Broun
So he perished there in that Homeric stewpan, a brave man but an unwise one.
– H.L. Mencken
Since the rise of [Rocky] Marciano, [Archie] Moore, a cerebral and hyper-experienced and light-colored pugilist who has been active since 1936, has suffered the pangs of a supreme example of bel canto who sees himself crowded out of the opera house by a guy who can only shout.
– A. J. Liebling
It’s a creative act
The ideal fighter has heart, skill, movement, intelligence, creativity. You can have everything, but if you can’t make it up while you’re in there, you can’t be great. A lot of guys have the mechanics and no heart; lots of guys have heart, no mechanics; the thing that puts it together, it’s mysterious, it’s like making a work of art, you bring everything to it, you make it up when you’re doing it.
– Cus D’Amato, legendary trainer
Last words of Duk Koo Kim, scrawled on a lampshade in his hotel room:

“Kill or be killed.”

For Sonny – With Love and Sympathy: Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life

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Before I say anything about Kenneth Slawenski’s compelling but adoring biography of J.D. Salinger, I have a question: does anyone really, really understand just why Seymour Glass blows his brains out at the end of  “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”? The editors of The New Yorker didn’t, although they eventually published it. John Updike didn’t, but that didn’t keep him from calling the story a classic. Vladimir Nabokov thought it was an “A-plus story” but never said why. The story was published in 1948, three years before The Catcher in the Rye, and it’s been confounding readers ever since.

You remember what happens. A married couple, Seymour and Muriel, are vacationing in Miami. Muriel, pretty but vapid, sits alone in a hotel room, drying her nails and talking on the phone to her mom, who wants her to come home. The mom thinks Seymour is crazy. She cites instances, says something about the army releasing Seymour from the hospital too soon. Muriel shrugs it off and talks about fashion. Meanwhile, Seymour is on the beach talking to Sybil, a little girl he has come to know. They talk about Muriel, whom Seymour doesn’t seem like. Apropos of nothing, Seymour quotes T.S. Eliot. Seymour and Sybil take a raft and hit the waves. He tells her about bananafish, which crawl into underwater caves, eat so many bananas they can’t get out, and die. Sybil claims to see such a fish and Seymour suddenly decides to go back to shore. He heads for his hotel room. On the elevator up, he accuses another guest of staring at his feet and being a God damned sneak about it. He goes to his room, sees Muriel asleep on the bed, puts a gun to his head and fires. End of story.

WTF? Critical analysis seems to turn on the little girl’s name: Sybil, therefore Sibyl, the mythological seer. Slawenski, a good if somewhat stiff reader of Salinger, offers an even more complicated theory that suggests Seymour spent too much time reading Eliot and Blake. Both ideas may be perfectly correct, but they ignore the fact that Seymour packed the gun to begin with, beside which Eliot and mythology just seem like so much literary filigree. Presumably, Seymour feels trapped, like the bananafish, but the events of this day offer less than perfect motivation. It’s not clear even Salinger knows why Seymour killed himself, because he keeps coming back to it in subsequent stories, as if there’s something he forgot to say, some detail he meant to add.

The story is the kickoff to Nine Stories, a classic collection distinguished by ambiguity and ellipsis. It was also the beginning of a long journey. In the 25 years of Salinger’s publishing life, Seymour was his constant companion, evolving in seemingly autobiographical ways as the author became more immersed in Eastern philosophy. He’s the brilliant spiritual loner, too preoccupied with the next world to connect with this one, and in death he becomes a ghost his family cannot exorcise. In Franny and Zooey, Seymour’s little sister has a nervous breakdown on the road to spiritual perfection. In Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, a hilarious social comedy, brother Buddy recalls the disastrous events of Seymour’s wedding day. In Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy circles around his memories of Seymour, trying to make some sense of him. It’s Salinger’s most direct effort to say who, what or why Seymour is, and it’s a numbing experience; little more than an endless ramble, and quite the longest novella ever written. Buddy mentions a short story he wrote in the late forties, where Seymour “not only appeared in the flesh but walked, talked, went for a dip in the ocean, and fired a bullet through his brain in the last paragraph.” But the Seymour of the story, he says, was actually more a reflection of Buddy himself, written not long after Seymour’s death, after the both of them had “returned from the European Theater of Operations.” The story, he says, was written using a German typewriter.

In other words, Seymour (or Buddy, who seems to be channeling him, even though he gets little more than static) was tormented by what he saw in the war, as Muriel’s mother suggested, specifically in Germany. That seems like it should be the last word, except that it’s not. We still have Salinger’s bizarre final testament to Seymour: “Hapworth 16, 1924“, which landed with a thud when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, taking up a whole issue and marking Salinger’s final publication.

It’s composed of seven-year-old Seymour’s impossibly brilliant 65-page letter home from summer camp, in which we learn that he has already died and been reincarnated several times. It was a strange, unbelievable prequel: the young man who killed himself in a Miami hotel room was actually a homegrown Dalai Lama! As character development goes, it feels desperate. It was also a retread, as the young Seymour isn’t all that different from the title character of Salinger’s story “Teddy,” another child genius touched by some kind of Zen-like divinity.

After that, the clock stopped. Salinger was dead as a writer but, in his Seymour-like way, lives on. His books have never gone out of print, and his earliest and best work remains distinct, irreplaceable, and influential. By the time he got to Hapworth, alas, he had eaten his last banana. He was 46, holed up in a remote house in tiny Cornish, N.H., living off royalties that by the mid-1980s were bringing him about $100,000 a year. He devoted what turned out to be the next half of his life to saying nothing and saying it loud enough for all the world to hear. Rumor had it he still wrote and even completed a few novels, but that remains to be seen, or not seen.

Reading Salinger’s biography is a little like reading the fiction: the more time you spend in his company, the more anxious you are to leave. As far as telling the story, this book has a lot of merit. Slawenski collates all the known facts, tracks his movements over the years, and shows how his art was shaped by both World War II and religion. He does an especially good job of putting Salinger’s experiences in context, particularly where his military years are concerned.

On the other hand, he lacks detachment. He doesn’t hide the warts, but he doesn’t always notice them. To paraphrase Updike paraphrasing Salinger, he loves the author more than God does. He does a very thorough job, however, and it’s not his fault that his subject turns into such a fusty, frosty, petulant bore.

The book starts off quite interestingly, as Slawenski presents a young man who was a little like Holden Caulfield, the narrator of Salinger’s most famous novel: born to an affluent Manhattan family, he attended prep school, and was a bit of an outsider. Far from being a self-loathing manic-depressive, he was arrogant and cocky. The family called him Sonny. He was tall, lanky, affable enough to serve on the entertainment staff of a cruise ship, and he got dates. Among his early conquests was Oona O’Neill, daughter of the playwright, whom he found attractive and classy but also vain and dull. When she dumped him for Charlie Chaplin, he turned her into Muriel Glass.

Readers know Salinger on the basis of the four slim books he allowed into print, which together give the impression he’s never been anything but mature and polished. The 22 stories that make up Salinger’s apprentice work apparently tell a different story; as described here – and Slawenski makes one wish they don’t stay uncollected forever – they were largely commercial fiction that showed promise and occasionally impressed the right people.

When the story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” was accepted by The New Yorker in 1941, Salinger was poised to enter the big leagues. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the magazine postponed publication for five years; the story of a rich kid on a date in Manhattan, where he does a lot of drinking, talking and crying, suddenly seemed irrelevant. While the delay was a crushing blow, it probably helped Salinger in the end. He joined the Army and took his character Holden with him. He would see extensive action in the war and participate in key events: he was in Normandy on D-Day, when a full two-thirds of his division was wiped out, spent a bleak winter fighting off Nazi forces in the Hürtgen Forest and, thanks to his command of the language, even worked in counterintelligence as his regiment moved into Germany.

“The notion of J.D. Salinger rushing from house to house, seizing villains, and grilling them under naked lightbulbs might appear absurd to us today but that is exactly what happened,” Slawenski writes.

After thinking he had seen the absolute worst the war had to offer, he helped liberate Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later said, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.” In the end, he would receive five battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation for valor.

Through it all, writing in barracks and foxholes, he was finding Holden’s voice. What began as a series of stories would eventually be shaped into one long picaresque tale about a troubled kid with a messianic complex, wandering through Manhattan, pondering society at its most phony and the city at its most vomity.

“I know this boy I’m writing about so well,” he told an early editor. “He deserves to be a novel.“ The story took on a tragic dimension; the specter of dying young – like Holden’s brother 10-year-old brother Allie, who remains forever innocent — hangs over the novel. The novel’s famous final lines were Salinger’s own answer to why he would later find the war so hard to talk about: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

The novel that resulted, The Catcher in the Rye, is a masterpiece of narrative first person voice: self-observant but not always self-aware. Holden reveals himself in ways he fully intends – cynical, smart-alecky, funny, romantic – and ways he doesn’t, exactly; he’s immature, annoying, and at times a bit of a phony himself. He speaks in a jazzy, rhythmic argot of goddam, moron, “like a bastard,” “kills me,” “depressed the hell out of me,” and ”sexy,” which can mean either attractive or horny. It’s a voice as genuine as Ishmael, Huck Finn, Humbert Humbert, or anyone else you care to name.

The war affected other Salinger stories as well. Like Sergeant X in “For Esme, With Love and Squalor,” Salinger suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, in a strange life- imitates-art-imitates-life twist, he supposedly fell in love with his first wife, Claire, because she embodied his imaginary war orphan, Esme, and would serve as the inspiration for Franny Glass.

During this time, Salinger, who was raised in a joint Catholic-Jewish household and had embraced Zen Buddhism, studied the 1,000-plus pages of The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, which completely changed his game. It was the book that proclaimed the gospel of Vedanta, a monotheistic religion that absorbs a lot of religious traditions, “accepting all faiths as being valid as long as they lead to the recognition of God.” As Slawenski explains: “The aim of Vedanta is to see God, to become one with God, by looking beyond the shell and perceiving the holiness within” – all of which he started working into his fiction from that point, most successfully in Franny and Zooey.

The two long stories that make up this novel have a fascinating publishing history, as both were published separately in The New Yorker and one almost didn’t make it. Fiction editors William Maxwell and Katherine White couldn’t stand “Zooey” and rejected it. Editor William Shawn not only overruled them, but also worked on the story with Salinger for months. Both stories were a huge success with readers; much less so with critics, who found both characters a couple of preening, self-absorbed, condescending ninnies – views which Norman Mailer suggested “may come from nothing more graceful than envy.”

I think the novel is the best exposition of Salinger’s own religious quest, and in a curious, roundabout way reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; it erases the line between “religious novel” and “novel about religion.” It’s also very energetic. Slawenski ably digs away at the novels Vedantic ideas, but he misses the fact that it’s so dramatically, irrepressibly alive. He misses Franny, the greatest college girl in American Literature, with her spiritedness, her “irreproachably Americanese” figure, and her thoughts running a mile a minute as she burns through one cigarette after the next.

Speaking of which, it’s one of the greatest cigarette-smoking novels ever written. Everyone smokes like a freight train; every cigarette has character, every puff has an idea. Smoking is what releases the torrent of thoughts between the two characters as they thrash out the possibilities of praying without ceasing. Zooey drags on his stogie “as if it were a kind of respirator in an otherwise oxygenless world.” It may also be the first novel where there really is such a thing as chicken soup for the soul.

If Slawenski doesn’t always feel the verve of Salinger’s fiction, he does feel his pain, which is considerable. The man was besieged by enemies from every corner. Over and over in this book, I found myself wondering: how it is that a brave, dedicated Nazi-hunter, a genuine inglorious basterd, could get so completely sidetracked by editors who make suggestions to his precious copy or reject it, or publishers who want to pimp out his books with crass covers, or a crummy Hollywood adaptation of a story, or media invaders or readers showing up on his lawn. For a veteran of Hürtgen and Dachau, it seems like small potatoes, and nothing unusual for anyone bent on being a successful writer. But J.D. was simply not the kind of guy to weather the frustrations and get back to his typewriter. He lived in a small world that demanded unswerving loyalty. If you’re an agent like Dorothy Olding, who protects his privacy with your life, or an editor like William Shawn, you’re on the side of the angels. If you’re Story magazine editor Whit Burnett, who bungled an anthology that Salinger was banking on, or his English publisher Jamie Hamilton, who made the mistake of letting a bad paperback cover slip his notice, you’re alienated forever. Slawenski is so quick to take Salinger’s side in all this that at times he sounds like a posthumous enabler.

As far as the facts go, I found little to question outside of one: the news that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published in 1948, inspired Lolita would likely come as a surprise to Nabokov, who was writing his masterpiece at least as early as 1947 (longer than that if you include the early draft from 1939).

Anyone looking for clues to Salinger’s lost years is going to be disappointed: 40 pages covering 45 bland years of marital battles and legal troubles. Perhaps that’s all there is. Maybe, as Buddy Glass once said, “where there’s smoke there’s strawberry Jello, seldom fire.”

The Great Late Henry James

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If there was ever a rule that an American writer should do his boldest, most experimental work first and then retreat to safe ground, no one ever bothered to tell Henry James. He went the opposite direction, from the reader-friendly storyteller behind Washington Square and the serious modern novelist of The Portrait of a Lady to the remote, forbidding, hard to read “late James.” The major works of this period, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl – written in the amazingly inspired years from 1900 to 1904, when this “steady producer” was in his late 50s — must have struck readers at the time as familiar yet strange.

First, they are set in the same cosmopolitan high society of so many James novels, where rich Americans traipse across Europe, the new world mixing it up with the old, leading to love affairs that sooner or later involve money and class. Also, they pursued a favorite Jamesian theme: determining just what’s genuine, what’s the “real thing,” both in art and life. But these novels are, also, more cerebral and analytical, with a style more convoluted, more cart before the horse, aiming less for the right word than the flood of words that would get to that elusive thing, whether it’s the real deal or just a gilt-covered bowl.

Readers wanted the old Henry back, brother William James among them. “The method of narration by interminable elaboration of suggestive reference (I don’t know what to call it, but you know what I mean) goes agin the grain of all my own impulses in writing,” he told Henry in a letter, after reading The Golden Bowl. Couldn’t you, he asked, “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 in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style?”

Critics continue to yearn for these virtues in the face of any writer who challenges them. As far as Henry James was concerned, at least two of the novels included in this latest volume from the Library of America — also in the volume are the comic novel,The Outcry, and a chapter from a joint novel – were his best. (The books were published out of order of composition, and Wings is in a previous Library of America volume.) The Ambassadors is “The best, `all around,’ of my productions,” and The Golden Bowl is “distinctly the most done of all my productions – the most composed and constructed and completed … the solidest, as yet, of all my fictions.”

He was right. Over the past month, I found them to be intense experiences, intellectual and emotional, both during reading and after. They deepen on reflection and call you back for another look. They are dense in the best and most daunting sense of the word. There’s a lot to them.

No doubt, the prose can be thorny. James isn’t direct. He over-elaborates the ordinary. He never takes the shortest route.  Once you find your footing you can still lose it when he takes off on a deep psychological excursion or drags the reader along on some endless back-story.  The dialogue can be either a joy or a torment, depending on whether his characters are having a lively discussion or talking in circles. Metaphors – often involving boating, setting sail on the sea of life and so forth – drag on exhaustively. There’s a bit of the abstract poet in James, too, always reaching for the odd word or the obscure thought, and you can hit a snag (or is that a sandbar?) when you come across such phrases as “the despair of felicity,” or such thorny passages as “a pretext for innocent perversities in respect to which philosophic time were at last to reduce all groans to gentleness.” The sentence construction can be unwieldy and awkward, as James tries to rope several thoughts together. Sometimes I found the prose made more sense when read aloud, but not always; the rhythm that was going on in James’ head while dictating to his secretary can be elusive.

These detriments do not deter. Something more important is at work. You’re in the company of a writer who sees and imagines in depth. I occasionally thought “Where is he going with this?” but I also thought “I can’t wait to see where he goes with this.” There’s a purpose behind those metaphors – he wants you to see, to visualize the inner life of his characters. He knows how people think, and he has a superb sense of how they reveal themselves, the way looks give away clues, the way people may not even know their own mind until they see another person’s reaction. These novels are set against great geographical backdrops and big fancy homes, but all the action is inside, where people plot, conceal, and create. These novels are broad French comedies and existential mysteries, stories you understand piece-meal, along with the characters, who are feeling and (quite often) thinking their way through.

Take, for example, Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, one of James’ great characters: a middle-aged man from the small town of Woollett, Massachusetts, where he publishes an unread literary magazine. Strether is sent to Paris, by way of England, by Mrs. Newsome, his wealthy, widowed benefactress, on a mission to rescue her son, Chad, from the clutches of an apparently fallen woman. The family’s goal is for Chad to come home, settle down, marry and assume his proper place in the family business. Strether’s goal, pending his success, is to marry Mrs. Newsome, thus securing his future.

Strether is joined by his friend Waymarsh, who carries all the provincial distrust of any country that isn’t his own. (“Oh I don’t say but what there are plenty of pretty places and remarkable old things, but the trouble is that I don’t seem to feel anywhere in tune.”) Strether himself is different:  a widower whose dreams in life have been compromised, he’s open to the experience ahead of him, and he’s helped out on several levels by Maria Gostrey, a fetching tour guide he meets in England. She becomes his fellow investigator in what seems at first a wild goose chase. Once they arrive in Paris, he can’t find Chad, or figure out just what it going on with him and this married lady, Madame du Vionnet. Are they having an affair, or is it a “virtuous attachment”? Is she planning on divorcing her absent husband? Is Chad actually romancing her young daughter, Jeanne?

Like many an ambassador to a foreign country, Strether soon finds that what looks simple enough over here can get very complicated over there.  Once he discovers Chad, he quickly comes to realize that he doesn’t need saving. Far from the immature youth he remembered, Chad has blossomed under the apparent tutelage of the beautiful and appealing Madame into an intelligent young man who has found his place in the world. He’s everything Strether isn’t, giving the older man pause to consider who he has become, this “perfectly-equipped failure” at the age of 55, a lackey to Chad’s mother, a would-be self-made man who has been made by others. Life has passed him by – an epiphany beautifully rendered when he attends a Sunday party hosted by a famous sculptor. Strether feels completely outclassed by everyone, and finds himself offering some painful advice to Chad’s friend Bilham: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?”

When Chad begins to knuckle under to family pressure, Strether reverses his own mission: not to save Chad from Madame du Vionnet, but to save him from his family and the stifling work-a-day world of Woollett. The man who has lived at the behest of his employer finds a moral spine he didn’t know he had.  With the occasional help of Maria – a bit of a seer, who from the start knows Strether better than he knows himself, and can speak to the better part of his nature – he goes from being an ambassador to a negotiator, working things out so everyone wins. Alas, that’s not the game everyone is playing. The Newsome family orders Strether home and sends in special forces to take over: Chad’s hefty, no-nonsense sister, Sarah Pocock, her lunk-headed husband Jim, and Jim’s adorable little sister, Mamie – the prize that awaits Chad if he’ll just follow their wishes.

We never, in the course of the novel, actually meet Mrs. Newsome, and the family business is a famous literary mystery (although a 2007 Slate article offered a persuasive guess.) In Sarah, however, we get a full sense of the force of the Newsome personality and of a certain kind of “ugly American” type: strident, arrogant, my-way-or-no-way. (She later teams up with Waymarsh, a true meeting of like minds.) Two ambassadors, Strether and Sarah, working at cross purposes with Chad’s future hanging in the balance, which is only partly the novel’s concern. Actually, it’s about the way people discover who they are, and it’s a process James takes to the bitter end, skirting a conventionally happy ending for one more ambiguous and dramatic, and true to the character of a man whose future is very much up for grabs.

The first thing to say about The Golden Bowl is that it’s a great novel about marriage. The second is that I have this sneaking suspicion that if I read it several more times I’d say it is a structural masterpiece. “Solidest” is not a bad description. It delves extensively into the lives of five characters, and it has the feel of deep planning to it. Set on the English estate of a wealthy American industrialist and his daughter, both of whom enter ill-fated marriages of convenience, it’s about the illusions that bring people together and the willful deceptions that hold them there, and the way faith can be another word for denial. The title object, a crystal bowl covered in gilt to conceal a flaw, becomes, like Hester’s scarlet letter, an all-purpose symbol for anything deceptive or fake.

Amerigo, a penniless Italian prince, lucks into an engagement with the heiress Maggie Verver, thanks to the influence of Fanny Assingham, a suitably-named matchmaker who butts in to other lives.  What Maggie doesn’t know (and Fanny hides) is that Amerigo has a past with her old friend Charlotte Stant, a love affair which ended because neither could provide for the other.

Maggie has a prior relationship of her own, and a rather weird one: a childish, just this side of Freudian attachment to her doting widowed father, Adam. A self-styled art expert, Adam has devoted his middle age to buying paintings, avoiding gold-diggers and making his little girl happy, which is the main reason he tolerates Amerigo. Once Maggie’s marriage is underway, she seeks out a wife for Adam – which turns out to be Charlotte. As far as Adam is concerned, his marriage is basically just another favor for Maggie, a way of keeping her old friend close by.

A disaster is effectively set in motion. Maggie and Adam, still oblivious to all others, continue to spend their time together, leaving their lonely spouses with the opportunity for an affair. Maggie takes an eternity to suspect anything, but once she does, all the characters (as well as the reader) are in a whirlwind of confusion. Does Maggie actually know? Does Adam? Is Maggie protecting Adam from knowing? Fanny, who brought the couples together, fears for her own social position. The plot becomes a game of five-card stud where everyone is bluffing. There’s another game-like aspect to it, too, in that James, having constructed a five-character drama that could go several ways, had to focus the resolution on one character, which is Maggie. In her, the novel finds its heart. She takes a winding path from innocence to experience, reaching a kind of forced understanding of what it means to be Charlotte, to have “been loved and broken with.” Just as he did in The Ambassadors, James takes the story well beyond where you think it will go.

This volume is the last in the Library of America’s series of James, which keeps virtually all of the author’s published work in print, not including letters and diaries. In the interest of completeness, it ends with some desk-cleaning ephemera. James’ last novel, The Outcry, is a mildly entertaining comedy of manners that reads a little too much like what it is: the salvage job of a failed play. The cruel Lord Theign is hoping to virtually sell one daughter, Grace, into marriage with the odious Lord John in hopes of paying off the gambling debts of another daughter, Kitty.  Grace has other plans, as she is interested in a bright young art student and critic, Hugh Crimble, who discovers that one of Theign’s paintings may actually be worth more than was thought. While Theign stands to make a fortune from a potential buyer, the American plutocrat Breckenridge Bender, his hand is stayed by both the mystery of the painting and the public outcry against Americans plundering the country’s art – an issue at the time of publication.

There’s also “The Married Son,” James fascinating contribution to a 1908 joint novel, The Whole Family, written with William Dean Howells, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and a number of now-forgotten writers. According to the notes, the novel is about how a proposed wedding affects the Talbert family, with every writer focusing on a single family member. James’ chapter is the bitter first-person internal monologue of an unhappily married man whose life is fraught with pettiness and jealousy, and it has a sour disdain for conventional modern life that suggests Sinclair Lewis.

This whole volume, in fact, brings to mind the great generation of writers who were already mapping out the modernist universe: Proust, Woolf, and Joyce, with Faulkner and others to follow. Henry James was a 19th Century man who developed a 20th Century sensibility. He stretched the novel, and raised the stakes.