Well, what did I read? Epictetus’s Discourses. I read Samuel Pepys’s diary entries for 1660 and 1665. I read William Tyndale’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew. I read a bunch of Jonathan Edwards, in the Yale Reader and the old American Writers Selections. I read the first few delicious cantos of Lord Byron’s Don Juan. I read Samuel Johnson’s life of Dryden.
Like everyone else, I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (just Book One). I reread Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I read five preposterously good genre novels: David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; Tana French’s The Secret Place; Stephen L. Carter’s Back Channel; Megan Abbott’s Dare Me; and Andy Weir’s The Martian. I also liked Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, but the writing isn’t up to the story. (Shafer will slip a Hopkins line into his narrative without explaining it, but Pessl writes, “Did they think I’d been exiled to Saint Helena, like Napoleon after Waterloo?” Oh, that Saint Helena!) And I read a few of Philip Kerr’s fucking marvelous Bernie Gunther novels.
People keep writing poems, so I read some. I liked Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians and Dorothea Lasky’s Rome and some poems by Anthony Madrid and Patricia Lockwood and Jessica Laser and Adrienne Raphel and Sarah Trudgeon. And I read some Archie Ammons and some of C.K. Williams’s Flesh and Blood (couldn’t finish it; he reminds me of someone’s dad, and the paean to his new car still makes me angry).
I read James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, a very useful précis (although it can’t replace a reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I think is the most important book published in the last decade). Too bad it’s nearly ruined by pandering quotations from absolutely terrible bands and movies. In Stanley Hauerwas’s With the Grain of the Universe I discovered the definitive answer to the idiocy of certain know-nothing pop-science writers: “If we could have the kind of evidence of God the evidentialist desires, then we would have evidence that the God Christians worship does not exist.”
Oh, I finally read Henry Green’s Loving! It’s like if Downton Abbey were good. And funny. One of the best English novels ever. I read David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. I’m embarrassed to say I only this year got round to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I loved it, but I still prefer The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors. Maybe that’s only because I read them first, when I was young. Splendor in the grass!
I read a bunch of other things, too.
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The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life. We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth.
So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high.
We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below. Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa.
We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section.
Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University
How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem.
Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away – but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world.
Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders?
If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change.
Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography
The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since.
“Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed.
But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.”
Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.”
At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “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?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want?
Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas
John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label.
He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction.
A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made.
DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora.
Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America
Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America’s mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood.
The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?
Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito’s failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a “hostile take over bid,” Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father’s capitalist-patriarchal throne.
The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones’ tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women’s liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power.
Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo’s out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit.
After Puzo, none of America’s epic stories, Ahab’s or Gatsby’s, Hester Prynne’s or Invisible Man’s, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot’s admission to the “great tradition.” The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo’s omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own.
Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry
It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel.
The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden.
“But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.”
And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere.
Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues.
Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us?
Kirk Curnutt, Troy University
On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive.
Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental.
The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem.
My only compensation?
I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market
Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum
Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent.
But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction.
In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation.
Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist.
Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile.
Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself.
Priscilla Wald, Duke University
When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries.
Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.”
The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel.
Hester Blum, Penn State University
Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville’s terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped — and, crucially, shapers — of parts that jostle together, join and repel.
There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being “dismasted.” We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a “dumb brute,” rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: “he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter (“The Quarter Deck”). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a “heart-stricken moose” would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken.
What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements — a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing “inscrutable malice,” or the minutia of cetology — and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity — to try come to know — the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world?
Image via Wikimedia Commons
From October of 2008 to May of this year, America’s Greatest Self-Published Novelist was a guy from New Jersey named Sergio De La Pava. Clearly, this was a title that begged certain questions — sort of like being America’s Best Left-Handed Barber, or America’s Funniest Nun. Nor was De La Pava’s claim to it undisputed; in terms of sales velocity, Amanda Hocking and E.L. James would have blown him out of the ring, and C.D. Payne (Youth in Revolt) and Hilary Thayer Hamann (Anthropology of an American Girl) had racked up strong reviews well before Hollywood and Random House (respectively) came calling. But what Hocking and James were selling was fantasy of one kind or another, and even Payne and Hamman kept one foot in the junior division. The main event — at least as De La Pava saw it — was several weight classes up, where Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf had battled penury and anonymity and madness to make literature that might endure. And with the great Helen DeWitt in transit from Talk Miramax to New Directions and Evan Dara’s Aurora Publishers falling into a gray area, De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was left more or less in a category by itself: a 690-page XLibris paperback that could withstand comparison with the classics.
I first heard about the book in the summer of 2009, in an email from one Susanna De La Pava, of Amante Press. She’d read something I’d written about Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; if I liked “both underdogs and meganovels,” she suggested, I might want to check out A Naked Singularity: “a debut work of literary fiction that combines fascinating and complex themes of morality, crime and theoretical physics.” The pitch was unusually thoughtful, but its failure to mention the book’s author seemed odd, and Amante Press wasn’t ringing any bells. When a web search for “naked singularity amante” turned up a coincidence between the author’s last name and my correspondent’s, I thought, A-ha! A vanity project! Did I want to “add it to [my] reading pile?” No offense, but Jesus, no!
If this sounds discriminatory, the fact of the matter is that every reader is. Our reading lives, like our lives more generally, are short. With any luck, I’ve got enough time left between now and whenever I die to read or reread a couple thousand books, and only rough indicators to help me sort through the millions of contenders. I may be breaking a critical taboo here, but the colophon on the spine is one of those indicators. The involvement of a commercial publisher in no way guarantees that a given book isn’t atrocious; I’d be safer just sticking with…well, with Melville and Dostoevsky and Woolf. Over time, though, a given imprint amasses a kind of batting average based on its degree of overlap with one’s tastes. (My Benito Cereno and Mrs. Dalloway might be your The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, but that’s an exercise of taste, too — one the folks at Scholastic and Bantam are happy to facilitate.) More importantly, the layers of editorial oversight at these imprints help to filter out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that aren’t likely to overlap with much of anyone’s taste. To open my reading queue to pay-to-publish outfits like iUniverse or Trafford Publishing — to be forced to consider (and here I’m just plucking titles at random from a recent iUniverse/Trafford Publishing ad in The New York Review of Books) Cheryl’s Kidnapping and Her Odyssey, or Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter, or Letters to the Editor That Were Never Published (And Some Other Stuff) — that way lies madness.
Then again, to cling to a prejudice against mounting evidence is its own kind of madness. Some time after Susanna De La Pava’s email had disappeared into the bottom of my inbox, I came across a review of A Naked Singularity by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Conversation. “It’s very good — one of the best and most original novels of the decade,” was the leading claim. This in turn sent me back to a piece by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, which I vaguely remembered Ms. (Mrs.?) De La Pava linking to in her email. “A masterpiece,” Donoghue declared.
These raves got my attention, because The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are venues I’ve written for, and that cover the kind of books I tend to like. It’s worth noting that both (like The Millions), started out themselves as, essentially, self-publishing projects; maybe this is what freed them to devote resources of time and attention to A Naked Singularity back when when Publishers Weekly and Slate wouldn’t. Over the years, by exercising a consistent degree of quality control, each had amassed credibility with its audience, and this is exactly what the business models of Xlibris and iUniverse prevents them from doing; neither has an incentive to say “No” to bad writing. To, in other words, discriminate.
So anyway, I exhumed Ms. De La Pava’s email and asked her, with apologies, to please send over a copy of A Naked Singularity. It was time to apply the first-paragraph test. Here’s what I found:
Hmm. Maybe it was time to apply the second paragraph test.
My getting out or what?!
Okay. Paragraph three. Here goes:
Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil, and oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us an anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.
There were things here that excited me, from that plucked chicken of a referee to the Sunday-matinee rhythms of the closing lines. I also thought I detected, however, a dose of self-indulgence. (Why not just, “It was 11:33?”). I read on, through a digression on the Miranda Rights, and then 40 pages of dialogue between night-court defendants and their lawyers. Both were good, as these things went — edifying, amusing, and reasonably taut — but I still couldn’t figure it out: aside from demonstrating how smart the author was, where was this going? And here’s the second place where the imprimatur of a commercial press, and all that goes with it, might have made a difference. Had there been some larger cultural pressure assuring me my patience would be rewarded, I would have kept going. As it was, I abandoned the book on my nightstand.
It would likely still be lying there, had I not gotten wind last fall that A Naked Singularity was about to be reissued by the University of Chicago Press. At this point, the story around this novel seemed too interesting for me not to give the story inside it another try. Or, to put it another way, the constellation of extraliterary signals was shining brightly enough to propel me past those first 40 pages, and then another increasingly engaging 100. I devoured what remained in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2011.
And it’s a funny thing about those extraliterary signals — superficial, prejudicial, suspect, but also a natural part of the reading experience. Up to a certain point, they’re unavoidable, but beyond that, the accumulated effect of sentences and paragraphs starts to outweigh them. In this case, I won’t say that certain caprices of De La Pava’s prose (not to mention all those missing commas), faded into invisibility. On the whole, though, a good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” (i.e., as James’ preface to The Ambassadors puts it, “The grace to which the enlightened story-teller will at any time, for his interest, sacrifice if need be all other graces.”) And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don’t know how long. And if a book this good was consigned to XLibris, it meant one (or more) of three things. 1) Literary trade publishing was more gravely ill than I’d imagined; 2) My judgment was way off-base (always a possibility), or 3) There was some piece of this story I was still missing. The simplest way to find out was to go and talk to the author in person. I emailed Susanna, who presumably talked to Sergio — unless she was Sergio? — and by the end of January he and I had a date to meet at the most nouveau of nouveau Brooklyn’s coffeehouses.
This latter may have been a perversity on my part. On the jacket of the handsome new trade paperback of A Naked Singularity, the author bio reads, in its entirety, “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” In fact, as of January, most of the details of De La Pava’s personal life — age, occupation, place of residence, education — remained shrouded in near-Pynchonian occlusion. A Google Images search yielded exactly two results: one a blurry black-and-white mugshot from the comically low-fi website anakedsingularity.com, the other a sawed-in-half portrait posted alongside an interview in the fantastic Mexican literary journal Hermanocerdo. They might have been two different people; the only common features seemed to be curly hair and an intensity of gaze. As I rode to meet De La Pava, I wondered: what if the reason it had taken him so long to sell his book had to do with the author himself? What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if — I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear — De La Pava was certifiably crazy?
When I finally reached our rendezvous point, though, I found Sergio De La Pava as sane as any serious writer can be said to be: a small man in glasses and an off-the-rack suit, waiting patiently by the counter. About the only thing I recognized from his photographs were the corkscrew curls, now longer and slightly disarranged, as if he’d rushed over from somewhere important.
As it turned out, he had. He was coming, he told me, from his job as a public defender in Manhattan. His wife (Susanna!) also works a public defender. Later, they would both return home to New Jersey, where they lead an unexceptional suburban existence with their kids. As for the biographical cloak-and-dagger, the third-party emails, etc., De La Pava suggested several explanations. One was an old-fashioned sense that biography is irrelevant to the work of art — that the artist is, as a character in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions famously says, “just the human shambles that follows it around.” But a more practical consideration is that De La Pava’s dayjob brings him into regular contact with criminals. “My life is probably different than the lives a lot of readers of novels are familiar with,” he said. People in his line of work tend to be tight-lipped about their personal lives and daily routines, because otherwise “someone might put a bullet in someone’s head.”
This was, it turned out, a typically De La Pavan way of attacking a question. For someone so reticent with the public, he talks abundantly and well, his thoughts tending to organize themselves into fluid, almost lawyerly paragraphs of narrative and argument, with these little hard-boiled explosions at the climax. This is also, not incidentally, one way of describing the voice of Casi, the hypercaffeinated first-person protagonist of A Naked Singularity. As the interview went on, I came to see the riven idiom of both author and hero — on the one hand, leisurely abstraction; on the other, urgent volubility — as matters not just of style, but also of psyche.
Like Casi, De La Pava grew up in New Jersey, the child of Colombian immigrants. The basic happiness of his upbringing — home-cooked empanadas and “school clothes warmed on the radiator” — suffuses the scenes of immigrant life that recur throughout A Naked Singularity and help humanize our hero. But it also seems to have been, like most childhoods, one shaped by conflict. On the most obvious level, there was the jostle of languages — his parents’ native Spanish, the English of which De La Pava is something of a connoisseur. (At one point in our conversation, he would spend five minutes critiquing Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Then, too, there was the drama of the dreamy child in the striving household. From an early age, De La Pava was attracted to the logical harmonies of various intellectual systems — theology, physics, classical music, math. “My earliest memories are of philosophical problems,” he told me, utterly in earnest. Reading the great philosophers was like “being welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals.” Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism — the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds. But as a teenager, De La Pava was also into heavy metal. And his was a boxing household, where watching the fights was a sacrosanct activity. “Boxing, that’s my fucking religion,” he says.
His adult life has in some sense been an effort to synthesize these hot and cool impulses — the adversarial and the communal, the sweetness and the science, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rene Descartes. One socially acceptable outlet for both aggression and ratiocination was a law career. And although one of the first things a reader notices in A Naked Singularity is its anger at the Kafkanly facacta state of the criminal justice system, De La Pava remains in love with his chosen profession. In the abstract, “the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical,” he says, as opposed to “the faulty process of human beings…I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it.”
Still, De La Pava always thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. “I find myself constantly making up little stories in my head,” he said at one point, nodding across the coffeehouse. “Like if this woman making the phone call fell down right now, what would happen?”
Until then, he had been addressing me heads-up, as if I were a jury he was attempting to sway. As our talk turned to writing and literature, though, he began to look down and inward, a boxer tucking into a crouch. “I’m not that well-read,” was the first thing he said on the subject of influence. When I suggested that his conspicuous engagement with two broad novelistic traditions — the philosophical novel and the novel of erudition — seemed to contradict him, he amended the claim: He’s not that well-read in contemporary fiction. “I have old-fashioned taste.”
Reviews of A Naked Singularity have tended to name-check the white male postmodernists who are its immediate forerunners – Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace — but De La Pava’s reading in the po-mo canon has been unsystematic. The Gaddis book he knows best is A Frolic of His Own, a late work centered around the law. Despite an apparent nod in his novel, he has not read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Of Wallace, he will cop only to having read “all the nonfiction.” Unusually, for a novelist of his generation, De La Pava came to these writers through their own forerunners: the great 19th-century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, and Moby-Dick. This perhaps accounts for the mile-wide streak of unironic moralism that holds together the book’s formally disparate pieces. He does say, however, that Gravity’s Rainbow “turned me on to the possibilities of fiction.”
In his teens and early 20s, he produced some fiction that was “pretty terrible” at the level of skill, but ambitious at the level of content. He was determined to avoid the school of autobiographical offspring-of-immigrants writing he calls “Bodega Heights,” and to pursue instead those “possibilities.” One way his decision to work as a public defender instead of a corporate lawyer paid off, then, is simply that the hours were shorter. “I used to have a lot of free time to write,” he told me. The other is that it gave him something most young writers hunger for: a subject larger than himself to write about. In this case, it was the system Michelle Alexander has memorably called The New Jim Crow — a self-perpetuating prison archipelago populated by low-level offenders, disproportionately poor, disproportionately of color. Justice, in all its manifold forms, had been one of Dostoevsky’s great themes, and now it would be De La Pava’s. And that center of gravity began to pull the variegated worlds De La Pava had spent his youth exploring — vibrantly Spanglished New Jersey suburbs, crappily furnished starter apartments in Brooklyn, airy philosophical castles — into something “nebulous and dreamlike”: a vision of a novel.
“When I write, I almost begin with the end product,” De La Pava explained to me, as we started in on our second coffee. Midway through the first cup, he had begun to tug on the ends of those corkscrews of hair, and now he was working them furiously. “It’s similar to the way you try a case: you think of the summation first.” And what was that summation, with A Naked Singularity? Quickly, almost unthinkingly, he flattened out the rolled New Yorker he’d been carrying and began to doodle something with pen in the margins. He was talking now about the structure of Beethoven’s Ninth, but I was distracted by the peculiarly entropic energy of what he was drawing. Or whatever is the opposite of entropic. It was a single line, like an EKG or a lie-detector test, swinging above and below the baseline with swoops that grew smaller and tighter as X approached infinity. Finally, the line ended at an emphatic black dot. A singularity. “I wanted to take all this stuff and put it in in a way that would at first feel chaotic. I was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?”
This effect of dissonance and resolution is, in fact, exactly what had thrown me about the first 40 pages of A Naked Singularity, without my having a sufficient sample of the book to see it whole. Which means, among other things, that A Naked Singularity managed to stay true to a formal vision that is the inverse of most first novels’ (start with something singular; degenerate into randomness as ideas run out). De La Pava’s indifference to the prevailing trends of the marketplace helps to account for the number of rejections he would receive from literary agents (88, according to The Chicago Tribune.) But it’s also what’s so alarming about his novel’s close brush with obscurity. It suggests that traditional publishing has become woefully backward-looking, trying to shape the novel of tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Could A Naked Singularity have benefited from a good editor? Of course, but books like this — singular, urgent, commanding — are supposed to be what good editors live for.
As to the question of when the book’s various gambits cohere into a novel, there’s an ironic twist in all this. Right around page 150, De La Pava introduces into his bricolage of Gaddis-y dialogue and Malamudian bildungsroman and potheaded discursus that most commercial of plots, the quest to pull off the perfect caper. It’s this set of generic tropes, rendered with a perfection of their own, that starts to pull De La Pava’s other concern toward that convergence point he’d drawn for me. By the halfway mark, A Naked Singularity has become exactly what every publisher is looking for: a very difficult book to put down.
“I was 27 when I started, 34 or 35 when I was done,” De La Pava, now 41, told me; “I didn’t know anything.” Only that “This wasn’t The Old Man and the Sea.” A book he likes, he hastened to add. But with the help of his wife, a voracious reader who keeps abreast of new fiction, he realized that he needed representation. The first excerpt he sent out excited several literary agents enough that they asked to see more. Almost uniformly, though, the response to the sheer bulk of the complete manuscript was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” De La Pava, having poured seven years of his life into the book, wasn’t ready to see it chopped into something smaller and less risky. “My attitude was, I’ll take my ball and go home.” (Though one doubts he would have stopped writing; a second novel, Personae, less successful but still interesting, was published through XLibris in 2011).
Susanna, however, wasn’t ready to give up on A Naked Singularity, and began to lobby him to self-publish it. “I think it cost about $10,000” to print it through XLibris, he says. “We had a book party and everything,” after which they ended up with “all these copies.” Susanna then took on the role of publicist…and proved adept at it as her husband had at the role of novelist. Her strategy was to send out targeted emails to bloggers and critics who had written about Infinite Jest, offering to send them something they might like. Some of them, like me, failed to take her up on it, but after Donoghue’s review, and then Wilson’s, things began to snowball. Soon “we’re selling like 100 books a month. And then we hear from University of Chicago Press.” A publicity director there (who was also The Quarterly Conversation’s poetry editor) had become obsessed with the book. A self-published magnum opus was, to say the least, an unusual project for a prestigious academic press. It had to pass muster with the board of faculty members and administrators that signs off on each book published. But, thanks in large measure to statements of support from the novelist Brian Evenson and critics including Steven Moore, the press decided to acquire the rights to the book. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the window of my local Barnes & Noble, where I passed it just this week.
This can’t have been exactly the path to prominence De La Pava dreamed of. For one thing, I thought I detected an element of rope-a-dope in his protestations of literary innocence. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he capably paraphrased John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, tossed off two allusions to “The Big Six” (a term I had to think about before I got it) and name-checked half a dozen titles from recent Knopf and FSG catalogues. There’s also the matter of that New Yorker, rumpled from use.
And then there’s the way A Naked Singularity returns again and again to the theme of ambition. It becomes almost a counterpoint to the theme of justice. At first, Casi’s desire to do great things pulls him toward justice; later, it’s a source of frustration that borders on madness. As with the scenes of family life, the writing here is too personal not to have come from firsthand experience. When Casi says, for example, of a brief he’s preparing to file, “I’m determined to create a document so achingly beautiful and effective and important that should I drop dead as the final draft is being printed it would matter not the least,” we can hear the novelist standing right behind him, speaking, as it were, over his shoulder.
“Achingly beautiful and effective and important:” I imagine that, as he neared completion on his huge manuscript, De La Pava must have had an inkling that he’d achieved at least two of the three. And I imagine he believed, like Casi, that he was still living in a world where that would be enough. The doors of the great publishing houses would fly open, and then the arts pages of the newspapers, and then the doors of homes across America. This is what most writers believe, deep down, as the private dreaminess of the early drafts begins to give way to the public competition for attention, and money, and fame.
Yet De La Pava’s more tortuous path has afforded him certain gifts that outrageous good fortune might not have. Chief among these is something both the MFA and the NYC trajectories Chad Harbach sketched in a recent N+1 essay tend subtly to conceal: the knowledge that one is free to write the kinds of books one wants, with the kinds of effects that engage one’s own imagination, however rich, complex, and challenging. “That kind of freedom is important to me,” De La Pava told me, as we sat in the heart of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk New York, in a neighborhood I could no longer afford to live in, amid the artisinal cheese-plates and the coffee priced by the bean. “I’m very into freedom as a writer.” I asked him what his ambitions were for the next book. “I want to preserve this mode of doing things,” he said. “The rest I can’t control.” Then we paid up, and said our goodbyes, and he walked out the door, bound for the wilds of Jersey.
Bonus link: “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List” by Edan Lepucki
Bonus link: De La Pava boxing piece at Triple Canopy: “A Day’s Sail”
Image Credit: Genevieve McCarthy
As I’ve watched the contraception debate unfold over the last couple months, I’ve been surprised by the breadth of agreement there seems to be in America about access to birth control. With the exception of remarks from a certain chubby radio host and the requisite pandering from the Republican presidential candidates, the conversation has largely reflected the view of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer who wrote about contraception, “It’s a settled question. The country has no real desire for cringe-inducing admonitions from politicians about libertinism and procreative (vs. pleasurable) sex.”
This relative accord is particularly striking given that it comes at a time when the divisions in American life are greater than ever. To wit: the 99 percent and the 1 percent, the trap of the Filter Bubble, the polarizing influence of gerrymandered Congressional districts, and the recent book by conservative polemicist Charles Murray, Coming Apart, which details the widening cultural gap between the white working class and the white middle class.
So what does it mean for the country that our cultural common denominator is shrinking? That increasingly Americans have very little experiences through which to understand the lives of our fellow citizens? And why, in the midst of these trends is there general agreement on an issue as potentially flammable as contraception? Recently I found good answers to these questions in an unexpected place — in an essay on literature and ethics that provides a convincing account of the rock bottom consequences of a fractured population.
The essay is called “Perceptive Equilibrium: Literary Theory and Ethical Theory,” and it was first given as a talk by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum 25 years ago. The purpose of the paper was to merge literary theory with ethical theory — to show how forms of art like the novel can help us answer arguably the two most fundamental philosophical questions: How should I live my life? How should we live together? Here is Nussbaum describing the centrality of literature to ethics:
One of the things that makes literature something deeper and more central for us than a complex game, deeper even than those games, for example chess and tennis, that move us to wonder by their complex beauty, is that it speaks like Strether. It speaks about us, about our lives and choices and emotions, about our social existence and the totality of our connections.
The Strether that Nussbaum refers to is a character in Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors and indeed much of Nussbaum’s paper is devoted to explicating that novel — to using it a test case for how literary theory and ethical theory might complement each other.
As Nussbaum sees it, James’s novels were a form of applied philosophy. She sees the interplay between James’ characters as a debate about how best to live in the world. On one side there is the stolid Mrs. Newsome who holds unswerving ideas about right and wrong and is not open to reconsidering her views in light of new information. On the other side there is Lambert Strether, Mrs. Newsome’s fiancé, a seeker in the world who continually revises his convictions in response to the knowledge he gains through new experiences.
About Mrs. Newsome, Nussbaum writes, “We notice first and most obviously her moralism, her preoccupation with questions of moral right and wrong, with criticism of offense, with judgment upon vice.” A key aspect of Mrs. Newsome’s worldview, Nussbaum argues, is that it judges people irrespective of the contexts in which they act. Take for example childbearing outside of marriage. Mrs. Newsome would consider it to be an absolute wrong. To her, explanations for unmarried sex that turned on cultural differences or economic opportunity would be merely feckless justification for bad behavior.
Overall Mrs. Newsome has no patience for details or circumstance. She doesn’t need or want to know other people’s stories. “Her rules of right admit of no softening in the light of the present circumstance, of the individual case,” Nussbaum writes. Mrs. Newsome is not interested in learning new things, being surprised or jolted into reconsidering her views. Rather, she is a rock, impervious to modification by worldly experience.
Nussbaum is not entirely critical of Mrs. Newsome’s moral disposition. She says that it confers dignity on people by respecting every individual, regardless of circumstances, as capable of using will and reason to make good decisions. But overall she thinks Mrs. Newsome’s approach is impoverished and prone to error. For one, Nussbaum thinks it defeats the best parts of being alive — “This sense that life is an adventure, and that part of its joy precisely is the confrontation with the new.” And for two, Nussbaum argues that when we apply blanket principles to people we don’t know, more often than not our judgments turn out to be wrong.
Lambert Strether approaches life differently. Strether serves as Mrs. Newsome’s TK, but part of him desires to escape the closed confines of Woollett TK. Nussbaum figures Strether as a “perceiver” — someone who longs to drink in the multiplicity of the world, to approach experience like a toddler, “eyes wide open, vulnerable, wondering at each new thing.”
Nussbaum credits this as a good way to live a life — both because it’s more personally fulfilling and because it leads to more accurate judgments. “It is somehow a key to all the rest,” Nussbaum argues, “that a willingness to surrender invincibility, to take a posture of agency that is porous and susceptible of influence, is of the highest importance in getting an accurate perception of particular things in the world.” She follows Aristotle who believed that the way to arrive at good judgments was to circle in on the truth: to revise old views in light of new information while striving to preserve “the greatest number and the most basic” of the original beliefs. Nussbaum calls the end point (or resting point) of this process the state of “perceptive equilibrium.”
Nussbaum argues that literature is particularly good at driving us towards perceptive equilibrium. Literature, she writes, “searches for patterns of possibility – of choice, and circumstance, and the interaction between choice and circumstance – that turn up in human lives with such a persistence that they must be regarded as our possibilities.” Put another way, literature presents us with the options by which we might live our own lives — and it teaches us to go beyond superficial judgments in order to try and imagine the interior lives of other people.
But literature is not a panacea. As Nussbaum notes, it’s easier to engage with the moral life of a character than it is to get to know a real human being, which brings me back to the trends segmenting American society today and to contraception in particular.
The contraception debate — and relative détente — reflects contributions from both Mrs. Newsome’s perspective and Strether’s perspective. Consider just one piece of that debate, the issue of teenagers having sex. On the one hand most parents are against teenagers having sex, because they think it’s wrong or risky. On the other hand, most parents also take a pragmatic Stretherian perspective developed from their own experiences: Given that kids are going to have sex, let’s help them do it as safely as possible.
The fusing of these views — the moral and the practical — is possible because parents and teenagers know and (for the most part) understand each other: They live in the same homes and all parents were once teenagers themselves. But now imagine how the contraception conversation would be different if all parents lived on the West Coast and all teenagers lived on the East Coast, or if no parents had ever been teenagers themselves. The circumstances of people’s lives would preclude the possibility of Stretherian wisdom, developed over time and through experience. Mrs. Newsome’s perspective would dominate the conversation. Mutual misunderstanding and stridency would abound.
Teenagers and parents aren’t divorcing anytime soon, but on many other demographic and cultural axes Americans have already become strangers to each other. The result, I think, is that we all become a little more like Mrs. Newsome and a little less like Strether than perhaps we’d like to be. In the absence of surprise it’s very hard for even the best intentioned among us to see the colorful world in anything but black and white.
During a recent semester spent studying abroad in the UK, I had the opportunity to take an undergraduate course on Henry James. I seized the chance, having never taken a class devoted to a single author before. Previously, Henry James had existed in my mind as a hazy legend in Anglo-American letters who wrote hefty novels and dense stories in an ominously opaque prose. The only thing I had ever read of his was “The Middle Years”, a short story about an aging writer resting in Bournemouth, who befriends a doctor who also happens to be a fervent admirer of his work. It sounds awfully boring but I was impressed by the story, which reveals a great deal about reader-writer relations, although of course I found the writing itself a little impenetrable at times (the number of commas in the first sentence alone would send a good number of readers packing). It’s easy to lose your way in a James story if you’re not careful. Your eyes keep scanning the words, but your thoughts tend to wander off. Often what’s literally happening is buried beneath endless looping sentences, words that lap like waves, eddies of thoughts and counter-thoughts. It all sounds beautiful, but the reader is left wondering: what does it actually mean?
It’s obvious that Henry James is ill suited for a text-heavy undergraduate course, which requires extensive reading in a very short time. It’s not so bad when you’re studying earlier James, which tends to be more straightforward (although with the novels the length can sometimes get to you) — but things get an awful lot worse with later James. The prose becomes denser, the metaphors extend into page-long emotional parables, the grammar is impossibly convoluted, and numerous adverbs cling to and clutter the sentences.
James’ prose is notorious for becoming more elusive and complex and he grew older (it may be in part due to the fact that he started dictating to a typist in 1897, just before the advent of his “late phase”). In a letter to the Duchess of Sutherland, dated 1903, James gave his correspondent a few tips on how to read one of his novels:
Take, meanwhile, pray The Ambassadors very easily & gently: read five pages a day — be even as deliberate as that — but don’t break the thread. The thread is really stretched quite scientifically tight. Keep along with it step by step — & the full charm will come out.
It may have been that the Duchess was a particularly obtuse reader, but I do think it’s true that James is much better appreciated with lots of time to take him in slowly, a few pages at a time, to let his magic quietly come through. But James’ own recommendations, of course, are impossible to follow when you have to rifle through a whole novel in a few days for a seminar.
The reading list for the class in question included:
A selection of tales: “Daisy Miller”, “The Aspern Papers”, “The Pupil”, “The Real Thing”, “The Figure in the Carpet”, and “The Lesson of the Master”
What Maisie Knew
The Portrait of a Lady
The Princess Casamassima
The Golden Bowl
The Wings of the Dove
I ended up quite liking most of the tales, especially “The Lesson of the Master”, about the relationship between a young, promising writer and an older one whose art is in decline. It has a certain ironic bite, which I found enjoyable — the “lesson” in question being that novelists shouldn’t marry, in order to concentrate on their art (James remained a bachelor all his life). It is apparent that there are quite a few gems in the tales of Henry James, which are often in the vein of the French nouvelles (Maupassant often comes to mind). Although writing many of these short stories was bread-and-butter work for James, they offer much insight into art and human expression.
Among the novels, I never finished The Wings of the Dove, What Maisie Knew, or The Princess Casamassima, one of James’ forays into more traditional social realism (with The Bostonians), which I found read like a bad imitation of Dickens. The Portrait of a Lady was by far the most readable and engaging of his novels, and Isabel Archer remains one of his most sympathetic characters — despite the famously unsatisfactory ending. The two later novels I read, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl — especially the latter, where so little happens for so long — initially put me off. They are demanding books, but in the end they proved more interesting to think and write about. The Ambassadors, for instance, through some intricate literary trick, manages to charm the reader into embracing the middle-aged protagonist’s point of view. Strether’s fascination for Paris, for Chad (whom he comes to Paris to save) and for Madame de Vionnet (with whom Chad is having an affair) becomes the fascination of the reader, while James masterfully pulls the strings behind the scenes. It’s a rewarding, beautiful reading experience; and there really is a kind of taut, charming thread running through it.
A certain reputation precedes Henry James, I think — and it’s not a very good one. Another preconception I had about him was that he was rather passé, in both style and content. He already seemed outdated in his own time (at the turn of the century, who else was writing novels about adultery among the rich and beautiful in such wordy prose?), so how could he possibly be relevant today?
I was wrong, of course. Although James was never read by the masses, he still generates a fair deal of critical attention and admiration. Many authors today use James’ life and work to inspire their own fiction: Colm Tóibín’s Booker short-listed The Master is a fictionalized account of a part of James’ life (more on that later), while David Lodge’s Author, Author (published six months after Tóibín’s novel) does something similar. Joyce Carol Oates’ recent collection of stories Wild Nights! includes a moving story about James visiting a wounded soldier in a London hospital during World War I, and Cynthia Ozick’s 2010 novel Foreign Bodies is a retelling of The Ambassadors. In the last decade, Penguin Classics has reedited most of James’ novels and stories in a new series under the general editorship of one of the most prominent Jamesian critics, Philip Horne. NYRB Classics has also included many of James’ little known titles in their series, while Cambridge University Press is planning a new, multi-volume critical edition of James’ works, to be published by 2016 for the centenary of his death.
It is clear that James is not passé, and never was. He is, in fact, perhaps more relevant than ever; but his works lie in a strange place outside of time, and they were written that way. James was and remains a demanding author because he found something intensely true about the complexity of human nature and felt compelled to communicate this truth in the stories that took hold of his imagination. He was a careful writer, true to his art and craft, and a meticulous revisionist. His works are deep, long, airless dives into the complexities and multiplicities of the self. It’s not an easy subject to write about. His stories, lacking in plot, are simple accounts: mere turning points in the lives of characters or revelations of social organizations. Yet in their self-consciousness and ambiguities, and even in the circumlocutions of James’ language — which in truth is closer to the fragmented consciousness of modernism than to Victorian verbosity — they reveal something irresistibly true about life.
It’s easy, of course, to call binge reading Henry James a joy when the term is over and the essay is handed in and corrected. For most of the duration of the course, I would’ve probably called the process “Henry James and the Woes of Binge Reading”. Often times it felt like I was out of breath as I jumped from one work to the next, trying to catch up on my reading just before class, and then having to move on to the next book down the list without having finished the previous one.
But, as anyone who has taken a class like this (or anyone who has ever binge read from a single author in a short period of time) will know, this type of reading can also be highly rewarding. One passes from one book to the next almost seamlessly, without having to adapt to a new style, witnessing (if the works are read more or less chronologically) the progression of the writer’s art over time, the evolution of his concerns, and the development of his authorial voice.
James’ themes become richer and more multi-faceted when looked at across his entire oeuvre: things like the so-called international theme, problematic endings, his obsession with art and reality (or realism v. romance), and the self-consciousness of his fiction. For instance, I noticed that in nearly all of his novels, whenever fate intervenes in a way that seems exaggerated, a character usually declares something along the lines of: “I feel like we’re in a novel!”
The binge reader also starts to notice stock characters as they crop up from story to story. One of the most common, in James, is the young, empowered American heiress: for example the eponymous heroine of “Daisy Miller”, James’ first successful story; Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, who struggles between her freedom and her duty; and Maggie Verver (aka The Princess) in The Golden Bowl, who starts off as a meek wife and manages to get rid of her husband’s lover (also married to her father) by the end of the novel through the most skillful, subtle social maneuvering.
Theater is another recurring (although not always explicit) theme in Jamesian fiction. James uses a great deal of theatrical metaphor throughout his stories to describe the shifting nature of his characters and the multiplicity of their personalities, which they project out into the world like carefully constructed roles. Thus the adulterous women in his novels — another stock character — like Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors or Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady, are often described as actresses. They put on masks, makeup, and costumes and bury their identities beneath layers of constructed characteristics to manipulate their audiences.
Perhaps the great number of theatrical metaphors relates to James’ involvement with the theatre, which more or less ended with the failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895 (again, shortly before his “late phase” began). It was a deeply traumatic experience for James (both Tóibín and Lodge make it a central element in their novels). He described the humiliating premier in a letter to Henrietta Rendell as “the most horrible hours of my life.” Thus James was forced to return to the less lucrative — albeit probably more comfortable — business of writing for print only (“thank heaven there is another art”), but it is clear that his failure in the theater left its mark.
It seems I didn’t want to get away from Henry James after the course was over because I continued to peruse his Life in Letters, brilliantly edited by Philip Horne, which has some really beautiful bits of writing in it. I also read The Master by Colm Tóibín, and I would like to end with a few words on this book. It walks the fine line between biography and novel, a tricky genre that Tóibín pulls off majestically. It proves an insightful way of writing and thinking about James, whose life and work are a complicated balance of fiction and reality.
Tóibín’s novel is a gripping, major work of literature, which I binge read with relish not because I had to, but because it offers a fascinating exploration of James as a character whose consciousness is revealed to be as complex and deeply moving as those of the characters he, in turn, created. Tóibín’s novel offers a prism through which many of James’ works are refracted, illuminating them with new meaning and a more directly human resonance. He also treats James’ probable homosexuality with subtlety and respect — no easy feat. The Master is a good read intrinsically, as well; intelligent, endearing, moving, and even funny at times (in a quiet, quaint, all too Jamesian way).
If you read nothing by Henry James or nothing else related to him, I urge you, at least, to read The Master. It seems almost disrespectful to the “master” in question to say so, but I am confident that if you do read Tóibín’s novel, you’ll be tempted to pick up one of James’ books afterward. I’m quite certain you won’t be disappointed by either.
Two years ago I spent some time in Lenox, Massachusetts, at a house once owned by the poet Amy Clampitt. I slept in her bed, rifled through her books, gazed out the kitchen window at the tree by which her ashes are buried. Since 2001, the house has served as a residency for poets; as the ninth Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow, my boyfriend was awarded a six-month stay. On a January weekend I helped him move into the grey clapboard house with blue-green shutters. Just down the road, The Mount, the mansion built by Edith Wharton, stood in baronial splendor. Everything about the more intimate Clampitt house struck me as perfect: the cozy living room with its comfy upholstered chairs; the loft bedroom and writing nook overlooking the snowy street; the spare bedroom crammed with boxes of Clampitt’s manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. We found a bin stacked with copies of Clampitt’s own books of poetry, and my boyfriend noted how cool it would be to read Amy Clampitt’s Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher.
I reluctantly caught the bus back to New York, where I had an M.F.A. thesis to write. This meant churning out and polishing short stories, and also producing a critical essay. I decided to write about Clampitt. Now I had an excuse for riding the Greyhound to Lenox as often as possible: I had research to do. But I immediately ran into trouble. I wanted to write about both Clampitt’s poetry and her house, but what was the connection between the two? Clampitt, who grew up in Iowa and spent most of her adult life in New York City, bought the house in Lenox when she was seventy-two, after winning a MacArthur grant. The places that loom large in her poems are primarily the rural landscapes of her childhood, the Manhattan streets of her adulthood, the Maine beaches where she vacationed in the summer, and the Europe of her travels—not the Berkshire towns along the Housatonic River. Six months after Clampitt moved to Lenox, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a year and a half later. On one of her bookshelves, between Dickens and Howard Moss, I found a spiral-bound workbook called Chemotherapy and You. Some of the pages were paper-clipped, marked for use.
In a piece here at The Millions, Luke Epplin discusses his visit to Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. This house “is exceptional among existing writers’ houses,” Epplin observes, in that Neruda “managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like.” The design of the house, the attention to detail, the arrangement of treasured possessions—all seem to capture the spirit of the writer of Odes to Common Things. But even as he enjoys seeing the house as an extension of Neruda’s poetic sensibility, Epplin is suspicious of the way that such museums tend to present a limited portrait of the writers who once lived there. In his critique of the literary tourism industry, he calls on Anne Trubek’s recently published A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a book I find charming, if a bit oddly conceived. Trubek spends a lot of time describing places that irritate her. She finds writers’ houses that have been turned into museums dispiriting and even dumb. “[T]hey aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.”
But she keeps going, reporting on her half-hearted treks around the country with a curmudgeon’s pleasure in disparaging what she sees. The first writer’s house she visits is the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman published three editions of Leaves of Grass and an autobiography, Specimen Days. Whitman died in this house, but, Trubek notes, “The house is set up, as are most house museums, to fool us into thinking that Whitman was still living there.” His things, or replicas of his things, are staged in a way that Trubek finds false. Though writers’ houses are meant to make their former inhabitants come alive, Trubek observes, “They remind me of death.”
In Lenox I became friendly with the poet Karen Chase, a great friend of Clampitt’s in the last few years of her life, and one of her literary executors. Karen was at Clampitt’s bedside when she died. We talked about this one morning in the kitchen of the house that Karen helped to furnish, taking her friend on “junking” trips to local antique stores. Karen told me that after the funeral the cleaning lady set up a little memorial to Clampitt: a table with a doily and an arrangement of Clampitt’s books, along with books by Edith Wharton. “I sort of messed it up,” Karen said with a touch of pride. “It was museum-like. It would have gone against her grain in the deepest way.” Trying to learn who Clampitt was (or Amy, as I really thought of her, longing for intimacy), I stared at the framed photograph of a woman both lanky and pixie-like, prim and hippieish, standing in a whirl of autumn leaves. I read her letters, filled with descriptions of European trips and anti-war rallies, the books on her nightstand and the flowers in her window box. And of course I read the four books that make up her Collected Poems, mostly on bus trips between Manhattan and Lenox. I was pleased to think of Clampitt herself, suddenly a poet in demand in her sixties, riding Greyhound to give readings and lectures.
The poems that struck me the most, the poems I decided to focus on in my M.F.A. thesis essay, were her portraits of the dead, at once somber and lovely. “A Winter Burial” describes a woman’s death, which seems as lonely as her time in a nursing home:
. . . one nightfall when the last
weak string gave way that had held whatever
she was, that mystery, together, the bier
that waited—there were no planes coming in,
not many made it to the funeral, the blizzard
had been so bad, the graveyard drifted
so deep, so many severed limbs of trees
thrown down, they couldn’t get in to plow
an opening for the hearse, or shovel
the cold white counterpane from that cell
in the hibernal cupboard, till the day after.
This is bleak, indeed: an old forgotten woman literally buried even deeper by a snowstorm. Still, the music of the poem—those lovely incantatory final lines—dignifies the death in a way, placing it not in a sterile box, but in a space of privacy that the snow-covered earth allows. Clampitt’s poems memorialize the dead not by portraying the person who once lived, but by paying acute attention to place, sometimes places where the subject died or is buried, sometimes places that invoke the relentless flow of time and history. One of her most famous poems, “A Procession at Candlemas,” observes, “Sooner or later / every trek becomes a funeral procession.”
She’s also wise to the way that paying tribute to a place can profane it, the kind of thing that troubles Trubek. “Amherst” refers to the worshippers who flock to Emily Dickinson’s house on the anniversary of her death: “the wistful, / the merely curious, in her hanging dress discern / an ikon; her ambiguities are made a shrine, / then violated.” Clampitt includes herself in this group: “we’ve drunk champagne above her grave, declaimed / the lines of one who dared not live aloud.” She wants to address her—“(Dear Emily, though, / seems too intrusive, Dear Miss Dickinson too prim)”—even as she knows this makes her part of the adoring crowd that reduces the woman to literary icon.
As an alternative to preserving a writer’s house, Trubek suggests greater attention to his or her work. Reflecting on the plans to restore Langston Hughes’ former house in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, she asks, “Why not redirect our energy to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house . . . ? His books are plentiful and inexpensive. It would not be cost prohibitive to give every resident of Fairfax a book, or every teacher a classroom set of, say, Poetry for Young People.” After visiting Louisa May Alcott’s house, one of an exhausting number of literary sites in Concord, Massachusetts, Trubek reflects, “Here’s what I wish for Alcott, today: Her books assigned in schools as often as are Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye; her reputation remade into that of the tortured romantic genius; it would also be nice to have a foundation in her honor dedicated to offering women writers grants or scholarships for female writers.” To promote the work, to elevate the status of a woman writer, to support other writers: these are worthy goals, and the Clampitt House, in its quiet way, fosters them. While the lavish Mount down the road lets tourists see where Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and other novels, perhaps increasing the readership of these books, it could be argued that the Clampitt House is better for writers (if only, so far, eleven of them) by providing a place to stay rent-free for an extended period of time and get work done. I imagine Trubek would approve of the Clampitt House: not a memorial, but a practical living space.
I don’t think Clampitt envisioned that her house would one day serve, in her name, as a temporary home for other poets. Her husband, who lived for seven years after her death, came up with the idea for the residency program. I do know that she had some romantic ideas about the former dwelling places of writers she admired. In her essay “A Poet’s Henry James,” she writes, “When I made a pilgrimage to Rye a couple of summers ago, it was with the objective of standing on the spot where Henry James dictated The Ambassadors.”
In the essay I completed as part of my M.F.A. thesis, I wrote about the experience of staying in the house of a writer who had died there, and I wrote about Clampitt’s poems that deal with death. I don’t think I quite found a successful way to link them. But though it puts me in danger of romanticizing Clampitt and the place she once lived, I can’t help but feel that her expansive poems about loss are connected to the cozy grey clapboard house in Lenox. According to Trubek, “writers’ houses are by definition melancholy.” There is something melancholy about the Clampitt House. As Clampitt observes about Dickinson’s house, the poet’s “ambiguities” are inevitably given over to strangers’ imaginings of what she must have been like.
It’s a good kind of melancholy, though, the kind that allows us to miss people we’ve never met. During a talk she gave at Grinnell forty-five years after she had graduated from the small Iowa college, Clampitt addressed the question of what a writer needs to know. “In one word, I’d say, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, thought about them, written about them. But so I find it to be . . . .Writers need company. We all need it.”
Image: Clampitt House, courtesy the author
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.