I arrived in New York in 1979, without a literary blueprint. I was a Southern boy, from rural Middle Tennessee (okay, by way of Princeton, I admit). My favorite writers at that time were Dostoevsky and Harry Crews. I didn’t know that a contemporary urban fiction existed. I saw New York at first through my own eyes. It was like Columbus “discovering” America: New York City was a wealth of material, ripe to be exploited, and as far as I knew, nobody else ever had.
Unemployed and impecunious, I spent a lot of time sitting around Washington Square Park, observing people and events which became fodder for my first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble. My agent, devotedly but quixotically, was determined to get an excerpt into the New Yorker, although, as one of my friends explained, the New Yorker publishes stories about people who live around the edges of Washington Square. To wit, Henry James, whose Washington Square is one of his least difficult works; here James is still operating in the nineteenth century and still writes like Trollope, though with a keener, doubled edge. Aside from the very Jamesian story line, there was something exhilarating in reading about Manhattan still mostly empty, but for wildlife and domestic cattle: “the small but promising capital which clustered about the Battery and overlooked the Bay, and of which the uppermost boundary was indicated by the grassy waysides of Canal Street.”
A hundred years later when I showed up, Bernard Goetz was shopping for electronics parts on “the grassy waysides of Canal Street,” Manhattan was full up to the neck (not counting the wide swaths of real estate vacated by insurance arson), and dangerous in a way Henry James could not have imagined in the 1880s, when Second Avenue was still the frontier. Threat was the pulse of the whole city; some neighborhoods were safer than others, but nowhere was altogether safe, and I was young and testosterone-poisoned enough in those days to find the situation more exciting than not. They say fiction requires conflict; well, when New York was a war of all against all, you had all the conflict you could handle any time you put your feet on the street.
I was going to write street life, not that that was the only possibility. I wasn’t so interested in “uptown” writers, heirs to James like Louis Auchincloss (admirable as his opus is, and I have since enjoyed it). Thomas Caplan would prove, in Parallelogram, that you could write about New York’s patrician class and the city’s Morlocks in the same book, but that was later, and anyway I was specifically not looking for New York writer influences; I wanted to preserve my illusion that the thing would not be done until I did it.
In 1979, I moved over the bridge to the Williamsburg waterfront, a good 25 years before gentrification. The pedestrian walkway had not been caged in, and anyone foolhardy enough to go up there had it entirely to himself, with its astonishing vistas of Manhattan. I worked those views into so many books a friend told me, “that bridge is your white whale.” In my bed (a foam mat on the floor, that was) I had Cormac McCarthy’s early novel Suttree, set not in New York but in Knoxville, and yet it was the most rich and vivid urban novel I had ever read (over and over for over a year). I cannibalized its style and attitude for my own second novel of the New York understrata, Waiting for the End of the World.
By then I felt like I had got out from under the anxiety of influence problem and was secure enough in my own writing that I could afford to look around and see what other people were doing and had done. The vogue at the time was for super-skinny minimalist fiction, heavily influenced by what was later discovered to be a full-on collaboration between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. I tried to care about Carver but couldn’t, just as I tried to like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (enthusiastically wished on me by my excellent writing students at the 92nd Street Y), but really I was more interested in people who mugged the people coming out of the Odeon, and somehow I wanted to read something with more depth and dimension, with red meat on the bone.
Then, Shazam, there was Mary Gaitskill and her first collection Bad Behavior. These stories were everything the other stuff wasn’t; a mirror of life (for people like me even) in New York in the eighties that captured and reflected everything, with a marvelous, sculptural realism, down to the gum wrapper stuck in a crack on the sidewalk. Gaitskill is a writer to stay with; her masterpiece novel Veronica is much more deeply internalized than those early stories, and still it gives you glimpses of New York City you won’t find anywhere else.
But who was doing the real nitty-gritty? I was beginning to wonder. Hugh Selby for one. Just last week I took Last Exit to Brooklyn on a ride to Fort Greene; the book’s as startling and horrifying as I remembered it, and the writing more sophisticated and just plain better than I remembered it, though at the end of the day the Freudian mechanism driving all that sheer brutality strikes me as a little too much… I like better a couple of other books from the boroughs: Bloodbrothers by the pre-Clockers Richard Price, a novel mostly set in the Bronx, but including some dizzying tours of the Manhattan I was exploring around the same time. This novel reaches the same scary heights of violence as Selby’s, but Price really loves his characters, and his story evokes a sympathetic compassion for them, in the place of Selby’s disgust.
Down in Brooklyn, I discovered Jay Neugeboren in the Williamsburg branch of the Public Library, a curious oasis in what was then a very broad desert of urban blight — and a good shelf’s worth too, Neugeboren being perceived as a local boy. From these books, and especially Sam’s Legacy, I began to learn what kind of civilization had once existed in territory which now looked to me like something out of Mad Max. Sam’s Legacy gives you the old Brooklyn neighborhoods as they begin to crumble, and also this extraordinary lagniappe: an embedded novel with a completely different voice, called My Life and Death in the Negro Baseball League: A Slave Narrative.
Robert Stone, a New Yorker born and bred, writes about New York very obliquely (as he wrote about the Vietnam War so elliptically in the classic Dog Soldiers). One doesn’t necessarily think of his solo-sailing extravaganza, Outerbridge Reach, as a New York City novel, and yet the city is vividly present in more than half of the scenes, in most of its variations and many of its different social strata — from the toniest suburbs to the price of a parking place in Manhattan. The book probes the city, embraces it, and surrounds it all at the same time; one of the most memorable bits involves a microcosmic circumnavigation, when the hero Browne sails his catamaran down the Arthur Kill by night, exploring one of the city’s cloaca:
…the hulks lay scattered in a geometry of shadows. The busy sheer and curve of their shapes and the perfect stillness of the water made them appear held fast in some phantom disaster. Across the Kill, bulbous storage tanks, generators and floodlit power lines stretched to the end of darkness.
The richness of this place, and its myriad stories! In the end, one can’t just take them from the city on the cheap. Outerbridge Reach contains another home truth for all writers (though Stone slips it into a filmmaker’s offhand remark). “She told me her stories,” Strickland said. “I had to trade for them with mine.”
Image source: NYC – First Ave & 83, 1983
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.
In advance of Mother’s and and Father’s Day (May 10 and June 21 respectively) I am putting together a catalog of the best representations of Childhood, Motherhood, and Fatherhood in literature.There is a long list of great childhood memoirs, many of which pivot around either a mother or a father. So far I’ve got:An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us by James CarrollAngela’s Ashes by Frank McCourtAn American Childhood by Annie DillardThe Color of Water by James McBrideGrowing Up by Russell BakerI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya AngelouWhen it comes to fiction, many books involve mothers and fathers, but fewer are specifically focused on themes of what it is to be a mom or a dad. Some of the titles below are specifically about the parent-child relationship, while for others the connection is there, but it’s more of a stretch.About mothers, sons and daughters:A Mother and Two Daughters by Gail GodwinThe Joy Luck Club by Amy TanPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothThe Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel HawthorneAbout fathers, daughters and sons:A Death in the Family by James AgeeDombey and Son by Charles DickensFathers and Sons by Ivan TurgenevGilead by Marilynne RobinsonIndependence Day by Richard FordTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (perusing blogs and discussion groups, Atticus Finch might be the most beloved literary father of them all)King Lear by ShakespeareThe Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas HardyThe Risk Pool by Richard RussoWashington Square by Henry JamesI’ll send out the complete list once it’s compiled. Any suggestions welcome!