The Enmity and the Ecstasy

In early January 1903, The New York Times deemed the serialization of a new James novel so noteworthy as to merit an article (PDF) about another article that itself heralded the debut of that serialization.

Both the serialization and the commentary ran in the North American Review. As The Times reported, William Dean Howells, the same man whose impassioned remarks inspired James to conceive of The Ambassadors, distinguished between James’s “readers” and his “enemies:”

Those people, who, [Howells] says, “frankly say they cannot bear [James], and then either honestly let him alone, or secretly hanker for him, and try if they cannot like him, or cannot bear him a little better,” are his enemies, but, [Howells] continues, many of [James’s] readers are his enemies because they question his point of view and object to the world that, if there is truly such a world, the author does not paint truly.

Incidentally, Howells goes on to suggest that most of these “enemies” are women, those same readers who James credited for the rising swell of the novel just three years previous, and who are, apparently, reluctant captives of “the somewhat labyrinthine construction of Mr. James’s later sentences,” as Howells delicately puts it.

The renowned scholar William James, repeatedly chided his younger brother for the lack of “vigor and decisiveness” in his later works, and went as far as to urge Henry to write a more straightforward novel and publish it under the name of William James, who would then give Henry half the profits. Soon after, Henry inscribed one of his books, “To William James, [from] his incoherent, admiring, affectionate Brother, Henry James.”

It is rare in the present day to find, among James aficionados (both fictional and real), anyone reluctant to express a certain exasperation with James’s later works, that is The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904), as well as The Ambassadors. In Alan Bennett’s sublime novella The Uncommon Reader, the Queen of England discovers her own love of reading late in life and, eventually, as one does, picks up a James novel:

It was Henry James she was reading one tea time when she said out loud, ‘Oh, do get on.’
     The maid, who was just taking away the tea trolley, said ‘Sorry, ma’am,’ and shot out of the room in two seconds flat.
      ‘Not you, Alice,’ the Queen called after her, even going to the door. ‘Not you.’

In her contribution to NPR’s “You Must Read This” series, Anne Patchett gets to work reading The Ambassadors on the request of a friend:

And work it was. I followed Lambert Strether to Paris as he tried to reclaim the errant playboy Chad Newsome and return him home to his mother. The action was so subtle and the conversations so dense I could scarcely blink for fear of missing something. Suddenly reading felt more like deep sea diving, going miles out on a boat, suiting up in heavy gear, and then swimming down and down into that other world.

It’s an elegant backhanded compliment, and what follows is more unabashedly admiring. While reading The Ambassadors, I too felt as though I had been pulled into another world, not underwater but back to another era, and not merely the fact of it, which is hardly remarkable for a historic novel, but also the rich and wondrous feel. To read The Ambassadors, then, is to read with the same intensity that Lambert Strether urges his young friend to “live!”


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