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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism Henry James (1843-1916)

[1581] John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced with permission. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882; John Singer Sargent, American (1856-1925). Oil on canvas; 87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in. (221.9 x 222.6 cm). Gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Julia Overing Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit, and Florence D. Boit in memory of their father, Edward Darley Boit [19.124].

Henry James (1843-1916) Known for his sophisticated style, precise language, extraordinary productivity, and innovative attention to the novel form, Henry James ranks among the greatest American writers. He was born in the mid-nineteenth century in New York City. His father, Henry James Sr., was a wealthy and eccentric philosopher who initiated his young son into what would become a lifelong habit of travel. The family, eventually consisting of five children, crossed the Atlantic Ocean repeatedly before 1860, and the James children were brought up and educated in Europe almost as much as they were in America.

When the family returned to America just before the Civil War, two of James’s brothers enlisted in the Union Army, but Henry himself stayed out of the war because of an injury. After a brief period studying law at Harvard, he began publishing stories and reviews in the major American magazines of his day, and by 1869, had committed himself to a literary career. He traveled back and forth between Europe and America several times before finally deciding to settle in England, first in London and eventually at Lamb House, an eighteenth-century mansion located in a coastal town southeast of London. He became a naturalized British subject near the end of his life. James always maintained an active social life (he was famous for dining out almost every night of the week) and had a close relationship with his family, especially with his brother William, a pioneering American psychologist who was an important influence on James. But despite his familial and social ties, James spent much of his time alone at his writing desk. He never married, and he poured most of his emotional energy into his work.

Scholars traditionally have divided James’s career into three phases: a lengthy apprenticeship (1864-81), the middle years (1882-95), and his major phase (1896-16). James first achieved international fame with his story “Daisy Miller: A Study” (1878), which deals with the contrast between European and American manners by exploring a young girl’s disregard for social codes. Although some readers considered the story shocking, it was widely reprinted. James’s early phase culminated with Portrait of a Lady (1881), a novel which many critics regard as one of his masterpieces. During what James referred to as his middle years, he produced several long political novels (none of which sold well), numerous short stories, some of his most influential literary criticism (including “The Art of Fiction”), and a disastrously unsuccessful play. James’s major phase is characterized by his increasing complexity and subtlety as a writer and by the culmination of his development of a new modernist aesthetic for the novel form. It was also a period of intense productivity: he wrote thirty-seven stories, some of his most famous novellas (including the ghost story The Turn of the Screw), and several of his most important novels. Between 1906 and 1910 James embarked on the monumental project of revising his own work for publication in the twenty-four-volume New York edition of his Collected Works.

Throughout his career, James maintained an interest in contrasting European and American manners, and in exploring the ways psychologically complex characters deal with ambiguous social and intellectual problems. James has sometimes been criticized for the rarified quality of his work. For some readers, he seems to neglect “flesh and blood” problems in order to focus on the neurotic anxieties of over-privileged, self-absorbed characters. But for James, the value of fiction writing lay in providing “a personal, a direct impression of life,” which to him was best achieved not by chronicling material conditions but rather by examining the subjective, psychological complexities of human beings. His interest in psychology led him to develop the use of limited third-person narration, which is often regarded as one of his major contributions to American fiction. By relying on narrators who are not omniscient but instead render descriptions and observations through the limitations of the central character, James opens his stories to ambiguity. Readers must do more work–and involve themselves more in the process of meaning-making–to understand the relationship of the stories to their narration.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask your students to write a short paraphrase of “what happens” in “The Jolly Corner” or “The Beast in the Jungle.” When they are finished, discuss their summaries as a class. Because these stories are so complex–and focus so narrowly on their psychologically troubled main characters–students will have very different ideas about what should be considered the “action” of the story. You can use this project to make the point that “reality” is highly subjective in a James story. Readers will interpret the characters’ psychological experiences differently, just as two characters in the same story will interpret the events differently.
  • With its ironic examination of the relationship between representations and reality, “The Real Thing” can serve as an excellent jumping-off point for a discussion of realism as an artistic movement. The story serves as a kind of fable about the artistic production of realistic representation. The reader, along with the artist in the story, comes to realize that it is precisely because the Monarchs represent British aristocratic values that they fail as models of the type. Artistic inspiration seems to depend on artificiality and pretense (figured by the lower-class models) and is hampered by the stifling presence of the “real thing.” (To help your students understand the relationship between narrative and visual realism, you might have them examine some of the late-nineteenth-century realist paintings featured in the archive, such as John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit or Simplon Pass: The Tease.) Ask your students to think about the implications of James’s fable about the making of realistic art. What is the relationship between the artist and reality? What seems to be the goal of the “realist” art object? What is the relationship between the artist in the story and Henry James, the writer?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why do Winterbourne’s aunt, Mrs. Walker, and the rest of polite society in Europe shun Daisy Miller? What exactly do they find so shocking about her? How does she challenge conventional social codes?
  2. Comprehension: According to James, what qualities characterize successful fiction? What kind of manifesto for fiction writing does he lay out in “The Art of Fiction”?
  3. Context: Like Edith Wharton, Henry James frequently wrote about Americans traveling and living in Europe. What characteristics mark a typical “American” character for James? How does he see Americans as different from Europeans? How does his analysis of the contrast between Americans and Europeans compare to Wharton’s?
  4. Context: In “The Jolly Corner,” Spencer Brydon is in the process of overseeing the conversion of one of his properties into “a tall mass of flats,” while maintaining the other as an intact, but empty, mansion. What do these two types of housing structures represent to Brydon? Why does the realization that he has a “capacity for business and a sense for construction” create such harrowing anxieties for him? What is his relationship to the large family mansion on the “jolly corner”?
  5. Context: James was once driven through the Lower East Side where he saw the crowded tenements and bustling commercial stalls of the Jewish section. He reported that he was disgusted by a sense of “a great swarming.” How might knowledge of James’s reaction to the tenements inform our understanding of “The Jolly Corner”? How do you think immigrants living in overcrowded tenements would react to Brydon’s story of his frightening encounter with his empty mansion? For help in forming your response, see the material featured in the Lower East Side context in this unit.
  6. Exploration: In 1879, James wrote the first critical-biographical book about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary career. Why do you think James was so interested in Hawthorne? What values and interests do they share? How are they different from one another?

Selected Archive Items

[1581] John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882),
courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced with permission. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882; John Singer Sargent, American (1856-1925). Oil on canvas; 87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in. (221.9 x 222.6 cm). Gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Julia Overing Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit, and Florence D. Boit in memory of their father, Edward Darley Boit [19.124].
Sargent painted untraditional images such as this one of his friend Edward Boit’s daughters. He also painted portraits of Henry James, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

[2612] Robert J. Rayner, View of Broadway in the City of New York (1913),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-98471].
With the expansion of industrial capitalism in the United States and the influx of immigrants into the nation’s cities, urban growth was a major feature of the period between the Civil War and World War I. In New York, the wealthiest of the “Robber Baron” aristocracy lived just blocks from the most destitute of the poor.

[3096] John Singer Sargent, Simplon Pass: The Tease (1911),
courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced with permission. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Simplon Pass: The Tease, Object Place: Simplon Pass, Italian-Swiss Border, 1911; John Singer Sargent, American, 1856 -1925. Transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite, with wax resist, on paper; 40 x 52.39 cm (15 3/4 x 20 5/8 in.) The Hayden Collection–Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 12.216.
Sargent’s work defined American painting at the beginning of the twentieth century, from portraits to murals to outdoor watercolor scenes like this one. This painting captures the mood and feeling of its subjects, who are having an outing at the Simplon Pass near the Italian-Swiss border.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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