What Are They Reading?

What Are They Reading?

In 1865 22-year-old Henry James contributed a scathing book review titled “The Noble School of Fiction” to the very first issue of The Nation.


THE AMBASSADORS. By Henry James. Everyman. 457 pp. $5.95.

In 1865 22-year-old Henry James contributed a scathing book review titled “The Noble School of Fiction” to the very first issue of The Nation. The magazine published his reviews and foreign correspondence frequently in the 1860s and ’70s, and the relationship continued intermittently until 1915, the year before James’s death. In an essay that year commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of “the most promising scion of the newspaper stock as that stock had rooted itself in America,” he curiously described the preceding half-century as “The Age of the Mistake.” It is tempting to interpret this designation as an ironic sobriquet: Could he have considered his entire career and the tenure of the magazine failures?

I first read James about a year ago, after a professor of mine introduced the novel What Maisie Knew (1897) as the “teleos” of his course on the history of the English novel. Unfortunately, the class fell behind the proposed syllabus, and I was left to figure out what the teacher meant on my own. In the eleven months since I graduated from college, I’ve read five of James’s novels and many of his short stories. Lately, my interest has been roused by an interesting personal coincidence: Around the same age that James became a literary critic for The Nation, I became a Nation intern.

James must have had The Nation–or at least the so-called Northeastern “cultural elite”–in mind when he came up with the idea for The Ambassadors, a novel he finished writing in 1903. It follows the adventures of Lewis Lambert Strether, the editor of a distinguished but financially unstable literary review. James scholars agree that William Dean Howells, who worked for The Nation and went on to edit The Atlantic, was probably the model for this character. Strether travels to Europe at the bidding of his wealthy patron and fiancée, Mrs. Newsome, whose son Chad has taken up a bohemian lifestyle in Paris (and an affair with a sophisticated–and married–older woman, Madame de Vionnet) rather than take over the family business. Strether expects to find the youth living a depraved, immoral life; on the contrary, he finds Chad much “improved” by Paris and his noble paramour.

Strether is a comically introverted intellectual. After pages upon pages of Strether’s reflections, the book’s narrator is apt to make comments such as: “It will have been sufficiently seen that he was not a man to neglect any good chance for reflection.” Unsurprisingly, then, he is impressed by the sophisticated circle Chad travels in and by the aesthetic pleasures of Paris. Madame de Vionnet wins his affection, and he becomes convinced that it would be unethical for Chad to abandon her. When Mrs. Newsome gets wind of this, she sends her daughter, Sarah Pocock, to relieve the lapsed ambassador of his duties, and by the end of the novel, Chad is on the verge of returning to Massachusetts. Strether, on the other hand, has ruined his prospects. He can no longer lead a liberated life in Paris, nor can he resurrect his initial plan of marrying Mrs. Newsome and leading a comfortable, if staid, American life.

A James novel is a bit like a sadistic psychological experiment: It begins by placing a flawed central character in a potentially tragic situation, and proceeds by arranging settings and characters around him in a way that will perfectly aggravate his flaw and allow the tragedy to blossom. This is precisely what The Ambassadors does with Strether and his growing conviction that his entire life has been a mistake. James explicitly acknowledges the prominence of this theme in his preface, where he singles out as the “germ” of the novel a scene in which Strether advises a young American in a Parisian café: “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.” The preface goes on to explain that this outburst is meant to place Strether’s regret in a humorous light: It is only during an hour of total relaxation–and in an idealized setting–that our hero is afforded the luxury of reflection.

In his fiftieth-anniversary essay for The Nation, James likewise qualifies what he meant by “The Age of the Mistake,” in his typically obscure prose: “the good faith [of the preceding years] may figure for us…the inattackable sphere of romance, all at one with itself.” While acting in “good faith” does not mean things will always turn out the way one wants them to, it does lead to placidity, and such placidity is a prerequisite for reflection. When a life is inspected through the distorting and magnifying lenses of conscience and hindsight, however, it may appear unfamiliar, and any actions that produced unintended results will appear as mistakes.

Unlike the mock-tragic hero of The Ambassadors, who becomes paralyzed by this kind of introspection, James imagines a way to look back on failures with critical fondness, and to move forward from them with grace. From my perspective, the many shortcomings in James’s life informed the ideas he developed during his career as a writer and critic. With that in mind, bring on the mistakes!

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