- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

There’s no disputing that Henry James is one of our great American writers, unless, of course, you have a quarrel with the idea of greatness itself or you take issue with the convention of classifying as “American” a writer so enamored of and immersed in English literature and culture.

But although it would be misleading to pretend there are no real differences between English and American literature (could an English writer have given us “Song of Myself” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”? Could an American have written “Pride and Prejudice” or “Barchester Towers”?), there are any number of cases that testify to the confluence and mutual influencing of these two closely entangled streams.

English and American writers have long intrigued and affected one another. Think of D.H. Lawrence’s fascination with Walt Whitman, or Martin Amis’ esteem for Saul Bellow. Anthologists have puzzled over how to classify the American-born T.S. Eliot, who like Henry James, went to live in England and became a British citizen. And what of W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Thom Gunn, Englishmen all, who became Americans?

And then, of course, there’s Henry James, who famously lamented his native country’s lack of castles, but who also gave us some of the most searching, sympathetic, and brilliant portraits of that superb new addition to the human race, the independent-minded, free-spirited, noble-hearted American Girl.

James is a particularly pertinent example of this fruitful process of hybridization, because so much of his work examines what happens at the border regions, where denizens of Old World and New World meet. This theme is already in place in his first important short story “A Passionate Pilgrim” (1871), and it continues to resound in “The American” (1877), “The Europeans” (1878), “Daisy Miller” (1879), and what is arguably his best — and certainly his most readable — novel: “The Portrait of a Lady” (1881).

It is also true that the master’s late, exquisitely subtle and profound works — “The Wings of the Dove” (1902), “The Ambassadors” (1903) and “The Golden Bowl” (1904) — draw some of their preternatural power from James’ ability to portray the nuances of relationships among American and European characters.

Over the course of his life (1843-1916), James wrote a vast amount of fiction (not to mention essays, travel writing, letters, and a notoriously unsuccessful stage play), a good deal of which has been finding its way into volume upon volume of the admirable Library of America series. This latest addition gives us four novels dating from the years 1896-1899, the period following James’s notoriously unsuccessful attempt to establish himself as a playwright for the London theater.

Unlike many of his earlier novels — and also unlike the three late masterpieces that would crown his career — the four novels from these interim years all feature exclusively English characters, as if to demonstrate the success of his immersion in the social and cultural milieu of his adopted country.

The oddest of the four, certainly, is “The Other House” (1896), which is based on material that James had originally intended to use as a play. And indeed, even as a novel, it remains a strikingly stagy work, setting up a rather improbable situation (a seriously ill woman makes her husband promise never to remarry and he feels honor-bound to adhere to his promise after she dies), then delivering a deliberately shocking development in the form of a vile and violent crime.

The characters, as always, are portrayed in great detail, and are much given to launching into lengthy analyses of themselves and one another. Yet when one of them commits the shocking crime, it is never made quite clear what pushed the wrongdoer so far over the edge — or, at any rate, the reasons given are not convincing. Nor do we know what we are expected to make of the other characters’ strangely muted reactions.

Yet despite the tinge of dissatisfaction they may generate in the reader, these anomalies demonstrate a characteristically Jamesian affinity for moral and psychological ambiguity as well as something else that pervades so much of his work: a sense of something inexplicable, frightening, even horrifying that lurks beneath the polished social veneers his fiction so brilliantly depicts.

Published the following year, James’s more famous novel “The Spoils of Poynton” pits two English girls against each other: the vulgar, rich Mona Brigstock and the clever, empathetic, refined Fleda Vetch. Although Fleda comes from an unmoneyed family, her subtle mind, discernment, and good taste instantly impress the wealthy Mrs. Gereth, a widow whose home, Poynton, contains some of the finest furnishings and objets d’art in England.

Much to Mrs. Gereth’s distress, the tacky Mona has got her hooks into Mrs. Gereth’s only son Owen, the heir to Poynton, though it is unclear which disturbs her more: the prospect of her only son marrying this crude, grasping woman or the prospect of having to consign the treasures of Poynton to such a creature. In the course of the story, we learn a good deal about Mrs. Gereth and even more about Fleda. Mona is revealed to be just as bad — worse, really — than she first appears. But the one character we never quite come to understand is Owen — and what motivates him.

The Jamesian combination of subtlety and shock is used to devastating effect in his next novel, “What Maisie Knew” (1898), the story of a 6-year-old girl who gains a premature understanding of the callousness, selfishness, and hypocrisy of adults. It is interesting to note that long before divorce became as widespread as it is today, James elected to examine the plight of a child whose divorced parents share joint custody of her but who, in neither case, really care about her.

The shrewdness of James’ insight into an adult milieu whose motto might be “Putting Children Last” is matched by his ability to show us how the painful truths that Maisie learns broaden and deepen her consciousness.

The last of these four novels, “The Awkward Age” (1899), is in many ways the subtlest and most intriguing. It is a complex and detailed portrait of a very particular London social milieu: a set of sophisticated, well-off people who regard themselves as very “modern.” Into this circle comes Mr. Longdon, an older and more old-fashioned man who has been living quietly in the country for the past few decades.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the differences in generational manners and mores, the others are quite charmed by the newcomer and he by them. Refreshingly frank in their conversations, ingeniously self-analytical, keenly attuned to one another’s hidden motivations, relaxed about unorthodox financial arrangements and irregular sexual liaisons, they seem a dangerous milieu for two young girls just making their social debuts: the blandly innocent Aggie, raised in the sheltered fashion traditional on the Continent, and the independent-minded Nanda, whose mother, a leading light of the modern set, has allowed her an extraordinary amount of freedom.

In a lovely use of irony, Nanda bears an uncanny physical resemblance to her dead grandmother Julia, with whom Longdon was once (and perhaps still is) deeply in love. Yet in style and temperament, granddaughter and grandmother are not at all alike. Even so, in the end, it is the old-fashioned Longdon who best understands and appreciates the thoroughly modern Nanda.

The complex interplay of the various characters, the genuinely unorthodox way in which the story works itself out make “The Awkward Age” a novel of enduring fascination. It’s true, the writing can be difficult to follow, but in this case, it’s not on account of the Jamesian penchant for long, convoluted sentences with strings of qualifiers and dependent clauses, but rather because the dialogue employs a good deal of what were then the latest slang expressions, which are now, of course, the next best thing to obsolete. (This should serve to remind our current generation of novelists that nothing dates more quickly than slang.)

The contrast between Nanda, the modern English girl, and Aggie, her old-fashioned Continental counterpart, is an elegant variation on the classic New World-Old World contrast never far from James’ mind. For, despite his veneration of the Old World and corresponding disdain for the relatively raw, unpolished land of his birth, James recognized from the outset of his career that he was in a unique position to observe the strengths and weaknesses of both: “It’s a complex fate, being an American,” he wrote in a letter in 1872, “and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe.”

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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