In the spring of 1880 Mrs. Henry Adams confided to her diary: “It is high time Harry James was ordered home by his family. He is too good a fellow to be spoiled by injudicious old ladies in London—and in the long run they would like him all the better for knowing and living in his own country. He had better go to Cheyenne and run a hog ranch. The savage notices of his Hawthorne in American papers, all of which he brings me to read, are silly and overshoot the mark in their bitterness, but for all that he had better not hang around Europe much longer if he wants to make a lasting literary reputation.” That same year the egregious Bret Harte observed, sadly, that Henry James “looks, acts, thinks like an Englishman and writes like an Englishman.”
But the thirty-seven-year-old James was undeterred by public or private charges of un-Americanism; he had every intention of living the rest of a long and productive life in England. Since he was, in the phrase of his older brother William, like all the Jameses a native only of the James family, the Wyoming pig farmer that might have been preferred rooting, as it were (Oh, as it were!—one of his favorite phrases: a challenge to the reader to say, As it were not?), for those truffles that are to be found not beneath ancient oak trees in an old country but in his own marvelous and original consciousness. James did nothing like an Englishman—or an American. He was a great fact in himself, a new world, a terra incognita that he would devote all his days to mapping for the rest of us. In 1880 James’s American critics saw only the fussy bachelor expatriate, growing fat from too much dining out; none detected the sea-change that was being undergone by what had been, until then, an essentially realistic American novelist whose subject had been Americans in Europe, of whom the most notorious was one Daisy Miller, eponymous heroine of his first celebrated novel (1878).
But by 1880, James was no longer able—or willing?—to render American characters with the same sureness of touch. For him, the novel must now be something other than the faithful detailing of familiar types engaged in mating rituals against carefully noted backgrounds. Let the Goncourts and the Zolas do that sort of thing. James would go further, much as Flaubert had tried to do; he would take the usual matter of realism and heighten it; and he would try to create something that no writer in English had ever thought it possible to do with a form as inherently loose and malleable as the novel: he would aim at perfection. While James’s critics were complaining that he was no longer American and could never be English, James was writing The Portrait of a Lady, as nearly perfect a work as a novel can be. From 1881, James was the master of the novel in English…
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Copyright © 1984 by Gore Vidal.