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Life Of Henry James Essay, Research Paper

Henry James: Master Portrayer of the American Character

Thesis: Henry James is considered by most critics the originator of the international theme and a masterful portrayer of the American character.

Henry James developed a skill of foreign languages and an awareness of Europe rare among Americans in his time. Constantly moving between different parts of Europe and the U.S. had a major effect on James and his novels: it became the major theme of his fiction and an attraction throughout his life.

In 1875 James moved permanently to Europe, settling first in Rome, then in Paris, and eventually in London. While living in London, he wasted no time producing the early novels, which established his reputation, Roderick Hudson, The American, The Europeans, and The Portrait of a Lady. In these works, critics have stated, James explored the effects of European civilization, with its rich mixture of history and art, on the naive American (Swan, 15).

Most critics divide James’s career into three periods. In the first period, from 1867 to the mid 1880’s, is when he established himself as the originator of the international novel and a masterful portrayer of the American character. In his

works critics have stated the idea of this international theme to be the New World, or the American innocence, with the Old World, or the European experience. In most of his works the story is usually about the naive American traveling to Europe searching for a better way of life or just a change. But the American usually winds up feeling isolated or

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just different in their new surroundings. But the thing that James’s works are most often

praised for is his portrayal of the American character in the European setting.

It was in Roderick Hudson, what some critics believe to be the best of his first three novels, that James developed his concern with the artists role in society, a theme which appears in much of his middle and late fiction. Here the European experience is merged with the story of a young American sculptor going abroad to find the schooling and traditions of art that aren t available to him in his American homeland (Edel, 47).

According to Leon Edel and Maxwell Geismar, Roderick Hudson is considered a “study of character”. James is criticized of having just a “study of character” in a lot of his early works and not enough plot. You will discover that later in James’s

career he inhabited the ability to fully develop the plot, while still having the abilities of portraying the American character in such “detail”.

In The American of two years later (1877), his “easiest” and most romantic novel, he had drawn a picture of an American businessman possessing great charm and character of a trusting and innocent nature, seeking a wife in the French aristocracy. The novel is considered a “melodrama and romance”, yet it dramatizes very clearly the irony James was seeking to express to his readers. For Christopher Newman, bearing the name Columbus represents one type of new man from the New World, who has strayed among the nobles of the Old. These so-called “nobles” are corrupt, and want to make use of him and his wealth. In the end, the American has his chance for revenge, but he throws it away with the idea that two wrongs do not make a right. He thereby reveals himself more noble than the nobles, and more of the Christian gentleman (Poirier, 39).

Again the idea of the American traveling to Europe comes to play in The American. This novel is considered among critics to create and develop the character of Christopher Newman to his full capability. According to Richard Poirier, “James is concerned to create character, and Newman’s a full bodied, forceful figure up which

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excellence of the novel (The American) certainly depends.” (Poirier, 47).

Other critics have stated that James’s concern with form and architecture, his selection of a limited number of characters, in which he fully develops, are kept in sharp focus by a moral idea, and is reflected in the structure of James’s work (Long, 155).

The Portrait of a Lady was the third of James’s group of fictional American “expatriations”. He had done the artist in Rome and the businessman in Paris. Now he brought out the American character Isabel Archer, the young girl from Albany, to England, and placed her among her suitors in the Old World. Isabel has been the victim of romantic illusions and her own self-absorption. She has also been the victim of carefully laid plot, which James has now learned to fully develop along with his ability to fully develop his characters. In this carefully laid plot, the man Isabel marries has a daughter by a former mistress, Madame Merle, who has become Isabel’s best friend (Hansot, 131).

The “melodramatic” style of the story is handled through Henry James’s characteristic realism. According to Leon Edel James knew he could make the reader accept almost any story if his characters were truly drawn. The series of portraits surrounding Isabel, no less than Isabel herself, gives the novel its remarkable “force and intensity.” Gilbert Osmond, the husband, and his “charming yet sympathetic” mistress, Madame Merle, is one of James’s most completely realized characters (Edel, 63).

Another instance in which James’s characters of the story are portrayed as Americans in Europe is in the novel Daisy Miller, the tale of a young and beautiful girl, with the dew of her homeland still hanging over her. Daisy arrives in Rome and never realizes for a moment that the European life and the European standards may be different from those she has known and grown up with in Schenectady, New York. Daisy is portrayed as a sweet and innocent girl who knows no evil. She cannot understand why her behavior, which seems harmless to her, should be the cause of so much commotion (Ohmann, 99).

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The story has been said to have gained its success form the development of the portrayal of the American characters; the passive mother, the undisciplined younger brother, and the young and innocent Daisy (Ohmann, 109).

It has also been stated by critics that after James’s success with Daisy Miller is when he recognized that the public liked his “American-European” stories and particularly his tales of international marriages and of intelligent young American girls discovering Europe. The Last of the Valerii, Madame de Mauves, Four Meetings, and Daisy Miller itself has fully contributed to this (Edel, 92).

As stated through this collection of criticisms one can conclude that Henry James was a masterful portrayer of the American character in his international theme of works. His ability of portraying the American character in such detail could possibly be from his childhood observations and educational experiences, when he traveled back and forth from the United States to Europe. This possibly could have helped him develop his abilities in portraying the American character, but it seems as though it was just a God given talent in which Henry James, the masterful portrayer of the American character, was blessed with.


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